Five things I’ve learned about American racism


When Health Forward associates celebrate milestone work anniversaries, we’re given the opportunity to write and share a few key reflections or lessons learned.

After celebrating my five-year work anniversary in August, I’m using my moment to spotlight the things I’ve learned at Health Forward that I wish I’d learned when I was growing up in a small, majority-white rural town.

1. Racism is a dividing tool used to achieve political goals. It harms all of us. 

Racism is a tool that powerful people at the top of society have used to divide working class Americans of all races since before our country was founded. It’s used to prevent an expansive, multi-racial democratic majority from uniting and deciding what America can and cannot be. Racism hurts people of color first and worst, but in the end, we all suffer from the divisive results.

All Americans who believe our country should be a place where people take care of each other have a responsibility to refuse the narrative bait from those who intend to divide. Instead of getting stuck in an insincere and never-ending debate built around divisive messages, we must focus on — and unite around — fair and just policies that build the inclusive and healthy communities we all deserve. 

2. Being racist and passively participating in racist systems are not the same thing, but they are both damaging. 

Many people think racism is something that happens on the individual level — in a person’s heart. This kind of racism obviously exists, but another insidious form of racism is the kind that manifests in our interlocking systems and policies (government, education, justice, health care, etc.). Being white in America means that our systems were built for us. We benefit by passively allowing them to exist unchecked and unthought about. 

3. If you are white and your path hasn’t been easy, you still experience some advantage.  

In America, it’s easy for white people to think we hit a home run when we really started on third base (or even second). Because of centuries of intentional oppression, many people of color are only starting at bat. Some aren’t even in the game. 

But white people bristle at the notion that hard work alone didn’t get us where we are. It’s no wonder. Adam Grant, a popular organizational psychologist known for his commentary about working life, recently referenced research indicating people who feel threatened by the idea of privilege often point to their hardships and hard work. 

Think of advantage as a foot race between two people. You are starting a little bit ahead of the competition — you may even have a full lap head start depending on your circumstances. The lane ahead is clear and flat. Meanwhile, your competitor faces an uphill lane packed with barriers and obstacles. Because your lane is designed for runners, it doesn’t really matter where you start or how well you run. A few obstacles may pop up and slow your progress, but it’s still extremely likely you will finish the race ahead of the other runner.

This story is useful for understanding advantage, but it has a major problem.

4. The stories we tell ourselves matter. Pay close attention to — and challenge — the stories you use to think about our country. 

Humans are a storytelling species. We process and think about complicated problems based on the stories we’ve heard and repeated to ourselves. The problem is that these stories are the building blocks of larger narratives that aren’t always true. These false narratives are often harmful to people of color, people who are paid low wages, and people who live on the margins of our society. 

The foot race story is one building block that contributes to a larger narrative that life is a competition where some people win and others lose. But that story reinforces the idea that America can only exist if some people lose. Untrue. When we unite to build the communities we deserve, everyone can share in our republic’s abundant resources. There is more than enough for everyone. 

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee observed that “people generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.” Be cautious about the stories you tell yourself. Ask yourself how Americans who are different from you might experience that story. What do you look for when you think about our country? What do you listen for? 

5. White people have a role to play in dismantling racist systems, but it’s not “coming to the rescue.” 

Excluded and oppressed communities are not to be looked down upon. They do not need white or wealthy people to save them. All humans have promise. We all exhibit resilience when faced with adversity. That is the human experience. And the vibrant country we have today was only made possible through contributions from people of color. America has been made better because people who were told they didn’t belong stood up and held the country accountable for what it always claimed to be. This work continues today. But despite their contributions, people of color continue to face intentionally designed systems of oppression that are centuries old.

White people must be active partners in dismantling the systems we built exclusively for us. We must help rebuild them so they work for everyone. But there is no easy answer as to what role we should play in this work. In each case, our involvement looks different.

A few places to start:  

  • Stand back. Listen to — and believe — the experiences of Americans of color and people who are paid low wages. Their proximity to the problems means they have the best chance of finding solutions to fix what’s broken.
  • Talk to other white people about race. Our country was designed for us, and it’s far too easy to go through life without considering the many ways racism is built into our society. White people have a responsibility to teach each other about American racism. This is our work to do and not something people of color should do for us. 
  • Share your power. Hand people the microphone. Let them tell their story. Once they do, share their stories with people who need to hear them.  
  • Use your voice. Vote. Advocate for equitable and just policies and persuade others to do the same. 
  • Maintain relationships with people who don’t agree with you. The only way to persuade someone is by preserving your personal connection and credibility.  

In an increasingly complex world, many people long for an uncomplicated America that existed in a mythical past. But that America was an illusion. It never existed in any real way. Not truly. But there is a way out. 

We are not condemned by our past. We can shape our future. But that can’t happen unless we know where we’ve been. We must learn our history. We must talk and think about race. We must be curious and brave. We must act. If we keep doing the work, America can be what it always should have been.