Racism: Owning or denying our rank and power

I am a white privileged Jewish male on a committed journey of owning my racism, taking accountability for my behaviour and recognizing when I slip into racist thoughts, feelings and actions. I have lived most of my life in South Africa, with its brutal inhumane Apartheid regime. I journeyed into the new dawn of the Rainbow nation, to celebrate diversity and provide equality to all yet its entrenched roots of systemic and institutionalized racism, police brutality and unconscious white privilege live on. I still benefit from these forms of racism today. Mine is an ongoing committed quest to acknowledge how often I slip into unconscious blindness which is part my unearned rank and power of being white.

Exploring our relationship to our rank is central to leading effectively and humanely in the world. Rank is the experience of power or powerlessness which is earned or unearned. Those who have rank are usually unaware of it-they live their lives in mainstream roles. While those who don’t have rank (the marginal roles) are attuned to the poor use of rank by the mainstream and often feel powerless. This rank unconsciousness negatively harms relationships, organisations and environments. If I deny, ignore, or misuse my rank then I directly contribute to injustice, inequality, and the very root structure of racism in society. It is not something I can choose to be neutral about. I either have rank, acknowledge it and work to make a more just society, free from racism or I perpetuate the injustice and trauma of the past through my rank and power blindness. There is no room to sit on the fence. There is no fence! I am either actively committed to growing and learning about my rank and how to use it for the greater good or I am wandering around with unconscious rank hurting, harming and retraumatizing people who live with marginal ranks.

There are four types of rank, two external (social and structural) relating to how society is structured and two internal (psychological and spiritual) relating to our internal landscape. 

Social rank reflects how much power society bestows on me, such as race, gender, education, religion etc… By virtue of being a white heterosexual male I am handed ranks from society that I have not earned while a black, gay, woman is much more vulnerable and marginalised purely based on social rank.

Structural rank bestows power on institutions and people who enforce their policies, procedures and rules. Structural rank is often given to those who have social rank resulting in white men usually setting policy and making decisions. We need only look at the proportion of white men leading governments, companies, lobbying groups, and industries to recognize this insidious interrelationship. Structural rank can be difficult to engage with or dismantle given the powerful hidden ranks that pull the strings behind the scenes.

Psychological rank refers to how we feel about ourselves and our psychological wellbeing. If we have suffered from institutionalized racism, we are more likely to internally marginalize and retraumatize ourselves even when the abuser is no longer around. Therefore, activist leaders, like Steve Biko and Malcolm X emphasised black people growing a healthy black consciousness from within to overcome the racist system. As white people, who have unearned rank and benefitted from institutionalized racism, we have been taught consciously and unconsciously that we are superior and better than black people, which results in our internal confidence and sense of wellbeing usually being higher than black people. In addition, moving from the focus on race, we see that being raised in a loving, caring home provides more unearned psychological rank and self esteem than being brought up in an abusive home with parents who trample the child’s psychological safety and wellbeing into the ground daily.

Spiritual rank refers to our connection to something greater than ourselves, something that gives our lives greater meaning and purpose. People often connect to spiritual rank through religious practice, their faith, or a commitment to spiritual teachings that shape their character, values and how they lead themselves and others. People who choose to numb their pain, trauma and suffering turn away from spiritual rank through drugs, alcohol, abuse etc…

People who exhibit spiritual rank tend to come from marginalized experiences such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King as they needed to dig deeper to find meaning and purpose due to the brutal systems that tried everything to destroy them and their people. These people found deeper spiritual connection to rise above and ultimately helped bring about change. While these are examples of famous leaders, we all know and recognize people who have spiritual rank by their presence, the way they carry themselves and the light that shines in their eyes.

Turning our attention to anti-black racism and systemic violence in South Africa and America, its critical to consider our reactions to the brutal murders of Collins Khoza and George Floyd, the racist behaviour of Amy Cooper in central park and countless other examples from the past and present. To reflect on how rank perpetuates and entrenches reactions across a spectrum so that we move away from blaming the looters, defending the right wing, attacking politicians, or consenting through silence. It’s vital to look in the mirror, to own our ranks and acknowledge, listen and learn from those who have been oppressed and abused for centuries, so we can create a more inclusive and just society for all. Only then will the rotting seeds of racism be uprooted and be replaced by the heartbeat of understanding, respect, and love for all. Only then will we move more consciously and deliberately towards celebrating the WE of our collective humanity in the spirit of Ubuntu.

The time to own our ranks well has come. The time to act is now.

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