Racism in think tanks — how and why it manifests and what we might do to address it

23 August 2021
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

[This article was originally published in the OTT Annual Review 2020-2021.]

The Overseas Development Institute published a piece on racism in the international development sector and how to address it. However, there was very little on how racism manifests in the sector in practical terms. In this article, I’m going to fill that gap and suggest what we might do to address racism.

Difficult experiences

To put this piece into context, I am a brown-skinned son of a couple who made their way to British shores from South Asia and I have worked in the UK international development sector for almost 20 years. To begin, here are four short vignettes of recent situations that initially ‘got under my skin’:

  1. An older white evaluator, who was managing a task as part of a team I was leading, responded to my questions, critique and advice by in part ignoring me and with some defensiveness. After being invited to share how they felt about the process, they said I patronised and micromanaged them.
  2. A white researcher I was working with on an evaluation lost his temper (in a WhatsApp thread) when he found one half of a deck of PowerPoint slides (to be presented to a donor later that week) were not to his liking. He assumed he would be presenting all slides in the deck, ‘misremembering’ that we had agreed to present half the slides each (not surprising given we had been working together on the evaluation).
  3. Older white managers at an international development think tank reacted strongly with aggression when I showed them how I was taking (more) seriously the complexity of human interaction in my consultancy projects. At the same time, I realised I was being paid less than less experienced colleagues in the same programme, was repeatedly told I was filling in my timesheets incorrectly and finally overlooked for promotion in favour of someone who had less experience and knowledge in the relevant field.
  4. Although I had made presentations and run workshops with people from countries in Africa and Asia, I found myself getting more anxious when presenting to colleagues in my own organisation (based in London, UK, where the majority of people were racialised as white).

These situations left me uncomfortable, anxious and/or upset, which in some cases contributed to poor productivity. Organisations and groups can be traumatic places to work, where people get hurt, distressed and unhappy regardless of one’s identity. But did race and racism play any role? We can never be sure. Clear expressions of racism are less frequent these days (although on the rise), with racism often communicated through non-verbal modes of being, or where people say one thing and mean another. Moreover, it is hard to isolate the impact of one aspect of one’s identity (such as race) from others (such as gender, class, etc): intersectionality is a key concept here. But let’s assume racism is a key factor: what might be the mechanisms through which it is playing out, and what might be done to facilitate change?

Understanding how racism functions

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that race is not real but instead a social and political construct. However, racism is all too real.

A Tale of ‘O’ illustrates how discrimination (including racism) can play out, exploring the consequences of being seen as ‘other’ in a group. It focuses on a group of people in which some are ‘the many’, who are referred to as the ‘X’s, and some are the few, the ‘O’s. It illustrates and explores the personal and societal dynamics of being different, which include disproportionately experiencing acts of aggression. This illustrates the effects of racism, but not the causes.

Theory developed by Fakhry Davids who has written about race and difference from a psychoanalytical approach, suggests that people tend to split off the darker (or unwanted) aspects of their character and project them onto those they see as the ‘racialised other’ (in order to contain anxiety).

The racialised other will have a role assigned to them (often unconsciously) informed by certain stereotypes (for instance, in my case — being a Brit with South Asian heritage — the loyal administratorthe passive Asian, the marginalised other, or being exploitative, especially in an African context). The racialised other, depending on how vulnerable they are, can be made to fulfil the role that has been assigned to them (by, for instance, being passive, or exploitative). This comprises one’s ‘internal racist organisation’, which protects one from the unwanted parts of the self. If/when the racialised other does not conform to certain behaviours, this unleashes anxiety, preventing one from being able to think rationally.

While Davids’ approach suggests that what goes on in people’s minds shapes what happens socially (an inside out approach), Farhad Dalal takes the opposite approach, suggesting that what happens socially and historically shapes what happens in people’s minds (outside-in). He argues that the structures of people’s psyches reflect broader structures of society where historically, for instance, in Europe the term ‘white’ has been associated with goodness and ‘black’ with evil. Dalal says this is not a natural development and has instead evolved as a result of power dynamics, where races have been differentiated to make a distinction between the ‘haves’ and ‘must-not-haves’ — which underpins our capitalist economic system.

With these in mind, returning to the opening vignettes, we might speculate that a non-white person in a leadership position can provide a serious challenge to white authority. One might argue that my advice and critical feedback were contrary to how someone who looked like me should behave, which subsequently unleashed anxiety in the evaluator. In the second vignette, despite having worked with me for a number of months, when it came to presenting findings to the client, the researcher failed to see me as an equal partner. In the third vignette, senior managers failed to engage with my critique, instead dismissing the way that it was made. Sharing a critique of the way in which senior managers operated was seen as an act of rebellion that ultimately ended in the doling out of punishment. And in the fourth vignette, on one hand, I was acting out the anxiety and fear that white colleagues had located in me, whilst on the other hand, I had to some extent, internalised racism, struggling to exert my personal authority and doubting my own skills and abilities.

But as Fred Moten highlights, racist or discriminatory actions not only take their toll on the perceived ‘victims’ but also the perceived ‘perpetrators’.

What can we do?

The way forward (as Emma Dabiri says), is certainly not about people racialised as white being charitable or kind to people racialised as non-white.

The first step is being aware. Farhad Dalal says we are all racialised and cannot not experience ourselves and the world, to some degree, in colour coded ways. So the issue is not just about people racialised as white and non-white, but also the system that created these categories.

As such, we need to be aware of the roles that we are often unconsciously assigning to ourselves and others. Different groups tend to be assigned different roles. I know my black friends will be subject to different and arguably more inhumane stereotypes than I. However, being stereotyped at all has a corrosive effect on one’s wellbeing. Ebony McGee discusses the effect that stereotypes, which both ‘lift’ and ‘threaten’, have on high achieving Asian and b lack students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at college in the US. Knowing that others might be assigning roles to oneself can be troubling as one can get caught up with either fitting in with people’s expectations or reacting against them, making it difficult to keep hold of what one feels, thinks or wants. The challenge then is to see all people (including oneself) as fully human, multi-dimensional, with strengths and flaws, to suspend judgement (based on pre-conceptions and surface level characteristics) and remain curious about others.

At a group or organisational level, as Patricia Shaw says, life tends to unfold through communication and conversation among its members. Therefore, changes in practices of a group or organisation are likely to start with changes in the conversations they have. As people talk about what they are doing differently, they are likely to think and act differently. This suggests that people have got to start talking about racism (and discrimination more broadly).

Those racialised as non-white tend to be more experienced in talking about race and racism. Robin DiAngelo says white people in particular need to build the stamina to sustain conscious and explicit engagement with race (and not just those who interact with minorities or in diverse environments). And any notions of allyship ought to be replaced with solidarity, which acknowledges that forces of oppression have similar origins.

We know that talking about race and diversity in groups and organisations is difficult. There is the anxiety about being implicated leading to denial and defensiveness, or the fear that talking about it will lead to a re-enactment of racism, which can re-traumatising. But it can also be hard because people tend to take a politically correct tone, with racism often seen as something that is in the process of being defeated rather than something that needs to be struggled with continuously. The problem with political correctness is that it reduces complexity and freezes a group’s ability to think. It especially obscures the guilt that is the foundation for reparation and change, producing a rigidity that prevents an openness and flexibility.

This reinforces the notion that race is a scary issue that many would prefer to avoid. However, if people don’t talk about racism (and the history that underpins this), however clumsily, they won’t be able to think about it (differently) and will forever go on thinking and acting in the same way — both individually and as organisations.