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"Is Racism Permanent? A Symposium (Part 2),"

by Leslye E. Orloff November/December 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

As a Jewish woman who grew up in a diverse multi-racial, multi-ethnic com-munity and who has spent her professional career serving those communities, I have come to believe that racism is not an immutable characteristic of American life. Much of my career has been devoted to developing better understanding and bridging gaps between people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. During years of working in organizations that have been striving to become multi-cultural in their approach and composition, I have come to develop a theory that racism in our society falls along a continuum which applies equally to persons of all backgrounds. The continuum runs from understanding to tolerance to intolerance, from persons who react instinctively to racism against others as if the racism were aimed at them to persons who are devoutly racist. Where each of us locates her/ himself along the continuum is a function of our experiences with other racial and ethnic groups while we were growing up and our conscious efforts to think about, address and deal with our own racism during our adult lives.

If the ultimate goal of our work as advocates is to improve and enrich the lives of all persons in our society, we must work together in a multi-cultural context to achieve this end. This is true whether the specific goal of our work is to fight racism, improve human rights at home or abroad, help battered women, reduce poverty, better our environment or improve access to health care. However, our ability to work together effectively is greatly hindered if we fail to recognize that we are all raised with a certain level of racism. Our own racism affects our view of the world and each other. We cannot overcome racism unless we learn to recognize it in ourselves. It is for this reason that the most troubling group on the continuum are people who incorrectly believe they are not racist. For this group of people, what they view as objective and fair is in fact based on racist assumptions that they are unable to identify. If we are to move towards eradicating racism in our society, we must sensitize others to recognize their own racism so that they can move along the continuum toward racial tolerance.

In the first category of the continuum are a group of persons who have generally been raised or spent a significant portion of their lives living among ethnic and/or racial groups that are different from their own. Many of these persons come from families who permitted and encouraged them to develop childhood friendships across racial and ethnic lines and attended schools that were ethnically diverse. This category generally includes people who were raised in racially and culturally mixed communities and people who moved during childhood from a community or culture where they were part of a racially dominant group to a community where they were members of a distinct minority. Persons who fall into this category on the continuum generally react viscerally when they experience racism against others as if it were racism aimed at themselves. For this group of persons, racially biased thoughts against groups of persons with whom they were raised or have close ties, rarely, if ever, enter their consciousness.

The second category is composed c many enlightened persons who have worked to overcome racism. This is the category that encompasses most progressives, activists and civil rights advocates. These are people who have worked hard to recognize that we have all grown up with our own racism. They have looked inward to identify their own racial biases, and taken what they have learned about themselves and used it to work towards eradicating racism in our society. They have developed friendships and close working relationships in their adult lives with persons of diverse backgrounds and have strived consciously to learn about other peoples and other cultures so that all of us may better understand each other. People in this category have taken concrete steps to remove racism and racially biased actions from their lives, their work, and from the messages that they pass on to their children. It may be that persons in this category will occasionally think about making statements or undertaking actions that may be perceived by others to be racist, but because they have educated themselves about racism and worked to overcome it, they are able to recognize the racism in these thoughts and do not act on or articulate them. In " time, as people become more attuned to racism, these thoughts cease to come to mind. If most people could strive for and successfully address their own racial biases in the manner that people in this category have, we as a society would make great strides toward eradicating if not all racism, practically all of the manifestations of racism that so dramatically affect and impede our lives.

The third category on the continuum is the most difficult to address and in some ways, for those of us committed to building positive relations among racial and ethnic groups in this country, the most destructive. This category is made up of people who understand that it is politically incorrect to be racist and who fervently believe they are not racist. Although they believe they are not racist, they have been unwilling or unable to identify and address their own racism and therefore, despite their intellectual protestations, they repeatedly make statements and undertake actions that are based on racist assumptions. Persons in this group will think a racist thought and express it even in a multi-ethnic context and will be completely unaware they have done so. They will fail to comprehend the racism in their statement or action and will become defensive when challenged. This defensiveness will in turn prevent them from identifying or addressing their own racism.

I have worked with multi-ethnic boards and staff in numerous organizations where the actions of this group of persons have significantly undermined the ability of others to further common goals as a multi-cultural whole and to approach our work in a manner that addresses the needs of all constituencies and is infused with the rich flavor imbued by our diversity. Persons in this category need to become open to learning and not be ashamed to admit and identify their own racism. They must accept and not be threatened by the fact that if we are to end racism and work in a multi-cultural environment, each of us must recognize her/his own unique strengths. Those strengths are to some extent related to the racial and ethnic background we each bring to our work. Those strengths are also related to the unique role each of us can play in a society that has not yet addressed its racism. Some persons, because of their own life experiences or because of our present society's attitude toward them, may be more effective than others in carrying out certain portions of our work. If we approach our work with an understanding of our own strengths and limitations and a willingness to recognize and create room for the strengths others bring to our work, we can exponentially improve the quality of our work.

The fourth category contains persons who have made no effort to address or think about their racism. Many are well meaning and do not necessarily intend to perpetrate racism. They were born, raised and have continued to live their entire lives in communities where racist assumptions are prevalent and go unchallenged. As adults they arrange their lives so that they have little or no contact with people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds. When their life experiences bring them into contact with persons from diverse backgrounds they may begin to challenge the racist assumptions they have always accepted as true. Thus, it is incumbent upon all of us to encourage multi-culturalism not only in our work but in our public schools, in PTAs, in our places of worship, and within groups working at a community level to solve problems facing our communities.

In the fifth category on the continuum are persons who are devoutly racist and make no pretense to hide their racism. While changing attitudes of persons in this category may be impossible, then willingness to openly express their views may be constrained in a society where racist attitudes are not socially acceptable. We may, however, be able to interfere with their ability to pass unfettered racist attitudes on to their children by developing school-based program aimed at fostering understanding and cooperation between children from diverse backgrounds.

It is important as well for us to keep it mind, as we strive to develop organizations that undertake work aimed at the betterment of the human experience for all in this country and around the world that we cannot stop with creating organizations and boards that are multi-racial and multi-cultural. Our ultimate goal must not be to achieve equality in numbers alone. Diversity in our workplace, on our boards and in our communities is only a significant step toward achieving a rich multi-cultural society in which the cultures, life experiences and needs of all are addressed, respected and valued equally. As we work together in organizations striving to achieve these goals, we must remain aware that the functioning of our workplaces and organizations will change. The organizational models and styles of operation for many of our institutions were developed in an era when white males predominated the board rooms of even our most progressive institutions. If we are to succeed in our struggle to eradicate racism and achieve multi-culturalism, we must change the way we think about our lives and our work and must be open to experimenting with, developing and adopting approaches that incorporate the world view and life experiences of persons from diverse backgrounds. This work will require each of us to address our own racism and identify the unique contributions we can each make to our struggle. We must also be willing relinquish control, share responsibility with and value the unique contributions that others will make in our struggle to achieve a multi-cultural society.

Leslye E. Orloff is the founder of the domestic violence program at Ayuda, a nonprofit community-based organization providing the low-income, foreign-born population of Washington with legal assistance on immigration and domestic violence-related matters, and co-founder of the National Network on Behalf of Battered Immigrant Women. She was the primary drafter of the Protection for Battered Immigrant Women provisions of the Violence Against Women Act.


Leslye E. Orloff, a PRRAC grantee, is founder of the domestic violence program and presently the Director of Program Development at Ayuda, a community-based legal services program in Washington, D. C., that serves immigrant and refugee battered women and children.


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