Sexism, Racism and the Dynamics of Power

Four men whose careers have been disgraced by sexual harassment episodes, clockwise from top left: Matt Lauer (, Harvey Weinstein (Business Insider),
Judge Roy Moore (NBC news), Senator Al Franken (ABC news)

A lot continues to be written and discussed about racism, defined as “the belief, often accompanied with behavior, that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” And with the latest slew of sexual harassment charges against well known business, political and entertainment leaders, sexism is once more on top of minds. A good definition of sexism is “attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of gender roles, including discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex or gender, as in restricted job opportunities, especially such discrimination directed against women.”

But the main other ingredient that is critical to discussing both racism and sexism is the “power dynamic.” The real problem is when people in power use that power to degrade and unfairly treat either individuals or entire groups of people.

Let’s first look at sexism and sexual harassment. I would assert that if an entry level or lower salaried man sexually harassed a co-worker or client, they would immediately be fired. But when it is senior executive or top performer in an organization, so often the violation is minimized, excused or never addressed. The Human Resources professional who receives an allegation of sexual misconduct by a senior executive may be afraid to investigate. They may believe that the senior executive could quickly negatively impact their career or job. They say, “We can’t go after that executive – he is far too powerful.” Or when the top salesman makes a sexual move on a younger junior colleague in the office, the excuse is, “Well, he is the top performer, we need him.”

Drastic actions must be taken to address sexual misconduct by those in power by boards of directors and the Human Resources profession. See my blog, “Five Provocative Recommendations to Address Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.”

Second, let’s look a racism, especially institutional racism, which “occurs specifically in institutions such as governmental bodies, corporations and universities where systemic policies and practices within the institution have the effect of disadvantaging certain racial or ethnic groups.” See my blog on personal and institutional racism that includes examples.

The disproportionate arrest and incarceration of black men indicates that institutional racism may very well be a part of our justice system. (Photo courtesy American Renaissance)

In this case, it is not one individual in power exploiting their position to mistreat another, but instead it is societal power. In our nation, where the white majority has been in control of almost all of our institutions, it is easy to set up systems and structures that disadvantage minority populations. And this can include deliberate institutional racism (like the Jim Crow laws of the past) or unintentional racism due to lack of awareness of the needs of other groups. Therefore, it is critical for the majority group in power to have open and honest dialogues with all constituent populations in setting up systems and structures, and to continually educate themselves on all forms of diversity.

Hopefully with deliberate, thoughtful, strong actions we can continue to progress in addressing racism and sexism, and hold leaders accountable who abuse their power. This will lead to a stronger nation and economy where everyone is valued, treated fairly and can contribute their very best.

The Justice Theater Project – Societal Impact Through the Performing Arts

From “A Soldier’s Play,” a murder mystery set in a 1944 desegregated army base in Louisiana. (Photo Courtesy of The Justice Theater Project)

Recently I have been introduced to a special gem here in the Raleigh – Triangle NC area – The Justice Theater Project (JTP.) Their tagline is “Celebrating thought-provoking, entertaining and inspiring theater since 2004.” The JTP has produced quality entertainment that addresses a wide range of issues of social concern as well as giving area non-profit groups free admission to shows and providing several youth summer summer theater camps with tuition assistance so all can participate!

As a diversity consultant, I feel the performing arts can be a powerful medium to address issues such a racism, homophobia, aging, economic inequality and more. Sometimes people need to be transported outside themselves and their daily lives to see something on stage or hear something in music that can communicate to them much better than a written editorial or a political debate.

Captain Charles Taylor was quite displeased when African-American Captain Richard Davenport was sent to Louisiana to investigate the murder of a black officer. (Photo courtesy of The Justice Theater Project)

Recently, I published the blog reviewing the book “Divided We Stand – Racism in America from Jamestown to Trump,” which chronicles the many forms of racism present within the USA from our founding days up to current times. I got plenty of comments debating if racism truly exists today in the US and asking me about racism against whites, as well as calling me a few names and using cuss words. Perhaps if some of these detractors saw JTP’s latest play “ A Soldier’s Play,” a murder mystery set in a 1944 desegregated army base, they may think differently about racism, internalized oppression and white privilege.

Blogs I published earlier this year about diversity and inclusion being promoted through the performing arts include:
“Promoting Diversity and Inclusion Through Bluegrass Music,” about an innovative annual concert called “Shout and Shine” of diverse Bluegrass musicians. This celebration came about in 2016 as a direct response to North Carolina’s oppressive HB2 “bathroom bill” discriminating against our LGBT citizens.
“A great diversity experience – Theater Breaking Through Barriers” about enjoying an off-Broadway play in New York City which featured actors with a wide range of disabilities.

The JTP’s current 2017 – 2018 season is titled “Equity and Identity” and will address issues such as racism, homophobia and classism. Though my diversity consulting practices covers all areas of diversity, my deep area of expertise is LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender), so I am looking forward to their February play “Bent” which is set in 1940’s occupied Berlin and confronts the persecution of the marginalized, particularly homosexuals.

Please seriously considering supporting the work this wonderful organization does in our community through sponsorship or becoming a season subscriber – details on the JTP website.

And if you are one of my blog readers from outside the area, perhaps see if there is a similar theater company in your community, or perhaps consider starting one!