Interrupting White Dominance to Make Good on the Promise of Equity
By Xiomara Padamsee
Today, on the 64th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, I find myself reflecting deeply on the intent of this landmark decision. I believe the spirit of this decision was a promise to decouple race from access in order to eventually remove the predictability of success or failure as correlated with any identity, which is the definition of equity.
We have yet to deliver on that promise. One of the things holding us back is our unwillingness to interrogate the ways in which our systems, structures, and behaviors serve to maintain inequity, specifically white dominant culture, in our society and in our organizations.
I am an offender. Despite my commitment to social justice and equity, despite my belief in the innate worth of all people, despite my awareness of both our country’s history and current day realities of oppression and violence against marginalized communities from Black women and men to immigrants to Muslims to LGBTQ folks and many more, I am an offender. I am an offender because I have spent many of my 20+ years of professional experience in management roles where I have maintained, even replicated, inequities without consciousness or intentionality about the consequences.
Unfortunately, I’m not alone in being an offender. Many educational equity organization leaders are offenders as well because we unknowingly maintain white dominant culture and institutionalize this white dominant culture through systems, structures, stories, rituals, and behaviors repeated regularly with the best of intentions but with a lack of consciousness and intentionality.
We reflexively focus our candidate resume review on the universities attended, placing more value on elite, majority-white institutions and pipelines that often require financial privilege to access. In so doing, we not only find frustration in our efforts to diversify our staffs at all levels but through these rituals and behaviors we continue to maintain the very inequities that our organizations exist to address.
As our recent Unrealized Impact: The Case for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion report found, despite a growing number of education organizations focusing specifically on increasing the diversity of their senior leadership, still 76% of those served are students of color while only 36% of senior leadership (and only 26% of CEOs) within the education organizations serving them, are staff of color. We consistently prioritize speed to hire over a willingness to pause a search when finalist pools are not diverse, or to groom an internal leader of color, or to open our searches to “non-traditional” pipelines. In so doing, we are (often unintentionally) institutionalizing white dominance at the senior-most levels which often set the tone within our organizations.
Through our performance management and compensation systems, we habitually recognize and reward staff performance based on “merit,” which often requires majority-white senior leaders to judge high performance through a lens tainted with implicit bias, the unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions, usually favoring our own in-group. In so doing, we perpetuate the leadership diversity gap and unintentionally institutionalize lack of equitable access to opportunities and career pathways within our organizations.
We instinctively trust top-down visioning and decision-making, prioritizing speed and efficiency to outcomes with quickly visible results over an inclusive process that deeply engages a variety of perspectives, most importantly those of the communities we serve. As a result, we continue to make decisions and shape strategies and outcomes that memorialize the same white dominance.
We herald “data-based decision-making” without holding ourselves accountable to collecting data on many types of diversity (e.g. socio-economic status). We fail to disaggregate data to examine differences in hiring experience, promotion and retention patterns, or perceptions of fairness and support by identity marker. By continuing this practice, we miss the signs that we need to invest in addressing organizational challenges faced primarily or exclusively by our historically marginalized staff communities.
Creating equity, within society and within our organizations, requires a level of awake intentionality. We must re-train ourselves to spot and interrupt the white dominance which is institutionalized through our policies, systems, structures, habits, symbols, and behaviors.
In our organizations, this means intentionally re-examining our culture and the end-to-end talent systems, structures, and behaviors that maintain it, to spot and interrupt white dominance. This means structuring equitable compensation systems, ensuring fair opportunities for promotion, diversifying our staff up into the senior-most ranks, and slowing down to approach the work with an intentionality that allows us to better align intention with impact. We must do this work so that we can deliver on the long overdue promise of the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.