By Any Other Name, It’s Still Racism

Posted on April 20, 2020 | Leni Dworkis, Weissberg Foundation

It seems to start with comments, which lead to conversations, which lead to meetings, just like the one I found myself in pre-COVID. I listened, outright impatiently, as white fragility precluded people from seeing the bigger picture – racism is engrained into our democracy and continues to show up presently in our political, socioeconomic, and cultural landscapes.

I often have editorial epiphanies through (very loosely adapted) Shakespeare quotes. These “timeless” revelations take on timely relevance for me as I turn to the words of others to reconcile my own feelings about society. Why Shakespeare? Well, probably because as his plays demonstrate – underlying love, history, and exploration is often tragedy.

Theater’s tragedy speaks artfully to the condition of human suffering and also, strangely, to our souls. What’s very real in poetic tragedies, and also in our world today, is the perpetuation of oppression through witty verbiage and poorly masked actions that underscore the power of bias, white saviorism, and the lack of acknowledgement of structural inequities.

For many, understanding racism often starts with exposure to language and to stories. But what underlies this journey is the ways white supremacy, white dominant culture, and white guilt show up as we start to engage. These very words and feelings also prevent us from doing hard self-reflection, humanizing the deep reaches of racism, and examining institutional drivers of racial inequity. Caught in this cycle, we fail to truly examine and connect our own words, behaviors, actions, thoughts, and beliefs to the roots of interpersonal, systemic, and institutional racism. The question becomes: when will we stop using coded language as a barrier to naming truth?

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

The truth is: racism by any other name is still racism. Grounding ourselves in analyses that de-center or remove race from the equation continue to devastate communities of color, erase historical implications of racism and oppression, push policy and practices that continue to marginalize people of color, and serve as a barrier to dismantling structural racism.

A question for philanthropy in the age of COVID-19 : how are broken and sensationalized narratives perpetuating, strengthening, and creating biases against people of color?

We’re living in a technological world, now more-so than ever, where words and images constantly flood our screens about this crisis – much of which further spreads racialized language, strengthens xenophobia, and fuels hatred. But it also visibilizes the notion that some folks are barely living and more so just existing; it highlights the barriers racial inequities have on one’s ability to not just survive, but to thrive. As Jamelle Bouie wrote in his recent New York Times Op-Ed,

“Race still shapes personhood; it still marks the boundaries of who belongs and who doesn’t; of which groups face the brunt of capitalist inequality (in all its forms) and which get some respite. Race, in other words, still answers the question of “who.” Who will live in crowded, segregated neighborhoods? Who will be exposed to lead-poisoned pipes and toxic waste? Who will live with polluted air and suffer disproportionately from maladies like asthma and heart disease? And when disease comes, who will be the first to succumb in large numbers?”

Mitigating further damage and harm, in this pandemic and beyond, requires accurate depictions and a centering of lived experience of people of color – including a call for data.

While only 29 states have released racial demographics for confirmed COVID cases, what we have so far tells us that black Americans in particular are not just at the greatest risk of contracting the virus, but are also disproportionately dying from it. Available data currently shows that of more than 13,000 recorded COVID-related deaths in the US, 42% were black persons (who accounted for only 21% of the total population covered in the analysis). The slow release of these numbers makes even more clear – while the virus does not discriminate in its infection, the impact on communities of color is anything but equal. Who lives and who dies comes down to a historic devaluation of black and brown bodies, where access to healthcare, employment, housing, and other resources – all critical factors in the spread of the virus – have been designed across time and history to be structurally inequitable.

The Weissberg Foundation recently signed onto a letter sharing the truth about COVID-19: this is a racial justice issue and our responses must prioritize the power of communities of color. It asks folks to:

  • Support underfunded organizations led by people of color;
  • Share in solidarity with organizers, base builders, and advocates;
  • Focus our efforts hyper-locally;
  • Prioritize disproportionately impacted industries and workers;
  • Take multi-pronged and innovative approaches to address capacity needs; and
  • Operate with trust.

We must remember that especially in these times organizing, advocacy, and civic engagement efforts do not rest, that leaders of color are mobilizing community and actively engaging folks to drive forward existing campaigns, continuing to hold government accountable, and determining how to shift focus to address the needs of those most impacted by COVID. Let us continue to connect – over the phone, on Zoom calls, and via social media – to propose solutions, create and share resources, and work together in partnership to develop a comprehensive response that is racially just.

No matter where we find ourselves – now or in the future – we must remember that language holds power. Together, we must practice accountability in naming racism and the harm it does. We must stand side by side to challenge systems, ideologies, and institutions. We must speak truth – about the disproportionate impacts COVID-19 has on communities of color; the need for culturally responsive efforts around health and wellness; and an intersectional framing in philanthropic response. In the words of Shakespeare, “no legacy is as rich as honesty.”

Leni Dworkis is the program manager at the Weissberg Foundation, where she provides robust programmatic support to Grantee partners seeking to advance social, racial, and criminal justice. Prior to joining the foundation in 2019, she served in research and programmatic capacities at the Vera Institute of Justice where she contributed to strategic development initiatives, measurement and evaluation efforts, and exploratory investigation around reaching and serving under-resourced and marginalized crime victims. Her long-standing passion for working with and giving voice to underserved populations has fueled her interests in breaking down oppressive barriers and rebuilding social structures to better meet the needs of all individuals.

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