September 22, 2023

step by step

a two-lane road that leads across the plains
photo caption: a two-lane highway somewhere in the midwest. the area around the highway is flat with green and brown grass and small shrubs. the speed limit was 80 around here so i am positive i didn’t take this picture.

Why don’t we have a template for implementing racial equity practices? I get this question every now and then. I totally understand: we seek to upend an entrenched way of life that has persisted for more than 400 years. That’s a lot to take on! To some extent we’re dealing with a problem of scale. How are we supposed to fix everything? To paraphrase my mom when I was a teen, “look at how messy your [racism] is! It looks like a tornado came through [america]!”

So wouldn’t it be nice if there was some set of instructions, some guidebook, to help us tidy up around here? Each company could download or buy a guidebook for the liberation of the oppressed. Everyone would start at step 1 and finish their work some number of pages later. If someone could figure out how to do this, they would make a fortune. I have a few ideas for why this hasn’t worked yet, and a few ideas for what will.

rip to your template but im different

Every single one of us was born into a white supremacist culture. I feel confident saying this. The cultural preference for whiteness is global, to some extent. Most of my readers are american by birth or residence. The harms of white supremacy are universal, but the impact is complex. Our histories are unique. Every industry has its own racialized problems and circumstances. Applying a general set of instructions risks glossing over real challenges to antiracism.

The same is true within industries at the organizational level. One consequence of racism is that the dominant culture sees other people as a monolith. People in that dominant culture see themselves as unique, as individuals. The same is true for organizations. It’s hard for people to see themselves as both part of the problem and part of the solution.

This year I’ve heard more people talking about the concept of “rainbow washing.” This is a relevant term in June, which is LGBTQIA+ pride month in many areas. Corporations will declare their support for queer folks by issuing press releases or redesigning their company logo to include a rainbow. They do this while supporting and donating to anti-queer politicians. They think their press release of support will cancel out (or “wash”) their decision to give money to anti-LGBTQIA+ people in power. These rationalizations are impossible to overcome. Instead of making queer people feel seen, rainbow washing highlights that many of us feel used. Industry self-regulation doesn’t work for the same reason. It’s too hard to make difficult culture changes without external accountability.

what you ordered vs. what arrives

A pre-written template isn’t very flexible. The reality on the ground will always be more expansive and specific than a guide can cover. Templates can’t adapt to specific situations like people can. A template won’t know that the racist CEO will stand in the way of progress. A guidebook can’t push back against a donor who wonders when your company “became so political.” And facing those concerns, when the template fails, so will your momentum.

I understand the desire to want to outsource our problems to a book or instruction manual. Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix for the structural issues we face.

too long; didn’t finish

There’s another issue with templates, not just the antiracism ones. They’re very long! Because they’re inanimate, they don’t know what you need. A template won’t know that step 5 is going to be a real challenge for your racist finance department. What happens if your leaders skim the template and decide the process won’t work for your company? You may not even get to see step 5 in action.

what you can do instead

Adapt other people’s solutions to meet your needs. Sometimes this means using guides that are relevant to your industry. Most often it means taking the basic concepts and applying them in different ways.

Invent invent invent. We need to be generating new solutions to undo our racist past, present, and future. This means diversifying your organization and empowering them to make real change. This means taking a hard look at your systemic issues and committing to fix them.

Hire experts. So many people think that when it comes to their antiracism practice, they can go it alone. Others think that if they commit with sincerity to antiracism that the answers will come. A company may hire a DEI expert to join their staff and expect improvements to flow from them like water. Those staff members are often bogged down by hierarchy and entrenched power. This is especially true when we ask them to make fundamental changes to the company culture.

I’ve seen the barriers that go up within a system, even for people who know what they were doing. We need to treat antiracism practice like we do any other skill. We must bring in people who know what they’re doing and cede real power to them.

you can’t truly know a system until you try to unfuck it

The reality is that racism and capitalism have twined together from the very beginning. There may be no template to end racism because there’s no template to end capitalism. We don’t know how to do that yet. But make no mistake, there are paths forward. We will have to move slowly, frustratingly, until we generate the momentum we need to keep moving.

There is no template, not yet. Our experiences will help create the stories that others can draw from. The template that will work best for you is the one that you, your colleagues, and your community create together.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]