Perception Vs. Reality: Seeing through racialized lenses

eyeHow to Create a Plan for Racial Inclusiveness: One Nonprofit Story [Vol.2 | 12-4-13]

By Kathleen LaTosch

On November, 18, 2013, video clips of certain Grosse Pointe Park, MI police officers were discovered.  The clips showed the officers ordering men of color, who had been pulled over, to perform demeaning acts such as singing and dancing on demand in front of the officers.  The videos were then allegedly shared by the officers with other officers on the force over personal cell phones and emails.  When a local reporter came across the videos and contacted the police department, the Captain insisted that such an incident could not and would not occur in his department.

After verification of the authenticity of the clips, the story aired on a November 19th Craig Fahle Show on American Public Radio where online comments about the now-public video clips were discussed.  What was most striking was that the online comments did not uniformly condemn the officers’ actions; rather there was a strong and vocal collection of commenters who supported the officers and their conduct.  Comments such as “they [the men of color] didn’t look too offended, some even looked like they were in on the joke” or “I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be racist…” were prevalent.

This “blind eye” is a common theme and frequent observation among those engaged in racial inclusivity work.  The majority population often minimizes the experiences of racist treatment directed at people of color or even expresses disbelief in a person’s experience of racism or racist treatment.  We’ve seen this play out numerous times over the past year across the United States.  In November, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen was perplexed at how people found his statement of ‘interracial couples triggering a “gag reflex” among conservatives’ to be racist.  In October, numerous stories headlined individuals dressing up in blackface for Halloween, all of whom failed to acknowledge the negative impact upon people of color or the history of degradation from which the practice of “blackface” stemmed.  And most recently, after years of ignoring and overlooking allegations of racist “shop and frisk” practices, several department stores, including both Macy’s and Barney’s, were forced to acknowledge such practices after being caught on film.

These examples all highlight situations where the offender does not recognize an activity as racist but where the receiver of the treatment does.  I remember the first time a black staffer at Affirmations told me s/he never felt taken seriously by white people at the center.  I asked for examples and heard things like, “I walk into a room and am completely ignored,” or “no one even makes eye contact with me” or “one time, when I was new on staff, I was even asked to leave a table because I was perceived as ‘not belonging.’”

And then another African American staff member shared a very similar experience.  And then another.  And then, only when I knew what I was looking for, did I see it happen.

It was an awakening for me as a white staff member of a historically and predominantly white organization.  This disbelief or inability to see the experience of people of color is what keeps many organizations paralyzed from becoming more inclusive.  This disbelief was at the root of staff leaving Affirmations in 2006, citing a hostile work environment for people of color.

Once those staff members left, it was up to those left behind to make sense of what had happened and make sure it did not happen again.  Very quickly, a clear distinction and division in perceptions emerged.  There were three primary perspectives among Affirmations’ board and staff, a mainly white group of people, about how to interpret what had happened.

First, there was a strong group who did not believe the situation had any racial characteristics at all, other than the fact that those who left the organization happened to be African American.  When local community members rallied around those who had left, validated their experiences and called upon Affirmations to change, this strong group suggested they were a small yet vocal minority  that did not represent the opinions of the larger African American community.  While this group expressed agreement that the HR situation had not gone well, they suggested that perhaps those African American staff members had been overly sensitive and quick to pull “the race card.”  A different perspective of remaining board and staff agreed with those that left, saw staff treatment as inequitable, and either worked to make change or also eventually left the organization.  A third perspective was akin to a deer caught in the headlights, where people stayed stuck in the middle and remained silent on the controversy.  Regardless of where people stood, it was clear that change was needed.

The organization decided to form an internal Race Relations Team to get to the root of the problem and make recommendations for change.  At an early meeting in February 2007, three main perspectives regarding potential root causes of the situation were identified:

  1. It’s not racist – it’s all perception: the organization is not racist, intentionally or otherwise, but others perceive it as racist so we need to change community perceptions;
  2. Yep, it’s racist: the organization operates with intentional or unintentional racism which is combined with a disinterest in changing; and
  3. We don’t know what we don’t know: the organization takes actions that are perceived as racist by others, without intending to and without realizing their offensive nature.

This perception vs. reality conversation was pivotal and decisions could not be made without processing perspectives from all three camps.  Another critical conversation point came up around intentions.  The three perspectives all clearly articulated whether or not intention was a part of the equation.   In fact, there was a deeply emotional reaction for white people if they were regarded as acting intentionally racist.  Further conversation included questions such as: 1) are we racist?  And 2) if we are, is it intentional or unintentional?  And lastly 3) if unintentional, does that still make us racist and what should we do about it?  It was important to discuss the relevancy of intentional vs. unintentional racism for members of the organization and to understand that regardless of intention, the impact upon people of color remained.  It was through these open and honest conversations about intentionality and impact that the team was able to move forward and make recommendations to address the concerns.

After exploring these perspectives and gathering input from staff, board and volunteers via anonymous surveys, the leadership at Affirmations decided that it did not matter if a hostile working environment existed or if it was perception alone, whether it was intentional or unintentional.  The fact that people perceived Affirmations as having non-inclusive (at best) or racially inequitable (at worst) policies and practices was incentive enough to invest in making change.

While these questions may seem somewhat elementary to the experienced diversity and inclusion practitioner, they were critical process points for a historically white nonprofit human service organization struggling to understand the nature of its own lack of inclusion.  The reality vs. perception debate often had by people of color and white people, respectively, is a very real conversation and can be a critical step for an organization to successfully begin effective inclusion work.  The intentionality of racist behavior and practices is likewise a critical discussion point for white people.  It is through these conversations that a deeper understanding and awareness of the complexities of institutional and structural racism is revealed and opens the door for deeper and longer-lasting systemic change.

Read Part 3 here.


Author’s Note:

For readers interested in learning more about the concept of unintentional racism, the diversity and inclusion field now has several articles under the search terms of “unintentional bias” or “implicit bias” that explores the neuroscience of racism as wells as other forms of unintentional bias usually held by those with a majority or mainstream identification such as white, Christian, adult, able-bodied, etc.  Staff training is now available to help organizations recognize these biases and become more aware of them to support an inclusive workplace culture.

Read more on this concept here:

Sharp Racial Divisions in Reactions to Brown, Garner Decisions, Pew Research Center, 12/8/2014.

Whites Think Discrimination Against Whites is a Bigger Problem Than Bias Against Blacks, Washington Post, Michael Fletcher, 10/8/14.

This is one post in a multi-part story documenting one historically white organization’s journey toward becoming racially inclusive.  The series seeks to document the challenges and successes faced along the way in an effort to provide a learning tool for other nonprofit organizations who wish to do the same.  For a complete copy of Affirmations’ “Blueprint for Change” visit and click on About Us.

Kathleen LaTosch at NCRC Annual Conference 2012 
Kathleen LaTosch is a consultant specializing in diversity and inclusion planning for nonprofit organizations.  She worked at Affirmations, Michigan’s largest LGBT organization, from 2002-2011 and served as Chief Administrative Officer from 2007-2011.  While there, she was responsible for facilitating a broad-based racial diversity and inclusion initiative.  For more information about Kathleen’s work and availability, email her at klatosch at