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November 5, 2015

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Michelle Obama on racial climates & 10 indicators an organization has a toxic one

May 11, 2015


In a recent graduation speech at Tuskeegee University, Michelle Obama mirrored the toxic racial climate many professionals of color navigate daily. She distilled the fear-based "misperceptions" and stereotype-based "speculations" that paved "the bumps on the way" to becoming the first lady of the United States. "Was I too loud? Or too angry? Or too emasculating?" She warned the graduates of the historically black university that, "The road ahead is not going to be easy.  It never is, especially for folks like you and me.  There will be times, just like for those airmen, where you will feel like folks look right past you, or they just see a fraction of who you really are." She continued, "They will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world. We've both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout out entire lives." What first lady, Michelle Obama, was describing here, is a racial climate.


An organization's racial climate is its beliefs, perceptions, and expectations of issues of race and diversity (Quaye & Harper, 2014). It is influenced by at least five factors: 1) the organization's history and legacy of racial inclusion and exclusion, 2) the demographics of the organization, 3) the structure of diversity, 4) the psychological atmosphere, and 5) the behavioral conditions (Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pederson, & Allen, 1999; Milem, Chang & Harper, 2005; Quaye & Harper, 2014). A racial climate is considered toxic when the beliefs, perceptions, and expectations of race-related issues act, or have the effect, of poison.


Social scientists find that social inequalities can make us as sick as viruses. Smith (2008) calls it racial battle fatigue. Krieger (2005) calls it embodied inequality. Racial battle fatigue refers to the mental, emotional, and physical effects of resisting racial slights, discrimination, and bias daily. Embodied inequality refers to the ways in which inequality influences one's weight, body composition, height, posture, hormone levels, stress load, and mind-body-spirit balance. Why should organization leaders care? Toxic racial climates affect organizational members' health, productivity, and retention.



10 indicators your organization might have a toxic racial climate


1) The performance management system organizes a racial hierarchy whereby white staff members are frequently placed in managerial positions and people of color are in non-managerial positions. Many of the staff members positioned in managerial positions tend to accept the racial status quo as normal, with little knowledge of the race, equity, and intersectionality canon.


2) The performance management system organizes a gendered hierarchy whereby staff members who identify as cis-male are often placed in managerial positions and staff members who identify as cis-female, transgender, and other gender expressions are arranged in non-managerial positions. Many of the staff members placed in managerial positions tend to accept the gender status quo as normal, with little knowledge of the gender equity and intersectionality canon.


3) Given the aforementioned race-gender hierarchies, manager-managee relationships are fraught with unspoken power struggles, aversions, microaggressions, and microinvalidations.


4)If these tensions are referred to human resources they often go unaddressed or are superficially mediated.


5) Organization members placed in subordinate positions hold back thoughts and feelings and repress intellectual contributions for fear of it not being taken seriously. While they might have strategies to further the company's mission their intellectual contributions get siloed rarely influencing front-line programmatic strategy, policy changes, and bottom lines.


6) The concerns of staff members in subordinate positions get organized into resource, affinity, and other peripheral, ad hoc groups.


7) Diversity and inclusion efforts get arranged into single member or less-than-five person departments. The people placed in this group frequently have little power, even if they have a high-level institutional title, and are often over-burdened with the "diversity work" of the organization.  In these cases, "diversity work" is marginal or tangential to the central operations and priorities of the organization.


8) Organizational members arranged into positions of power are aware that there are repressed tensions but avoid, withdraw, ignore, or dismiss them as less essential. The only time they feel compelled to address tensions and conflicts is when obvious flash points erupt, uncovering what gets repressed daily.


9) Organizational members in the C-suite fear acknowledging that the competencies needed to ameliorate their racial climate are outside their own scope of knowledge. They may find themselves grappling with competing needs (i.e. the need to feel competent, feel significant, offer important contributions vs. need to acknowledge gaps in knowledge, monitor egoistic reactions, and not abuse power).


10) As a result of working in this racial climate, subordinated organizational members experience racial battle fatigue (Smith, 2008) and health problems related to embodied inequality (Krieger, 2005).



How might one learn to navigate a challenging racial climate?


Racial Equitecture undertakes an imperative to sustain ourselves & expand our skillset as we work to dismantle systemic inequality. But, similar to other essential-to life-but-seldom-formally-taught life skills (i.e. how to raise a child), we rarely encounter a formal, rigorous program for how to navigate race & power dynamics in our professional lives. For many professionals, the preamble to grappling with inequality frequently stems from a) familial-communal acumen, b) ethnic studies/-ism-centered college courses, & c) individual study/practice/living. Racial Equitecture seeks to build upon this knowledge, offering a methodical praxis that uses research and experience to coach professionals to navigate racial events in ways that safeguard mind-body-spirit balance and productivity. Join us for a 5-session seminar (Wednesdays, 6-15-8:15pm, June 17, 24, July 1, 8, 15). Register by Wednesday, May 27th for early bird rates. Registration ends June 10th.



“I have a new way of approaching situations. Things that would have been chaotic to my entire being before, I can now see in a different lens...Dr. McAfee has opened my eyes to another method of engagement with my work.”- L. M.


“I feel better equipped to analyze how I interact with my team and how I’m triggered by the interactions of others. I now have a language...”- P.R.


“This has been the best conversation we’ve had on race.” - N.M.


Skill/Knowledge Goals: Participants will be able to:

1) Create racial climates where racial microaggressions, invalidations, and insults have less of an impact.

2) Sense rhetorical, emotional, and egoistic postures used to assert power & ways to navigate them in the moment.

3) Practice and strengthen their response-ability to racial events in their professional/personal lives.


Experiential Goals: My goal is for you to step beyond what you imagine is possible.  To be brave and do something you've never done before.  This goal is supported by a pedagogical approach that lies at the nexus of critical race pedagogy, black feminist thought, adaptive leadership, and experiential learning.  This means there will be little lecturing, lots of practice, dwelling in negative capability, productive discomfort, and constructive feedback.  You will be guided to drive discussions rather than silently receive. The intention is to create a holding environment for rehearsing courage while personally developing a racial response-ability that better addresses racial events in our world.


Register by Wednesday, May 27th for early bird rates. Registration ends June 1oth.

Stay connected: via our website, facebook, LinkedIn, and twitter.








Hurtado, S., Milem, J., Clayton-Pederson, A., & Allen, W. (1999). Enacting diverse learning environments: improving the climate for racial/ethnic diversity in higher education. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report. Volume 28(6). Washington DC: The George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development.


Krieger, Nancy. (2005). Embodying inequality: epidemiologic perspectives. Univeristy of Michigan: Baywood Publications.


Milem, J., Chang, M. J., Antonio, A. L. (2005). Making diversity work on campus: A research-based perspective. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.


Quaye, S. J.; Harper, Shaun. (2014). Student engagement in higher education: Theoretical perspectives and practical approaches for diverse populations. Routledge.


Smith, W. A. (2008). Higher Education: Racial Battle Fatigue. In R. T. Schaefer (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society (pp. 615-618). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.


Photo credit: The Anniston Star

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