Anti-Racism: Disrupting and Transforming Systems

In this blog, Shruti Jain shares her reflections on systems change and the need for meaningful collaboration that shares power, with the example of anti-racism.

This was a feature of our recent digital Community Conversation on the SHAPE of Post-Covid Communities held in partnership with the University of Glasgow’s #UofGEngage Forum.

This first conversation explored key underpinning concepts which can prevent collaboration – centrally, unequal power relations; and considered how to redress power imbalances at different stages of collaboration for example in research and academia.

I was part of the speaker panel and began by outlining what a systems approach is and why it is so important.

Systems change

A systems approach is usually needed to solve complex problems. Racism, like climate change or alleviating poverty, is a complex problem. It doesn’t have clear causes and the influencing variables can’t be easily isolated.

A system can be small, like an organisation, or it can be large such as society. Racism is a system based on race that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities and puts others at advantage. So far, there have been isolated efforts which have delivered small-scale improvements to discrete parts of the problem such as anti-racism training or defensively hiring diverse candidates. But to solve the problem, we need to see and leverage the entire system. This includes all the parts and the relationships that exist between them.

Systems change requires a shift in the foundations that hold those complex problems in place. It seeks to address the root cause of the problems. And this then allows us to work towards transformational long-term change, not incremental change. It is not projects.

It is no longer enough to simply improve systems – we need to transform them. But in anti-racism it is not enough to just transform them – we also need to disrupt them.

What does it take to disrupt systems?

Systems change needs everyone to work as a collective, to come together around a common agenda which seeks to address the root causes of the problem.

In anti-racism there is a need to address how bias and discrimination plays out within the entire system. However, we also need to consider the context, from which the system has been born and continues to exist.

Any effort to change the system needs to address how it is upheld by historical and dominant practices and cultures rooted in whiteness and patriarchy. Structural, or systemic, racism is embedded into the fabric of our institutions and our society. And unless structures are explicitly recognised and addressed, we are not going to achieve the transformational change that is needed.

It is about a shift in power. And, without unpicking the power and addressing the imbalance we are tinkering around the edges. We aren’t going to achieve racial equality.

We need to dismantle our society, structures, and systems to stop history from repeating itself. 

How far have we come? And what do we need to do?

There is damaging practice happening on anti-racism in Scotland such as gatekeeping and tokenistic gestures. Some examples I have observed include:

  • conversations taking place without the involvement of racialised communities
  • those claiming involvement despite limited engagement, and then views are ignored anyhow
  • traditional approaches which boil down to case studies, selected narratives or the local i.e., voices become edited
  • the experiences of racialised communities, for example in mental health, over-researched without progress, and
  • other approaches that focus on getting communities to do what organisations want, rather than listening to what matters and supporting them to work with others to make a change.

I see decisions about how organisations undertake work on anti-racism, and much more, still being made by individuals who are removed from the racialised experiences of communities.

Systems change is shaped through collaborative action. We need to co-create joint processes for a systemic approach – and racialised communities need to be right at the heart of this. We need to centre communities and their voices, and we need to build up their power in this work.

A systems approach in anti-racism demands a rebalance and redistribution of power. Otherwise, we are not going to achieve the collective power to change. This means communities are not only a part of the decision making but involved from the start and in the generation of ideas. They are the experts.

We’ve got a lot of work to do.

What next?

Many participants at the first Community Conversation indicated their interest in exploring what meaningful community collaboration in anti-racism is, why we need to work together to build an inclusive society post-pandemic, and how this can be done. In response to this I wrote this blog, and the team will explore a follow-up Community Conversation focused on anti-racism and collaboration.

For any questions or further information about the first Community Conversation, the #UofGEngage Forum or #GCPHconversation, please email us.

Find out more about our work on race and racialisation in public health.

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