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Nina Berman Post by Nina Berman

By Nina Berman on November 27th, 2020

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How Much Time Should You Spend on Anti-Racism Work at Work?

Big Ideas | Anti-Racism/Anti-Oppression

Right now, many workplaces are reckoning with ways that systemic racism shows up in their industry and in their work cultures. Companies and organizations made big statements over the summer about becoming more anti-racist and some are still dedicated to doing that work. We’re doing that at Fractured Atlas, too. One of the ways that Fractured Atlas has upped the ante on our own dedication to anti-racism in the arts and in workplace design is by offering consulting to other workplaces

For individuals who care about anti-racism in your everyday life, your workplace might be a powerful place to struggle against the machinations of white supremacy. But, how much of your anti-racist activist energy should you spend at your job? Is your workplace the best place for you to do the work of anti-racism?

We don’t have a hard-and-fast answer for where to focus your anti-racist efforts. The most effective ways for you to use your beliefs and your skills to do your part to dismantle racism will depend on your particular skills and interests.

If you are great at mobilizing people on the ground and giving people on the front lines of protests the tools they need to feel connected and powerful, your workplace probably isn’t the best place for your energy. If your mind naturally sways towards seeing how racism shows up in structure and you love working within a system to make it better from the inside, your job might be more fertile grounds.

Engaging in anti-racism work at your job versus elsewhere isn’t a zero-sum game. If, for example, you’re a graphic designer, you might use your skills at work to ensure that your presentations and your public-facing imagery is inclusive. You might also use your skills to help circulate important information about protests, petitions, campaigns, and the racist history that our education system has persistently failed to teach us.

For many, the workplace will be somewhere that makes a lot of sense as a locus of anti-racist struggle.

On the one hand, your workplace is somewhere you probably spend a lot of time, even if it’s a virtual workplace. It certainly is for me. I’m in the Fractured Atlas zone for 40 hours a week (even though I’m also at my kitchen counter). If you are looking to create change in a space where you spend a great deal of time, your workplace would make a lot of sense as the focus for your anti-racist efforts.

If you want to focus your energy around a single institution whose improvement could make your days better and the days of people around you better, your workplace might well be that institution.

Workplaces can be manageable spaces to start creating systemic, anti-racist change. There are structures, rules, protocols. There are HR handbooks and org structures. There are staff positions, salaries, and benefits packages. Your workplace is a smaller scale than society writ large, which means that it could be easier for you to see what needs to be done and to work collectively to accomplish your goals.

For example, a lot of the anti-racism anti-oppression work at Fractured Atlas came about because of the individual actions of workers. As Tim Cynova recounted, what ultimately helped jumpstart our organizational efforts towards becoming an anti-racist organization was when two mid-level staff members used their annual professional development stipend to attend an Undoing Racism workshop by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. After they attended that workshop in 2013, they brought new ideas for how Fractured Atlas could finally make meaningful progress beyond our perennially-stated diversity goals.

Larger systemic instances of racism like the prison industrial complex, the school-to-prison pipeline, redlining, the fight for reparations, and more might feel too big for you to tackle as an individual. But if you work at the scale of your workplace, you might be able to effect greater change. You can advocate for pay transparency to cut down on how unconscious bias shows up in salaries. You can organize your coworkers to demand that leadership adhere to anti-racist action beyond “listening and learning.”

But, there are also reasons you might not want to spend all of your anti-racist efforts at your job.

One reason is that people don’t stay at their jobs forever. You might devote all of your political energy to improve an institution that you end up leaving in two or three years. While you work somewhere, you are accountable to your coworkers and your clients or the community that you serve. After you leave that job, though, your professional community will shift focus to your new team. Outside of your job, though, you have other communities that you are accountable to regardless of who cuts your paycheck. It might make more sense for you to spend your energy fighting against racism and white supremacy in communities that you are accountable to in a more long-term capacity like your neighborhood, your city, or your creative community.

Your relationship to your job is also fundamentally different from your relationship to other communities (even when you have a cool job, a well-paying job, a job in your creative field or one related to grassroots work in your community).

Any job creates value through the difference between what workers are paid and what revenue, grants, or profits come in. That excess value could go back to shareholders, investors, people in the C-suite, or into the institution itself. Jobs will just about never pay you what you’re really worth, especially if you are Black. Despite the language that many workplaces have about being “a family,” your relationship to your employer is fundamentally one of economic exploitation. For a lot of people, that will shape just how much time and energy you want to put into making your workplace more equitable and less racist.

Workplaces often want to tout diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives as ways to burnish their reputation or cover over issues that they don’t ever really want to address. When you focus your anti-racist work at your job, you run the risk that your work becomes just a part of a PR campaign rather than something that will deeply shift an institution for the better.

It’s also worth considering if you are expected to take on the burden of improving your workplace on top of your pre-existing workload? Or does your employer understand that any kind of workplace improvement work should happen on the clock and therefore compensate you for it? For example, race-based caucusing at Fractured Atlas (including the prep that goes into facilitating meetings) occurs during working hours.

We can’t tell you an exact amount of hours you should spend on anti-racist work at your job or what percentage of your overall anti-racism efforts should go to your workplace. That’s something only you can decide for yourself. It’s something that will depend on your skills and interests, the job that you have and the culture of your workplace. And it will change over time.

Regardless, we hope that by opening up a space to think critically about where your political energy goes, you can choose the best and most effective ways to create change in your communities.

The most important part about anti-racist work is that you do it.

More posts by Nina Berman

About Nina Berman

Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.