Deep in our bones
My heart is heavy. Every screen I look at there is a reminder that Russia has invaded Ukraine. That this violence is just adding to the number of people in our world experiencing the atrocities of war.
I knew, watching the days leading up to Russia’s bombing of Kyiv, that this violence would be given different attention in the US than the twenty other active conflicts across our world right now. Because this is Europe – not somewhere in the Middle East or Africa. While I wasn’t surprised, it was still shocking to watch news coverage of violence in Ukraine. Anchors stating that this is a unique conflict because it is happening to Europeans. Interviewees commenting on how horrific it is to see blonde, blue-eyed babies being killed. All alluding to the idea that it is not as horrific to see Black or Brown skinned babies being killed in war.
This only amplifies the ever-present idea that white people are somehow more valuable than any other race in the world. We even see this in videos shared on social media showing white Ukranian people forcing Black and Brown people off buses and trains in their effort to flee the country. Because Ukranians have a priority to safety and, as people of color, they cannot be Ukranian.
Ultimately, what we are seeing is about power, competition, survival. And we, as white people, are preconditioned to believe that our lives, our safety, and our wellbeing are more important than others’. This belief is socialized in us – based on the centuries-long racist history that defines our world. Molded into our generational teachings and norms so that these biases are in our bones.
This is something I am personally unlearning. And I feel myself – my bones – being pulled in different directions. My Polish ancestry draws me to the people of Ukraine in a way that I haven’t felt with other conflicts. I am ashamed to admit this. But I am also enraged by the hypocrisy and double standards at play. And enraged by the fact that – even at the worst moments, where shared humanity should trump all else, we white humans continue to divide ourselves into “worthy” and “unworthy.” And more often those categories are defined by the color of our skin.
These racial biases and categorizing are just as real in our own communities and workplaces.
The history of the US and American workforce has been white (and male). We can see this in the disparities of who owns small businesses, who leads the top 100 companies, who is in our governing bodies, and who owns property in the US. All are overwhelmingly white.
Tides are changing, as our workforces become more and more diverse. Most white people that I talk to express their support of this change. They also seem to overestimate how diverse their workplaces are becoming. In the more diverse companies that I have worked with, white people (usually white men) will tell me that they think they’re now in the minority at their work, despite HR figures telling the opposite. This points to the idea that white people are not used to being in diverse environments.
When we are not used to being around people who look different than us, we are more likely to categorize “us” and “them” – unconsciously forming separate homogenous groups. Often these categories also coincide with what we consider valuable or better. This creates an “othering” that leads to competition (unconscious or conscious) for power. This is especially true when our animalistic brain takes over in crisis – just look at how Ukrainians are acting towards non-white immigrants.
As the workplace becomes more diverse, it unconsciously increases the feeling of competition for power. It can feel like a threat to the livelihood and lifestyles that white people (especially white men) who have been in the workforce for generations are used to. Like I said, so many white folks express their welcome of these diverse changes… but buried deep in our bones is a bias that fights against this shift. A deep feeling that we are losing something we have grown used to.
We are all multi-faceted. Being a good person trying to save your family and neighbors can co-exist doing harm to another person based on racist categorizations. Just as welcoming diversity in the workplace can also raise your hackles when a Black woman is promoted to the position you were gunning for.