Rick CohenSpeaking about Race in Foundations: Getting Past the Conscious into the Unconscious

By: Rick Cohen In: 2011 Annual Conference| Diversity and Inclusion

14 Apr 2011

Speaking about race is uncomfortable and perplexing for many people inside philanthropy. Lori Villarosa of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity designed a workshop during the Council’s annual conference that contained more information and more depth than anyone might have expected and got at issues that few in philanthropic gatherings ever get close to.

As Villarosa noted in her opening remarks, this was not “Diversity 101″—and thank goodness for that.

From the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State, john powell addressed what people hear and incorporate in their conscious and unconscious minds, noting that “racial bias resides in the unconscious.” In other words, when people say that they aren’t racist, “they may not be talking about their unconscious thinking that is organizing around race.”

So how do you connect to the unconscious to change racial thinking? “The unconscious mind couldn’t give a hoot about facts but likes stories,” powell said, so don’t lead with data. The “do’s” on his list include talking about people’s values, creating empathetic space (not dividing people into us and them), and being solution-oriented.

What are “solutions” in this framework? You can’t talk about “universal” solutions, according to powell, because they end up being universal in terms of strategy, not goals. He called for “targeted universalism”: being universal in our goals (such as jobs for everyone) but “targeted in our pathways and strategies” to situate populations that are otherwise isolated to more fully participate in the benefits from universal solutions.

Rinku Sen of the Applied Research Center and Colorlines discussed how to approach stories and avoid leading with data. She suggested how you tell the story is key. Just as anti-racism efforts work on four levels of racism—individual, interpersonal, institutional, and structural—simultaneously rather than chronologically or sequentially, so should a story be told with attention to character, setting, and plot—elements that connect with audiences (and their unconscious networks and beliefs).

As an example of the story-telling narrative, Sen used the Restaurant Opportunity Center in New York City: The restaurant industry has good jobs and profit potential, but highly qualified people are shut off due to race and gender, as proven by data from campaign research, interviews with employers, and matched pair testing. This system of discrimination hurts the industry, the workers, and the diners/consumers. We need to make the restaurant industry better for everyone involved.

This is the kind of sophisticated story-telling that can engage the unconscious as well as the conscious.

What does all of this say to foundations? In terms of the current foundation focus on diversity, Sen and powell reminded everyone to make the distinction between “simple diversity,” of people in the room, and “equity,” in which everyone has a chance to shape the agenda. Diversity can’t be the end product, they said. This is particularly important for social justice funders who typically focus on the impacts of policies, grants, and programs and not on the design of policies.

But funders don’t talk about race, particularly in reference to themselves, as Gara LaMarche made clear in his “j’accuse” statement in “Philanthropy on Trial,” the closing plenary of the 2011 Annual Conference. Are they unable to see themselves as part of the process of what powell called “structural racialization?” Sen suggested that foundations need talking points, a few clear ones that would help them organize their thinking and analysis around these issues.

But will the talking points connect only with the 2% of their brains that are the “conscious” and miss the 98% that is the unconscious, where individual, interpersonal, institutional, and structural attitudes and approaches toward race survive and thrive in contrast and often contradiction to the conscious mind?

Rick Cohen is a columnist with the NonProfit Quarterly

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