If we could accomplish black and white unity, we would become more sensitive to other identities | Exclusive interview with LaVanda Brown, YWCA Greater Charleston Executive Director, Part I

By Cristina Turcu Lugmayer

If we could accomplish black and white unity, we would become more sensitive to other identities | Exclusive interview with LaVanda Brown, YWCA Greater Charleston Executive Director, Part I

LaVanda Brown joined YWCA Greater Charleston in February 2016. Having over 35 years of experience, leadership, and a passion for serving others made her the perfect candidate for the position of Executive Director of this NGO working to eliminate racism, empower women and promote peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all. A passionate advocate for many causes including gender equality, diversity, and racial equity, and a strong ally of under-resourced teens and homeless populations, she envisions a world where differences are not just tolerated but celebrated.

“The mission of YWCA.GC is one that is very much in line with my personal mission of empowering women and celebrating differences,” she says.

DevelopmentAid: Can you define racism and share how this could be addressed in American society?

LaVanda Brown: One of the approaches is to clearly understand that racism in and of itself is a social construct. It is not physiological, it is not based in biology, there’s no scientific data behind it, it has been made up as a social construct. We are not different from a scientific aspect, we are much more the same. The intention of this false hierarchy created in the United States was to segregate and separate.

To address this, firstly, I think we have to have the awareness that there are no underlying conditions for racial inequity. It’s easy to treat people in a way that they are lesser, it’s harder to understand the historical background of doing this.

Secondly, we have to form relationships with people who would appear to be different from us. Once we relate to people who are from different groups, we can see that we’re more alike than we are different.

Thirdly, start challenging each other, have the so-called “courageous conversations/uncomfortable conversations”. If I have a relationship with a white woman and I may say something about the racist lines that she would perceive to be offensive, I’d have an open approach: “I’m sorry – what did I do? Tell me more please”.

We’ll have to get to the point where we are comfortable being uncomfortable. We also have to be brave to do this. Bravery is not the lack of fear but it’s doing it anyway.

In the U.S. particularly, people are divided into “black or white”; race is such play, such an important factor. We often can’t overcome the “black or white” because that’s what we’ve been taught in the playground. It also goes beyond us accepting other people, it is embodied into the system. Disabled people face daily challenges, if they are black or brown disabled then the outcomes are worse for them, it is harder for them to access services.

If we could accomplish black and white unity, we would become more sensitive to other identities than ours. Generally, it is also about respect.

DevelopmentAid: What are the institutional and structural forms of racism?

LaVanda Brown: The inception of American society was established by diverse groups such as Italians, the Irish, the British, the Jewish community, migrants, etc. – basically people with light skin. If they had classified themselves as different races, they would not be the majority. In order to create the largest group, gain more power and control – they incentivized people to check the “white” box. The concept of racism in and of itself was literally created to make sure that the black and brown people didn’t step above their socially lower level and were less in number. These tendencies transposed into structural and institutional systems so as to maintain the hierarchy, and thus – power.

Institutional and structural forms of racism are basically the same. It is a transitional terminology, almost like “Black/Brown” and “African American”.

When we talk about institutional and structural racism, we’re talking about things that are built into the foundation and the structure of a particular system. It will be easier to understand this through an example – the incarceration rates of black people in America. The percentage of Black Americans in the general U.S. population is approx. 13%, while they are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at nearly five times the rate of whites.

The Sentencing Project report cites a number of reasons for the racial disparity in U.S. prisons, such as the country’s history of white supremacy over blacks. This created a legacy of racial subordination which affects their criminal justice outcomes today. The report also claims that communities of color, especially black Americans, are negatively impacted by biased policies and practices, including police-citizen relations, pre-trial detention, the counting of a criminal record in sentencing, and unequal prosecution charging.

Another case is the higher number of black and brown women who die in childbirth or whose children die before they reach the age of one year. While the black infant mortality rate in the U.S. is 10.6 per 1,000 births, the white infant mortality rate is 4.5. It is not about poverty. If we look across the data, we’ll see that most of those women are educated, have access to medical services and are wealthy.

It is also not about race, it is about racism! If we had a more inclusive healthcare system, we would have a better healthcare system for the whole society.

These are just a few examples of how the approaches and attitudes are built into the structure of every system in the United States, not only prisons and healthcare! It’s housing, employment, and even the environment.

Photo Credit: YWCA Greater Charleston

DevelopmentAid: Which issues are the most alarming and/or have the highest negative impact on American society?

LaVanda Brown: We have to address all the systems at once. We can’t just restructure healthcare and think that it is going to improve education and housing. Addressing homelessness is not just about providing a house, but also providing education, training and employment opportunities, as well as access to medical, financial, and other relevant services.

If we close the gap in educational performance but don’t solve the problem of structural racism, the educational performance gap will re-emerge over time. Inequality in other systems would spread and recreate inequality in education. If a child’s parents are less likely to get jobs for which they are qualified, this means less income for the family which will affect the child’s education outcomes. Effective change must be based on an understanding of structural racism; it must use a multidimensional approach.

In my work, I am passionate about advocating for racial equity with the hospitals’ leadership, lawmakers, educators, and financial professionals simultaneously so that all of them engage in addressing this. But it is hard because people point their fingers at the other systems. They might say: “If they were more educated, they could qualify for better housing, or they could get a better job.”

When a mousetrap is built for only black mice, the white ones will inevitably get trapped too. When the system is designed to keep black and brown people at a lower level, white people will be impacted too. White is also a color and we all are in the same crayon box.

DevelopmentAid: I know your organization has specific training to address racial equity – the Racial Equity Institute (REI). Can you tell us more about this program?

LaVanda Brown: The Racial Equity Institute tackles the historical context of how and why racism was constructed through the Groundwater Approach. Moving away from personal biases, this workshop presents a historical, cultural, and structural analysis of racism. Using new methodologies, researchers have generated more evidence that systems cause inequity regardless of people’s behavior or culture. This is a critical point, given the common narratives that inequities are explained by cultural or behavioral differences.

In the United States, racism is believed to be a southern issue, a former slave-states issue, while, in fact, it is nationwide. The Racial Equity Institute trainers will pull data from everywhere in the country, from the Midwest to California, from Texas to Florida, to demonstrate that no matter where we are and no matter what system we assess, black and brown people are at the bottom of the outcome. Based on national data, they ascertain consistent inequity in healthcare, education, law enforcement, child welfare, and finance, to name a few.

REI also looks at other countries, where racism isn’t as prevalent, in order to emphasize that those countries are doing economically and socially better.

DevelopmentAid: How can we personally help to advance racial equity?

LaVanda Brown: Besides the above-mentioned personal relationships with people who are from different groups, we have to call out racial inequities when we see them, particularly white people have to call them out. It’s not okay to make racist comments behind someone’s back. Moreover, the only person who’s going to hear them is another white person. They’re not going to say it when the black or brown person is in the room, they’ll wait until she or he leaves.

It takes a white person to say: “Hey, that’s not okay!” If I, as a black person say this, I would be labeled as an angry black woman. It basically takes another peer to call that out.