Understanding racism: Expanding our awareness with Dr. Deborah L. Plummer
Whether we realize it or not, racism affects everyone. As many of us take the time to educate ourselves, self-reflect, and begin the process of unlearning, we must also consider how racism manifests across society, organizations, and in our personal lives.
At EF Education First, we work every day to help people better understand one another, which is why we are committed to improving Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging across our organization. As we continue our work to drive change at EF and be better allies for our colleagues, students, educators, and friends, we recognize that education is a critical piece of the equality puzzle.
EF recently hosted a virtual conversation for its U.S. staff with our external learning partner, Dr. Deborah L. Plummer, Ph.D., to help attendees dive deeper into the critical topics of racism and allyship. Dr. Plummer is an accomplished psychologist, university professor, author, and speaker on topics central to racial equality, inclusion, and mutual respect. As learning partners, EF and Dr. Plummer have created a supportive system through which both she and the EF community can learn from one another, test ideas, and uncover new ways of thinking.
Her session focused on understanding basic forms of racism and how they interplay; identifying how these forms show up in practices, policies, and everyday interactions; and inspiring attendees to have enlightened, productive conversations about race to build a more inclusive society.
“We have this sense of urgency to treat race relations as something to be feared, as something we need to treat with force,” said Dr. Plummer. “We should see racism as a challenging opportunity to learn new things, change our thinking, and acquire new skills to navigate our increasingly multiracial world.”
To help us understand how racism manifests, Dr. Plummer walked attendees through a matrix that explained “-isms,” or destructive attitudes, belief systems, actions, or practices that are attached to the expression of human differences, such as ageism, sexism, and religionism.
“These systems stay in place because we see them every day. We don’t recognize how they’re actually an interlocking system with floating boundaries, which leads to them becoming normalized in society,” explained Dr. Plummer. “Behavior sometimes helps us recognize intent; if I tell you something bothers me and you continue to do it, I might question your intent. But intention doesn’t always mitigate impact.”
Dr. Plummer also explained how we can counter common race-related deflections (e.g., “Well, some of my friends are…,” “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” “It’s just a few bad apples”); how to correct unintentional behaviors; how to speak with family, friends, or colleagues with views different than our own; and how to address mistakes we’ve made in the past.
EF staff’s takeaways following the session reflect optimism and a desire to impact change:
“Keep reading, keep talking, keep challenging yourself, and keep questioning your assumptions about race. We have a natural tendency towards ‘tribalism’ and seek experiences with those who are, in large part, just like us. The only way to move away from that paradigm is to challenge it and question it.” — Daryl
“I was very heartened to see that it’s very possible to have respectful, helpful discourse about such a sensitive subject when people are knowingly and intentionally engaged in the conversation. It goes back to the core EF mission of breaking down barriers that divide us and opening the world through education.” – Jason
“What struck me the most about Dr. Plummer is her ability to explain difficult matters simply. I have a much better understanding of the different kinds of racism and how they appear in our society and everyday lives. I also learned how to navigate difficult discussions around this topic with the people close to me.” – SB
“The more we give shared language and understanding to the policies and systems that are examples of covert racism in our society, the more it moves to the overt side and the easier it is for us to call it out and break it down.” – Anonymous
“For me, the biggest takeaways were the notions that racism is determined more by impact rather than intent and that, as humans, we tend to see change as a threat to be feared, as opposed to a challenge to be mastered. Both of these statements really resonated with me as I continue to acknowledge and work on my own biases, leverage my own privilege, and elevate my advocacy and allyship.” – Desirae
“Debbie’s -isms matrix was a new way to understand racism (and other -isms) that I think can really give people, myself included, the context to inform real action and change.” – John
“Racism exists and persists, and Black people in this country understand its reality in our everyday life,” said Dr. Plummer. “Many of us aspire to change our thinking, but we can’t do so without understanding the policies, systems, and practices that have brought us to this point. A commitment to educating ourselves will move us forward.”
For more information about Dr. Plummer, her writing, her reading list, the -isms matrix, and other resources, please visit www.dlplummer.com.