Transcript: How Businesses Can Become Anti-Racist with Dr. Kerry Mitchell Brown
Gerry Fernandez [00:00:02] Welcome to a Seat at the Table, a podcast dedicated to highlighting the importance of cultural intelligence in the workplace and brought to you by MFH, a multicultural foodservice and hospitality alliance. We believe an inclusive business is a profitable business. So join us as we dove into practical advice on how you can communicate effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds. I’m your host. Jerry Fernandez, founder and president of MFH A.
Gerry Fernandez [00:00:33] Well, welcome, Dr. Brown, to a seat at the table, it’s good to have you.
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:00:36] Thank you, Gerri, for the invitation. I am so glad to be here with you.
Gerry Fernandez [00:00:41] Well, I’m glad to have you. The time is appropriate, given all the things going on around us in the country and in our workplace every day. Why don’t you start by telling the audience a little bit about yourself and the work that you do.
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:00:54] Where do I start? Well, last year I started my own racial equity and organization development consultancy practice after more than 20 years working within various organizations. So in my practice, I partner with organizations and leaders to strengthen and build long term success by supporting and facilitating their efforts to either establish or reestablish clear strategic direction and develop capacity and structures to fulfill their commitments to ending racial and social injustice in the world. And sometimes within the walls of their organization. I also serve as an advisor for several organizations where I focus on their research, political education and civic engagement efforts. Gerry, prior to starting my practice, I spent about seven years as the executive director of a racial justice center incubated in a large organization in Washington, D.C., where I planned and laid all policies and programs aimed at ending systemic, structural and anti-black racism with my amazing team. We were able to develop education, engagement and leadership systems and processes to equip people to challenge and dismantle racist systems and unjust outcomes in relation to other systems and structures, not in isolation. So that means employment, education and housing or economics, criminal justice and health care, not just one industry alone. This also included a comprehensive program to embody, communicate and advance a specific racial equity analysis with the organization’s two plus million constituents, including the public and elected officials, to build the strongest, most effective conversation about how economics and race are intrinsically linked. And before that, for about a decade, Jerry, I served as higher education executive administrator at an Ivy League institution where I built structures and processes to address organizational challenges and develop and implement strategic plans around equity and inclusion. And I’ve also been a part of significant organizational transformations, IPO to international and global expansions, large scale mergers, executive leadership transitions, etc..
Gerry Fernandez [00:03:18] Wow. You said a lot there. So if we had had to boil it down to a couple of key elements that you want people to keep in mind as a theme throughout this conversation, what would they be? Because you said something about anti-black, which was before all this anti-racism movement. You’ve had a considerable amount of experience with both private companies and education. So what would you say, the two or three drivers of your work? Why do you do this work?
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:03:47] Mm hmm. Well, let’s see, regardless of the year the industry or the sector or the geography location, over the span of my career, there is one thing that I understood and knew to be true. From that understanding, I figured out a way to provoke and change what I wanted to see. Jerry, that one thing is if you pay attention to race in the beginning, there is great potential for creating an organization where everyone feels a sense of belonging and everyone’s contributions are valued and everyone receives respect regardless as to where they sit in the organization.
Gerry Fernandez [00:04:23] That’s good. That’s really good. Pay attention to race in the beginning. It doesn’t feel like we started our conversations about leadership development efforts in the restaurant hospitality space. Beginning with race. But it’s certainly something we’re dealing with now. So how do you define racism or anti-racism, which nobody wants to be a racist? And and probably everybody would prefer to be an anti-racist. So how do you define those terms for the audience?
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:04:51] Thanks, Jerry, for asking this question. Because in order to frame this conversation properly, I believe a shared understanding of racism and its effect on people of color and black people specifically is necessary. An effective operational definition of racism is a system that structures opportunity and assigns value based on phenotype. Note: I use the word system. You see, racism unfairly disadvantages other individuals and communities and undermines realization of the full potential of the whole society through a waste of human resources. I tend to favor this definition that I shared with you and find it more useful for practitioners perspective as opposed to the traditional definitions of racism, such as those provided in dictionaries which only capture the interpersonal aspects of racism, mainly prejudice and discrimination.
Gerry Fernandez [00:05:44] So racism or anti-racism? How do you define that?
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:05:49] For simplicity’s sake, let’s think about racism as a formula. Race, prejudice plus power.
Gerry Fernandez [00:05:55] Race, prejudice, plus power. Say more about that.
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:05:59] Racism refers to systems, the procedures, social norms, structures, the collective ideologies, along with individual and group actions that maintain racial inequity and afford privilege to dominant racial groups, so in this case white people, based on their skin color. And so there has to be an element of power for racism. Otherwise it wouldn’t it wouldn’t thrive. Not to make things more complex, and before I move on to anti-racism, I wanted to lift up the three distinct forms of racism: institutionalized, personally meditated, and internalized racism. So these three different types of racism, they all work and sometimes they work at the same time to perpetuate the inequalities of people of color, while providing privileges for white people. So just a little more on the three types of racism: internalized racism, Gerry, is when those who are unfairly disadvantaged as a result of racism experience various forms of disparity and even internalized racial hostility towards members of their own and other non dominant racial groups. And so, you know, racism amongst and within communities of color. Institutional racism remains normalized in all aspects of social life and codified through the legal system. So structural racism is the connector that holds all that institutions and manifests in two forms, both material wealth inequality. So that includes things like our education, our housing, gainful employment, health care, clean environment, etc.. And Gerry, that power piece. I remember when I said race, prejudice plus power was racism. It’s power and equity. So voting rights, access to information, representation and government, that control of the media. And the racism that we all, you know, have witnessed and have seen on YouTube that’s dominating our social media feeds. That’s, you know, on the news is the personally meditative racism. The different assumptions made about a person or groups ability based on their race. And this is the type of racism that goes viral and the one that most people experience on a regular basis. So a lack of respect, such as refusal of customers. So, you know, somebody goes into an establishment and they’re refused to be served. Suspicion, you know, shopkeeper vigilance, everyday avoidance. And we all see those videos with someone clutching their purse because a person of color walks past. Devaluation. Such as, ” I’m very surprised by your competency.” Or, you know, we should want to stifle your aspirations or even scapegoating. And then the thing that has captured a lot of attention is the dehumanization. Things like police brutality, abuse, and hate crimes.
Gerry Fernandez [00:09:15] What anti-racism you’ve given us a lot to chew on on the racism piece, what about anti-racism before we move on to question number three.
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:09:24] So anti-racism is the belief that racism exists on cultural institutions at all the levels that we talked about. There is an awareness of one’s self as a racial being and a member of cultures, institutions and systems that support racism and the belief that one must work actively against racism on all of the levels in order to diminish its presence and power in society.
Gerry Fernandez [00:09:53] Well, that’s pretty clear. Got to believe that it exists. You’ve got to know that it’s in the systems and the structure. And then you have to own your responsibility to do something about it. That’s pretty clear to me. What are the implications of not being an anti-racist organization? We could probably all come up with our own visions of what being an overtly racist organization would mean today. So what are the implications of not being an anti-racist organization?
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:10:21] So, Jerry, to understand the implications, we must discuss what to anti-racist organization is. It’s not enough to just not be racist or non racist. In order for us to move closer to a more equitable and fair society. We must move toward a deliberate belief and practice of anti-racism. So anti-racism and anti-racist organization is one that purposely identifies, discusses and challenges, issues of race and the impact that it has on the system, structures and people. Anti-racist organizations actively work to eliminate racism from within by challenging systems. Their organization structures, their policies, their practices, their values. So that power is redistributed and shared equitably. When I work with organizations, they often say, well, we’re a corporation or we’re a social justice organization or we’re a foundation or we’re a food service industry. We’re in hospitality. Those really represent tax status or industry sector identities. I want to emphasize purposefully not being colorblind and anti-racist organizations. The aim is not to not see or identify race. It isn’t realistic. It isn’t authentic. Rather, it is understood that race structures most, if not all, aspects of our life together and separate. And to ignore it with false color blindness makes it really impossible to address and to really minimize undue harm without intervention.
Gerry Fernandez [00:12:00] Well, let me make sure I get this clear. People say all the time, I’m colorblind. I don’t see color. I can give everyone the same. You know, what you just said flies in the face of that. Can you? You say more about what that means. What do I say to my might? My colleague when they say I don’t see color.
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:12:16] Wow. When your colleagues say that they don’t see color within. They don’t see you, right. And again, it’s not authentic. And the intention. Is it for organizations to focus on race in a way in all corners of the organization? And if not, there’s some pretty serious implications. Those implications for not being an anti-racist organization is directly tied to an organization’s performance. And what I mean by that, Gerry, is. They will always get less than whatever they anticipate on the return on investment to shareholders. It limits their access to resources. It limits the organization’s ability to acquire sponsorship, develop strategies, and to effectively mobilize people in the direction in which they want them to go, regardless of a tax structure. Mission goals. Industry not being able to do one or many of these things could potentially be elimination of an organization, of a company, or a person even.
Gerry Fernandez [00:13:31] Wow, again, this implication piece is really important to us. What does an anti-racist organization look like? What are the signs that if I walk into a business and I’m interviewing someone, I’m talking to a company? What are the signs that I’m involved on in engaging an anti-racist organization? What does it look like?
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:13:52] Well, I can tell you, though, that they don’t all look the same, but there are some common attributes and practices of anti-racist organizations. I would say one that stands out the most is that the organization understands and articulates a clear case for taking on race as a mission critical.
Gerry Fernandez [00:14:11] Clear case to take on race as mission critical,.
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:14:15] As mission critical. They set clear standards for equity, inclusion and diversity at all levels within the organization. They routinely collect data. They aggregate the data and they analyze race around programmatic and operational work. There are clear policies, practices and procedures. Those are looked at and viewed through a racial equity lens. There has to be a mechanism for accountability around equity. And one of the things that I think is pretty critical for anti-racist organizations is that it actually supports and facilitates people of color and white people doing work both separately and together.
Gerry Fernandez [00:15:09] Say that again. I want to make sure that is clear for the audience. It benefits both groups, right?
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:15:15] Yeah, yeah. It supports and facilitates, you know, racial groups coming together, working together, collaboratively within the organization.
Gerry Fernandez [00:15:28] That makes perfect sense.
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:15:29] And in order to do this, there has to be education and engagement that includes robust discussions around racism, privilege, power, accountability.
Gerry Fernandez [00:15:41] Let’s take a quick break and we’ll be right back.
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Gerry Fernandez [00:17:13] So what kind of training or education is, is what you would offer and how is that different from things we’ve seen with diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the past?
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:17:24] The work that I have done with the organization is that it’s part of a transformation effort. So there’s no standalone, you know, types of training. Again, there’s a review of everything that they do, including. Their policies and practices, you know, are there unintended consequences as it impacts people differently? And can you tell that difference? You know, based on race.
Gerry Fernandez [00:17:54] Interesting. Interesting. Some really powerful things that you you said in terms of what common attributes or aspects are when you in an anti-racist organization, data clear standards, you know, clear case to take on race. That’s a bumper sticker for me. I’m a clear case to take on race. What are the most challenging aspects of becoming an anti-racist organization? This is the spin put on everything. Yeah, something is good for the left is not good for the right. Not good for them. Look for the left. And what are the challenges that the people are going to face as they begin this work?
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:18:32] Well, you know, it’s hard to separate from the ways that we are bound, like racism is embedded. I mean, it’s in the DNA of our country. It’s embedded in every system, there are people who have benefited from it. And it’s hard because it’s so charged. Racism is so complex. And a lot of times the work that is done, it requires you to be on a binary like it’s either you’re racist or you’re not. And sometimes it’s just not that simple. Clearly, there are some people who benefit from racism, which probably most appropriate to say is that racism doesn’t work for anyone. And in the long term, not being able to fully engage every single person, regardless of race, has tremendous loss of human resources for organizations and for the world.
Gerry Fernandez [00:19:40] We talked a little bit about anti-black racism. Can you address that one, particularly because of the police violence that we’ve been seeing?
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:19:49] Sure. You know, everything about how our society currently works, communicates that black lives do not matter. A good friend of mine often reminds me that we cannot get away from how we are bound. So understanding that this country has never had structures that were equitable or inclusive for all people is important. And anti-black racism. Gerry is our nation’s identity and built into all of our structures and systems. The term really refers to this specific prejudice plus power that is centered on the oppression and subjugation of black people. It is a fundamental and historically structured principle of our society that systematically assigns value and produces disparate outcomes along racial hierarchy, where blacks are regularly at the bottom and whites on the top. And this particular type of racism has been used to routinely hijack, drive and structure our government and economy to benefit a few. And disadvantage a vast majority of other people, including white people.
Gerry Fernandez [00:21:05] Excellent. So this anti-black racism is fundamental to the American psyche of the republic that was built on that. So, that makes sense. That really helps me as I think about how all that plays out with community policing. Policing was developed as a way to catch slaves originally.
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:21:26] Yeah. As a way. Yeah. You know that special 13th Amendment, with the exception clause to abolish slavery unless in the form of being a convict. And that became the foundation for racialized outcomes in policing and in mass incarceration to this day. There has been and continue to be profit motives that spanned from the crib to the prison pipeline. And the fact is, Gerry, that many people of color and black people in particular dissin in a seamless, endless cycle of traffic stops, fines, court appearances, late fees, suspensions, reinstatement. And there are some people who can report that they’ve been stopped 50 or 100 times by police. And the challenge is that some of those encounters result in violence. And so it’s not just one police officer. It’s not just one precinct. It’s not just one jurisdiction. It’s the legacy of enslavement that still lives today. And I mean, you can Google it. And there are numerous state and federally commissioned studies exploring racial bias and discrimination in policing. And nearly every study Gerry has found that black and brown people were most likely to be stopped, fined, arrested or even killed.
Gerry Fernandez [00:22:54] Well, that’s so unfortunate reality and one that I hope this whole anti-racism movement that we’re seeing taking hold of the country will help to end. Let’s move on. As we think about organizations and how they are going to address the threat that racism brings to the bottom line. You know, what are the first steps? What do people need to do to get started on this?
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:23:15] Yeah, I think first is acknowledging Gerry, what I said before is that racism doesn’t work for anyone, not even white people. There are negative psychological costs to racism for white people, too. Now, I want to be clear that these costs are in no way comparable to the substantial economic, political and social costs that people of color continue to face. But there are consequences. There are moral consequences, spiritual consequences, social material of being in the dominant position in an unjust hierarchy of racism. And, you know, so that’s a first step that is not working and that people are committed and willing to do something about it. You know, there are a lot of challenges for not becoming an anti-racist organization.
Gerry Fernandez [00:24:12] So again going down the list of first steps. If you encourage people to do this work and they buy into that racism doesn’t work for anyone, not even our white brothers and sisters. They certainly don’t work for people who are on the wrong end of racism. How do you get started to do this? What are the first few steps? You said you got to acknowledge it. What are the other steps to get this thing started in your company? Well, organization.
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:24:39] Gerry, what I would say to organization decision makers who are looking to take this sort of transformation on to become an anti-racist organization is to not do it alone, to get some support from qualified professionals. For my clients, I tell them to call me first, call me often before they do anything, because it’s important to have a facilitated structured engagement where organizations can begin to take up how they are uniquely positioned to do this work. And what that includes is to develop a shared understanding of what the organization is actually taken up or trying to do, which will include some or should include some deep analysis. There are a lot of organizations that have been doing work for years. There are several diversity and inclusion initiatives and efforts that organizations have taken up over the last decade and even before then. And so could they take a closer look at that? Could they do some analysis on does this move us closer to where we ultimately want to go, it’s become an anti-racist organization? Or does it serve as a barrier for where we want to go now and create what I would like to call a “best of” as a foundation for a shared analysis of where we want to go? I think it’s important that organizations also explore the key elements of racism and how that plays out within their organization and within their work force and clarity around why an anti-racist organization versus something else and being able to connect for people how that works for everyone because racism works for no one.
Gerry Fernandez [00:26:26] So we’ve covered some pretty good ground in the beginning of a conversation. I’m going to summarize. But is there any one more thing that you want to add as people are listening to this podcast that they might want to do? Consider? Is there a favorite book? Is this something some kind of a resource? You encourage people to go? Well, what wold you like to share with the audience before I summarize?
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:26:50] I would say that I think it’s important for people to do their own work. You know, that has to be self determinant. Right. And so not everybody enters, you know, racial justice or anti-racism at the same spot, at the same time within their life, we’re all on a journey. And so, you know, being clear that it’s that it’s you know, that it’s complicated, that there is no one way to do it. There is no one book that someone can read. And, you know, ultimately get it. You know, folks have to, you know, do their work and begin to figure out what unique contribution that they can make in this space.
Gerry Fernandez [00:27:29] Well, that’s a great way to bring this push of the session to close. Let me summarize kind of what we’ve heard for the audience. You said in the beginning, we have to start with race. We have a conversation about race. You talked about racism is tied to the system and that there’s a structure and that it benefits some and not others. Race plus prejudice plus power equals racism. So power is a big portion of this. You told us there were three forms in institutionalize a structural personalized and meditated – is that when you’ve been thinking about it and internalize the kind of stuff that works against your own people, your own self, and that anti-racism is the belief that it exists on all levels, that it’s a system and it’s structured and well, we must work against it. It’s not enough, as you said, it’s not enough just not to be racist. You have to do something. It’s tied to organizational performance. And you must move towards anti-racism, be purposeful with it. They say you well, people say they can’t see color. That means they don’t see you. So we have to work to push those terms that don’t work. Anti-Racism is tied to performance, as you said, two common attributes that I thought were really good for people to apply a clear case to take on race. You have to make the business case why this is mission critical standards, data, data, data you said analyzed, right? That’s what you said. And accountability. Support people of color, you know, facilitate these things that produce better outcomes. Education’s ongoing. It’s part of a transformation is not just gonna be one and done. So if you took a train last month, folks, you’re going to take another one and another one and then another one because we need them. And then the last couple of things is racism doesn’t work for anyone, not even white. So let’s get started by acknowledging that it’s not working. That this is a transition. Get help. Get some professionals like you. Dr. Brown, you certainly are available. And so the MFH has got resources that we can facilitate, we can bring available. And then, you know, you got to do your own work. It’s complicated. There’s no one way. So, Dr. Brown, I want to thank you for your time with us today. This was certainly eye opening and this is a short period of time. I think we’ve given people a lot to think about. I wish you well in your work and I look forward to you and I doing something again in the future. And to all of our listeners, we’ll see you next time.
Kerry Mitchell Brown [00:30:03] Thank you, Gerry. It was a pleasure and happy to engage in a conversation as long as there’s a need to be in conversation.
Gerry Fernandez [00:30:14] That’s our show for today. Special thanks to our listeners. And thank you for taking a seat at the table with us today. If you’ve found our show to be valuable, please share with your network and leave us a five star review on Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcast. As that helps more people find the show, you can also subscribe for free so that you never miss an episode. A seat at the table is brought to you by the Multicultural FoodService and Hospitality Alliance, and it’s produced by Dante32.
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