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Effectively Racially Integrating an International Organization, Part I:

Recognizing Resistance to Racial Integration and Potential Solutions

In part one of this series, published by International Focus in its April-May 2023 edition, achievements of the initial two years’ racial integration of the Executive Board of an international organization, by the inaugural inclusion of the first elected BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) Caucus Representative, were listed and summarized. The reason this three-part review of the process of desegregating an international U.S.-based organization began with a summary of achievements is because of the challenges encountered in desegregating executive function. Post Affirmative Action, it may become even more helpful than was previously experienced to keep in mind the realistically impressive goals that stand to be achieved, with perseverance sufficient to counter and withstand anti-desegregation. 

The nature of American racism makes it self-perpetuating. The narcissistic self-aggrandizement and conscienceless group aggression against designated targets, the two major components that combine with other individualized behaviors such as stalking, harassing or bullying to make up the bulwark of American racism, are taught to vulnerable and malleable children along with the skills of walking and talking. A person raised to rely on an emotional addiction to feeling superior to or more powerful than designated targets may have no perception of his other skills and achievements that his self-esteem could more healthily fall back on, if he were to be stripped of his assumption of the right to feel inherently superior. Worse, in his mind, may be that he is being asked not only to cede absolute authority for shared governance to people he believes he should be free to exploit or ignore without qualm or consequence, but he is also simultaneously being challenged by the requirement that he learn to compete with those designated others who have turned out not to be needy, grateful or dull-witted as he may have been taught to assume they are, but intelligent, articulate, and reasoning, confronting him by insisting on a leveled playing field. 

The first problem in confronting active racial aggression in an administrative body with only one person trained to recognize it, and that person being the isolated ethnic minority targeted by the racial aggression that needs identifying and counteracting, is the difficulty communicating to people who are not ethnic minorities exactly what is happening. What is being aimed at the group is an emotional appeal to resist policies that will support racial inclusivity. More challenging still, it is up to the isolated, targeted ethnic minority to guide non-minorities in recognizing and effectively resisting the appeal to compromise the group’s pursuit of functional integration. 

Of the many problems that come with attempting to racially desegregate a body of people of European descent in the United States, the most challenging may well be that the people who receive the privileges of American racism have been raised and taught not to see the skewed system that so privileges them. On the other hand, the people raised in the United States who must both confront and survive the peculiar systems of American racism may certainly recognize them, as their own well-being and that of many of the people they care deeply about depends on recognizing racism and averting, diverting, or confronting it; but the people who recognize the systemic racism at work have often also learned not to discus what is happening with the beneficiaries of this injustice and their colleagues, who may appear to be aware and complicit in the abuse. The silence of the target of racism is meant to keep from aggravating the situation as s/he/one attempts to get out of it, get away from it, or thwart it. So, in a Board made up of European-Americans and one ethnic minority elected to speak for a Caucus of ethnic minorities, there may be only one person who is aware of the dynamics and persistence of the aggressions, persecutions, sabotages, and relentless undermining constantly being faced. This difference in perspective can be daunting. Racially harassing behaviors are called microaggressions. Calling these damaging behaviors microaggressions is not meant to imply that they are small; rather, it means that they are not intrinsic elements of a larger governmental system. 

Below is an initial study submitted to the Board on 07/28/2021 to begin working toward agreement with and support of the BIPOC Caucus’s wish list of designated spaces at the organization’s annual onsite conference: 

On behalf of the BIPOC Caucus, as its nominated Representative, I am requesting: 

1) one universal Safe Space for [conference] attendees [Boardroom #1], 

2) a separate BIPOC Safe Space and Counter-Space [named rooms], and that 

3) potentially racially educational panels and roundtables [at the onsite conference] be designated as Brave Spaces.

After my first weekend meetings with the Board, I drew up a summary of points to take to the BIPOC Caucus and shared it with the Board’s President, to make sure I’d summarized the information correctly. I delayed sharing my summary with the BIPOC Caucus for one reason: one misunderstanding between the Board and the BIPOC Caucus seemed so urgently in need of resolution that I did not think it would be helpful to take it back to the BIPOC Caucus until I could indicate how the Caucus could move in a positive direction on this issue. This issue was contested creation of a racially Safe Space at the onsite conference. Emily Crocket states, “Inside or outside of safe spaces, the real problem is usually a failure of empathy, and the real solution is treating others with humility, respect, and compassion and being willing to learn from our own mistakes” [See Emily Crocket, “Safe spaces, explained” https://www.vox.com/2016/7/5/11949258/safe-spaces-explained]. 

I was told that the Board envisions one Safe Space where everyone has access: 

As an American ethnic minority who specializes in cultural studies, I know that a Safe Space where those who perpetrate racial aggressions are as welcome as those they victimize is not a racially Safe Space for targets. I needed to ask [BIPOC Caucus leadership] to clarify what they requested of the Board and offer research to the Board if I discovered a gap between what was requested and what the Board thought it heard. Deandra Cadet writes that “intersectionality can be used to erase the need to prioritize racial justice” and advises communities to “address the incidents of racial harassment and microaggression and explicitly place the burden on the perpetrator rather than the victim,” explaining that, “Many spaces excuse white people’s mistakes to create ‘learning experiences.’ We want to challenge these spaces to confront the question: At what cost to People of Color are white people given learning spaces? And have People of Color left the space because your community has centered the ‘unintentional’ white perpetrators?” [See Deandra Cadet, “Protecting Racial Justice Spaces from Turning into White Spaces” http://interactioninc.org/protecting-racial-justice-spaces-from-turning-into-white-spaces/]. 

Designating Brave Spaces for discussions at [onsite conference] could provide safer learning spaces: 

Perhaps [conference] can offer Brave Spaces of “Controversy with Civility” [See Diana Ali “Controversy with Civility” https://naspa.org/images/uploads/main/Policy_and_Practice_No_2_Safe_Brave_Spaces.pdf]]. 

However, Felicia Holman and Ellie Mejia warn that, “safety can’t be guaranteed in a world that is unsafe to marginalized people. Fostering a brave space comes with that recognition” [https://www.citybureau.org/notebook/2019/12/19/safe-spaces-brave-spaces-and-why-we-gon-be-alright].

The BIPOC Caucus's request for a racially Safe Space and Counter Space: 

Previous Board-appointed BIPOC Caucus Representatives clarified that the creation of the BIPOC Caucus is itself a Counter Space. Additionally, the request of the BIPOC Caucus is for a physical space to heal from specifically racial aggression at [conference] without having to retire all the way to one’s hotel room or flight home when one finds oneself targeted by people belittling or helping themselves to one’s relationships, self-presentation, research, intentions, appearance, statements, publications, comments, intelligence, financial straits, education, intellectual property, hobbies, activities, vulnerabilities, or anything else that can be attacked or appropriated. As Cadet explains, a “white space” is “any space in which discussion and critical analysis operate by prioritizing white people’s feelings and needs, creating a deference to whiteness,” in which “the discourse and rhetoric is maintained to be falsely race-neutral, allowing whiteness to serve as the default” that “fails to establish and maintain accountability to center the lived experiences and concerns of people of color” or “requires People of Color to ‘understand’ or ‘excuse’ whiteness for the benefit of everyone getting along.” 

BIPOC Caucus's understanding of the BIPOC Safe Space/Counter Space request: 

Previous BIPOC Caucus leadership confirmed my understanding that they asked for creation of a Safe Space where BIPOC attendees at [conference] can be relieved of racial tensions and aggressions: a racial sanctuary. This request would reflect the discussion with the BIPOC Caucus, wherein my question (not request) about allowing allies into the Safe Space as support persons was negatively received, with good reason. According to Caucus input, in order to minimize the chance of a targeted person being followed or preceded into the Safe Space by racial aggressors for self-justification and/or further domination, a BIPOC Safe Space was intended to be limited to use by BIPOC [conference] attendees. They explain that use of the phrase “Counter Space” means that the BIPOC Caucus has a racially exclusive safe space as defined by Micere Keels, allowing “individuals from marginalized groups to engage in collective disruption of the dominant narrative” [https://www.campus-counterspaces.com/]. Disruption necessitates a space for discussion, panels, events, and activities, which would take place in a designated room. 

The President's understanding of the BIPOC Safe Space request on behalf of the Board: 

The President’s understanding of the Board’s perspective on the BIPOC Caucus’s request for a Safe Space is that everyone is welcome in it because everyone, at some point, needs a Safe Space. If the universality of need for a Safe Space is the Board’s position, then the BIPOC Caucus’s counter-request for a second universal Safe Space addresses this. Sue, Alsaidi, Awad, Glaeser, Calle, and Mendez provide information about percentages of ethnic minorities who experience racial aggression in the U.S.: for example, 75% of African Americans report experiencing racial aggressions daily [See Sue et al, “Disarming Racial Microaggressions: Microintervention Strategies for Targets, White Allies, and Bystanders” engineering.purdue.edu/Engr/People/faculty-retention-success/Files/Racial-Microaggressions.pdf]. 

RecoveryDharma.online is a virtual Safe Space created by an African American Buddhist who acknowledges daily lived experience of racial aggression [recoverydharma.online/bipoc/]. Its founder, Kelsey Blackwell, explains the need to escape racial aggressions, expectations, stereotyping, placating, conforming, and other pressures while still functioning professionally and personally in a larger society: “merely inviting more people of color into a space does not in and of itself make that space inclusive. Patterns of white dominance suffuse the space just like other spaces we occupy, only this time, we’re calling it ‘inclusive.’ That’s more painful and frustrating than being in spaces that are blind. Staying in that ‘inclusive’ room actually involves PoC putting aside our own needs and taking care of white people as we’ve been conditioned to do” [See Kelsey Blackwell, “Why People of Color Need Spaces without White People” arrow-journal.org/why-people-of-color-need-spaces-without-white-people/].

Letter Submitted by Alexis Brooks de Vita, 06-07/28/2021

This (anonymized) letter, two Board meetings and hours of discussion resulted in the Board’s agreement to the designation of three physical rooms under control of the BIPOC Caucus and one special kind of intellectual panel discussion: a Brave Space. Two rooms were hotel boardrooms labeled with identifying signs and posted rules as Safe Spaces available throughout the hours of the conference. The Safe Spaces would have no other function than to provide sanctuary for one person at a time: one room would succor a conference attendee of any race, and the other would be reserved for one BIPOC conference attendee at a time who felt the need to escape specifically racial aggression or racialized pressures. The third room agreed upon was a larger, less used conference room with a view of the hotel’s gardens and pools that would be the BIPOC Caucus’s physical Counter Space, where art exhibits, panel discussions, roundtables, artists’ presentations, immersion events such as learning games, and a very controlled and sensitized racial discussion known as a Brave Space would take place. 

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By: Alexis Brooks de Vita, Ph.D.

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