Why are we so confused about racism?

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March 18, 2023

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I don’t particularly like talking about racism. It hardly ever leads to a desired outcome. A strong word like racism triggers so many emotions. It opens up scars of people like myself who have experienced racism and brings up defensive barriers in others to prove (to themselves) that they are not racist. All these emotions make racism a very confusing topic with all sorts of nuances and complexities.

“Racism is sometimes unintended…but it still hurts. Racism is sometimes intended to sting…but if you repeat what was said it sounds like an ordinary remark.”

Sergio Panday

When we talk about racism, we often end up talking about individual incidents. About the few bad apples that still exist. About support lines as solutions to racism, so that these individual incidents can be dealt with. On the other hand, we hear terminology like institutional racism or that we are part of an inherently racist society. This ends up being met with a lot of resistance because now it sounds like every white person is being called a racist.

So how can we make sense of this confusing topic?

Let’s start by debunking a few misconceptions:

Seeing colour is not racism
A typical, well-intended response is: “I am not racist; I don’t even see colour“. Newsflash: we all see colour. Seeing colour is not racism! Our brains are wired to predict someone’s character, someone’s potential behaviour, someone’s trustworthiness. We call these people skills. We already predict someone’s background, social class and level of intelligence, all based on a look. Clothes, hairstyle and physical features like – whether we like it or not – skin colour, all play an essential role in this. It’s factual.

Obviously, all this can create problems as well (more on that later), but seeing colour can be a good thing if we approach it in the right way. We are so used to the logic that seeing our commonalities is good – it means we are building bridges – and seeing our differences is bad – it means we are creating distance. But there is also so much power in differences. If we are the same, there is little to learn from each other. If we are the same, there is little additional value as a collective. Different life experiences lead to different perspectives. If we explore our differences as learning opportunities, we become better individuals and a better collective.

Racism is a lot more than the use of the N-word
We often think about racism as the racist slurs that are used in football stadiums or racist remarks that pop up in exposed text messages. Those types of incidents make for juicy headlines, but in a professional environment, it is much more nuanced than this. Ethnic professionals are getting feedback that they are not a good fit with the team, they are either considered aggressive or not assertive enough, they are either considered distant or not professional enough or they are either considered to be trying too hard or not trying hard enough – basically, they are just not right. Now individually, this type of feedback may be fully justified, but when it happens structurally, it’s a problem.

Where it gets more complex is that this behaviour is primarily subconscious. We all know the research about non-Western names on resumes not getting invited for job interviews1. Those are most likely not the result of “some racist” sitting in HR taking out all non-Western names from the applications list. More likely, these are subconscious gut-feel decisions about fit in the corporate culture that are hard to pinpoint individually2. Where a Western name may get the benefit of the doubt, a non-Western name may get the hindrance of the doubt. And on a bigger scale: where a Western name can be mediocre to succeed, a non-Western name needs to be exceptional to succeed.

Sergio Panday, Co-Founder of Roots Inspire

Sergio Panday, Co-Founder of Roots Inspire

Digging deeper

A big eye opener for me about racism comes from my experience living in Singapore. There are not many Black people in Singapore, but our collective experience was a very positive one. I was never looked down upon, there were no weird “assumptions” and I was always treated like a well-respected professional. Then I realised why that was. When Singaporeans come across Black people, those Black people are either successful expats or wealthy tourists. Singaporeans don’t watch many American TV shows with Black criminals being chased by the police, so they have a very different dataset than most in the West.

Lack of exposure
All this goes back to how our brain is wired to make predictions about the people we interact with – our brains base our prediction model on the dataset we have. For example, if I had many racist experiences with white people in my life, my brain would tell me to be careful around white people. Similarly, if I see many Black criminals in the media, my brain would tell me to be careful around Black people. The problem is that for many people, their dataset is minimal. In our social circles, we often navigate to people with similar backgrounds. It’s where we connect more easily, where we share an experience, where we feel more comfortable. If we have limited exposure to people with different backgrounds, those limited experiences will carry a lot of weight. We may even base our assumptions on what we hear from others or what we read in the papers. Even if we have a few different experiences, our brain will initially tell us that those are just the exceptions. We need a much bigger dataset of experiences to truly change our prediction model.

Translating this to the corporate world, means that if we don’t see enough ethnic corporate leaders, our brains will not automatically see ethnic leadership talent as potential leaders. Seeing a few exceptions won’t change that yet, but seeing a large group of ethnic corporate leaders will start to tell our brains that this is normal.

Power structures
Talking about incidents of racism is like talking about the symptoms of a disease without looking at the underlying cause. Treating racism as “a few bad apples” (e.g., by introducing support lines for racism as the main solution) is treating the symptoms without dealing with the cause. So what is the cause?

So far, we have discussed how a minimal dataset can subconsciously cause our brains to make the wrong predictions (i.e., bias). But bias and racism are not the same thing. The key difference that is the root of all evil: the power structures associated with race/ethnicity. You see, we all have bias, but when there are power structures in play or even perceived to be in play, the racist incidents start to show3.

An example: you may have heard of the term “Karen”, which stems from a video where a white woman (potentially named Karen) called the cops on a Black man and started acting like she was being threatened. She was clearly in the wrong and was not threatened by the Black gentleman at all, but she knew she had power over him in this situation and the police would take the word of a white woman over that of a Black man. 

Power structures can take many forms. In corporate life, a power structure may be the perception of a glass ceiling if you are not part of the dominant ethnic group. Or where the boss loves talking about his skiing trips, and you are the only one that cannot join the conversation. Or where the team goes out for beers, but you don’t drink because of your religion. Or even where you are the boss, but the gossip is that you only got the role because you are an ethnic minority.

The term white privilege is a reference to that power structure, the term institutional racism is another reference to that power structure. It doesn’t mean that all white people are privileged, and it definitely doesn’t mean that all white people are racist, but it does mean that there are hidden power structures in play (or even perceived to be in play) that have a significant impact on people’s experience.  

Power structures are the reason why positive discrimination is not discrimination4. The reason why Black comedians can joke about how white people can’t dance, but white comedians cannot joke about how Black people are lazy – both stereotypes are untrue, but one can be laughed off, while the other is hurtful, because of the power structure that still exists. 

And now, the solution

It’s very deliberate that we don’t focus on racism with Roots Inspire. It would put ethnic professionals in a victim role, and that’s not what we are about. Being the victim takes away your powers; it means that you have to depend on others to solve your situation. Instead, the Roots Inspire programme focuses on our strengths as a group and how we can bring those to the table as authentic leaders. 

Although we don’t focus on racism in our programme, Roots Inspire is most definitely part of the solution. We showcase ethnic corporate role models as the norm. Not a few exceptions, but more than 75 already, that are part of our mentor panel and accessible to up-and-coming ethnic talent. Our Leadership Catalyst programme helps organisations break any power structures that may exist. Increasing representation at leadership levels, not as a one-off exercise, but by creating a sustainable, ethnically diverse leadership pipeline.

Message to ethnic professionals
It’s undeniable that some are running their race barefoot while others are running with spikes. If you are the type to complain on the sidelines about how life is not fair and you are the victim, then what we are doing with Roots Inspire is not for you. But if you are out there running barefoot and kicking ass, then we are here to help you win. We teach you how to run your own race and use what you’ve got to your advantage. We teach you how to race off-track on the sand and on the concrete, where those with spikes won’t even know how to run. We teach you how to win in life, so you can in turn inspire others.

Message to allies
Please don’t see us as victims; we are far from it! Instead, see our resilience, our adaptability and our different life experiences as valuable skills we bring to the table. Expand your dataset and make the effort to engage with those with diverse backgrounds. Understanding that there are a lot of scars involved around this topic, explains why you may get an unexpected reaction. You may not see the power structures, but that does not mean someone else does not experience them.


  1. Minority ethnic Britons face ‘shocking’ job discrimination (2019)
  2. Employment Discrimination: The Role of Implicit Attitudes, Motivation, and a Climate for Racial Bias (May 2005) Journal of Applied Psychology
  3. Ethnic minority professionals’ experiences with subtle discrimination in the workplace (2011)
  4. The shackled runner: time to rethink positive discrimination? (2010) Work, Employment & Society

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Right and wrong in the race discussion
The odds of wasted talent
Expat life: So where do I belong??

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