Unlearning as a Part of MBA Education – Challenging Internalized White Supremacy Culture in Business and Social Impact

July 2020. This post was written by Elizabeth Towell, CASE Fellow and Duke MBA Class of 2021

In the last few months, increasing media attention on police brutality and systemic racism has prompted a long overdue wake-up call for many leaders. We are collectively acknowledging racism baked into institutions, policies, and company cultures, creating an unprecedented opportunity for systemic transformation.

I am grateful that my education at Fuqua, particularly through opportunities at CASE, has given me tools for navigating this moment. In the article below, I share how working with CASE helped me unlock some of my own internalized beliefs and how I am changing myself and my actions in response. This is not perfect or exhaustive, but just a single story – open to feedback and dialogue.

Many social outcomes (both positive and negative) are the result of systemic racism and not simply individual achievement or failure.

Before our Fuqua student team began our independent study supporting the Culinary Femme Collective last fall, CASE Senior Fellow for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness Aliyah Abdur-Rahman encouraged the student team to attend the Racial Equity Institute’s Groundwater Training, which provides an introductory overview of systemic racism and the “white advantage” across almost all measures of economic and social outcomes – including incarceration rates, maternal mortality, hiring, nutrition, and others. This training demonstrated the cracks in the meritocratic narrative of this country, sharing evidence describing just how hard Black people and other People of Color have to work to still receive sub-par compensation. For example, identical resumes with Black and Asian sounding names are less likely to get callbacks than “whitened” resumes.

Aliyah also presented her own research, which explains why social impact work done for communities of color often fails. She explained why work done for others by those who are not actually impacted, particularly by white people, actually often does great harm. Aliyah introduced us to alternative models – in which social impact work is led by the impacted community. She connected us with Communities in Partnership, led by Camryn Smith, a Black female organizer from East Durham who is actively working to improve housing affordability, economic opportunity, leadership development, and other factors of the holistic health and well-being of the community.

I will not speak for the other white students, but I will say that, for me, a lot of what we learned from Aliyah and Camryn was new and uncomfortable information. Of course, I was aware of overt racism, and I was even aware that white privilege was something I had. However, there are many levels of awareness that inspire different kinds of action or inaction.

In our first meeting with Aliyah and Camryn, I said, “wow, this project is just what is needed to inspire entrepreneurship in East Durham!” Aliyah shared with me that there was already extensive Black entrepreneurship in East Durham and the idea that there was not was a false assumption driven by dominant white narratives. In fact, Black Americans are two times more likely to start a business, according to research done by Duke faculty member William Darity. Durham was also a historic hub for Black-owned business and upbuilding – before Hayti was demolished to make way for Highway 147 in the 1960s.

In my statement, I gave life to a false and problematic story that is told in this country – that the outcomes achieved by Black and Indigenous Americans are only the result of their own actions. Of course, if you had framed it that way and asked me if I believed that narrative, I would have vehemently denied it. However, in making the statement, my unconscious beliefs surfaced.

Social impact solutions too often center white narratives instead of growing from communities most impacted.

Over the course of the last two semesters, my colleagues and I invariably continued to make these kinds of mistakes, at least once a meeting. There are many tropes that ascribe blame to people rather than systems and histories and that assume there is a “right” way to be. This work has opened my eyes to see how many of these tropes are actually covert white narratives that I had heard and internalized. These white narratives implicitly assume that ideologies, practices, and social constructions based on European history and culture are universal. They constantly emerge across campus and in social impact work more broadly:

  • “We should do a design thinking workshop to find a solution for them!”
  • “If they only knew how to ____.”
  •  “They don’t have a history of entrepreneurship in the community, so we should _____.”
  • “Diversity programs give students an unfair advantage.”

These statements assume complete personal responsibility for outcomes, while completely ignoring systemically and historically unequal distribution of resources and political power. They also imply that we, as business school students, think we have better ideas about what will create a positive social impact than the individuals who will actually utilize the investment.

Aliyah helped me see how dominant social impact narratives pathologize people, leading to interventions that focus on treating symptoms rather than learning histories and treating root causes – namely redistributing power and resources. This approach suppresses the truth that Black and Indigenous communities have been robbed of their wealth and well-being historically, and that institutions, systems and individuals continue to try to police Black and Indigenous life and success. Colonialism is at the root of most social inequality and ecological degradation today – meaning racism is also a key driving factor. It is impossible to do effective social impact work without an explicitly anti-racist lens.

Now, when I think of or hear others propose solutions like, “We should teach a healthy cooking class,” I ask questions like:

  • Who determines what food is healthy?
  • Why is the Mediterranean diet considered the pinnacle of health? 
  • How do our monoculture, industrialized food system and the appropriation of lands contribute to accessibility of “healthy” ingredients?
  • Do we think that health outcomes are a result of dietary choices or something else?
  • How is the problem we’re trying to solve with this solution connected to system racism, poverty, and ecological devastation?

White fragility impacts the extent to which white social impact leaders are able to engage with systemic racism – the root cause of many social impact challenges.

After Aliyah called my attention to the racism baked into my statement, I spent the rest of the day spiraling in my guilt, feeling that I was a bad person for saying a harmful (racist) thing. It is necessary to name, acknowledge, and address this white fragility, because it actively perpetuates systemic, institutional, and individual racism. Emotionally avoiding responsibility and culpability for the impact of well-intentioned actions leads to repeating problematic behaviors.

White fragility includes the fear of being imperfect, urgency to “fix” things and avoid messiness or conflict, defensiveness against “attack,” and either/or thinking. I encourage reading this article on white supremacy culture to understand different ways that suppression of discomfort perpetuates oppression. For me, my deep fear of doing harm or being wrong had kept me from genuinely engaging in the discomfort and ego work involved in understanding and dismantling racism in my immediate sphere of influence.

I was forced to acknowledge that I had a problem – that I was speaking and doing from a place of internalized white supremacy culture. Coming to terms with my whiteness involved acknowledging the damage that I could cause just by believing and acting on what I was trained to believe. A flood of memories started to flow through me – like when I told my friend in high school that she should go to the University of Virginia instead of Spelman College, a historically black college or university (HBCU). I felt immense guilt with each of these memories.

Thankfully, I was also going to therapy at CAPS last year and was working to understand the root causes of my behaviors and beliefs. I learned that most of what we believe about ourselves and the world is taught to us by our caretakers, our early life experiences, and the messages delivered by our media, educational institutions, and culture. I participated in group therapy, and got to hear the inner monologues and experiences of a diverse group of people. This mental health work gave me an extreme level of compassion for myself and others. As I began to understand that we are all shaped by our surroundings, I was able to meet myself where I was and find the strength to be better.

I am the product of white supremacy culture and that impacts my leadership, worldview, and social impact lens. Choosing a different frame requires continuous unlearning.

The work of dismantling internalized white supremacy culture is often called unlearning. For me, understanding the local history of racial inequity through working on the Durham Food History project, participating in caucused conversations on race as part of the Gracious Plenty Dinner Series, and doing deeper research on the inequity in the food system for the second semester of work with the Culinary Femme Collective, was part of the process of critiquing the mental models I had about how business works. It is an ongoing process, because each day I learn new things – some of which I need to critique and unlearn.

Just last week, I was meeting with a Durham community organizer who is creating a tiered pricing model – to make products accessible to everyone, while maximizing profit to fund capacity and infrastructure building. I shared that, based on what I had learned in marketing, it was best to charge a high price as a baseline, and provide a discount code to some. However, he shared with me that seeing that high price might cause members of his community to feel that the space was not accessible to them – causing it to become less inclusive and more populated by people with more money. What I was suggesting was going to create a white, privileged space – and prioritized profit and white comfort over accessibility and inclusivity. Thankfully, he challenged me.

I share these stories to explain why a deep and ongoing anti-racist approach is vitally important for anyone who is interested in social impact work. Most Fuqua students have had extensive formal education, and have learned what good, useful, professional, and impactful means within systems that are inherently problematic and racist. The foundation of dominant American institutions, laws, economic organization, and pervasive ideology is oppression of Black and Indigenous people, hierarchical systems of labor exploitation, and extraction from the earth. The preservation of this oppression and marginalization starts with the conditioning of people to perpetuate it – often in ways that initially feel invisible or elusive to white people.

One takeaway I have had from all of this learning is that it is tempting to look for quick fixes, numbers to call, and organizations to donate to. These are vitally important actions, especially as we address the human rights crisis of police brutality in the country and respond to the ongoing pandemic. This moment encouraged me to provide feedback on Durham’s budget to reduce police spending, to make donations to the Thriving Community Fund to keep local businesses afloat, and to share what I was learning on social media. However, I know that these actions will not change the fact that I live in a racialized society. As a result, it is my responsibility for the rest of my life, including as a social impact practitioner, to operate in a way that acknowledges, disrupts, and dismantles racism – starting with myself.