Carolyn HeinemanOur workshop on Systemic Racism in February was a wonderful assembly of 70 people who began, or for some continued, their journey into understanding the complexity and depth of this phenomenon. Any such journey begins with establishing a common definition of the topic. For those who attended the workshop, the following will be just a reminder. For the rest of you, I hope it helps you understand what the rest of us are talking about.

In general, when I‘ve heard ‘racism’ discussed, I’ve gotten the sense that what is being talked about is personal prejudice. I certainly can’t argue that prejudice is important to understand and reduce. But personal prejudice alone can’t do hundreds of years of damage to an entire people. Something else is needed. That something else is an intentional, systematic misuse of power to establish and enforce laws, policies and practices, and create institutions, that accrue advantage to one group at the expense of others.

Our ERACCE trainers walked us through understanding that those who were originally ‘at the table’ making laws were male, White, wealthy businessmen who needed certain guarantees in place that would support and grow their profits. Thus, they had the ability to, and did, misuse their power to begin to create an unequal system. And, it didn’t stop with them.

Today, those who have cultural, financial and/or political power have continued this catastrophic tradition. Regarding laws, see for example Michelle Alexander’s 2012 book The New Jim Crow. And beyond laws, there are an infinite number of formal and informal behaviors, beyond prejudice, that hold the inequality firmly in place. Behaviors that most of us don’t even know we’re engaging in. That’s our job: to identify those systemic and institutionalized practices, visible and unseen, and work at changing them. And our work begins with ourselves.

So: Racism = Personal Prejudice + the Misuse of Power By Systems and Institutions.


May all beings be safe,

Carolyn Heineman


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