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Putting the Pieces Together: A big picture analogy of systemic racism

I’ve spent a lot of time during the pandemic putting together puzzles. Nature landscapes, vintage signs, bowls of fruit--it doesn’t really matter what picture it is, it just has to have 1000 pieces. What used to be a once-a-year Christmastime activity has become a regular pastime to balance out Netflix bingeing and lockdown cooking. It has become therapeutic in many ways, giving me something to focus on besides the uncertain state of the world. The thing is, though, the state of the world keeps creeping in.

This past year has brought renewed scrutiny of systemic racism. Conversations about the inequalities pervasive in our world are everywhere, from politics to education. Since I work in the field of education, I see teachers working tirelessly to engage students and colleagues in hard conversations about racism and inequality, all while working in a virtual environment that has highlighted the inequities inherent in educational institutions.

How do you make systemic racism understandable, particularly for those who are not oppressed by it directly? As an ally, how do you support those who are impacted? How does one individual make changes to highly complex systems that perpetuate inequality?

It dawned on me that we can learn lessons about dismantling systemic racism through the analogy of putting together a 1000-piece puzzle. Why use an analogy? Research shows that using analogies helps connect new learning to prior knowledge. Having a familiar framework to situate new processes or abstractions can make those concepts clearer. This analogy might not resonate with everyone, but the framework helped me reflect on a lot of the lessons I have learned this past year on my own journey towards anti-racism.

#1 As you start a big puzzle, look at the overall image and notice: what stands out? Distinctive lettering? A bright red apple? The flat-edged border pieces? Start there. Get the ball rolling. There is lots of work to be done, so pick a starting point and focus on that small area first.

The enormity of systemic racism means that there are many places to make an impact. What stands out in your work or in your community? Pick a place to start focusing your initial efforts.

#2 Build out from the starting point, making connections into new segments. As you work on a portion of the overall picture, you begin to see how it connects at the edges to other parts of the whole.

The complexity of the systems in place mean that they are intertwined in many ways. Banking is tied to housing is tied to education...and so on. As you build an understanding of one system, look for the connections to other systems. Dismantling requires an understanding of the interconnectedness of all the systems.

#3 You know that big blob of blue sky that has a hundred pieces? It can seem overwhelming to tackle at first. But look more closely. Those blues are more nuanced when you look closely at the details: like subtle hues or brushstrokes in a painting. Once you identify a distinctive variation or pattern, you can find other pieces that match it, helping you tackle the big blob little by little.

Slow down and take the time to really look closely and examine discrete processes, structures, and policies allow you to discover things you hadn’t noticed at first. Take the time to dig into the details. When you identify one nuanced piece, you will see it replicated elsewhere.

#4 Completing a big puzzle goes quicker if you work with others. Everyone can participate. Learn from one another, share strategies to help you overcome challenging parts. Having said that, don’t expect someone else to do the work for you. Working as a team is one thing, but don’t rely on others to sort through the pile and find all the pieces you need to work on your section.

There’s plenty to go around, so take responsibility for the work you are doing and commit to it. Do the legwork that you need to do. It is not the job of marginalized people to educate white people about the work that needs to be done. You wouldn’t expect someone who has assembled a puzzle to come over and put it together for you. Learn from others but don’t expect them to drop the work they are doing to alleviate your workload.

#5 Sometimes it helps to go back to the big picture, looking at the box lid, to see the overall landscape.

In addressing systemic racism, remember that this isn’t new. It’s been examined, researched, and existed for centuries. You can explore much of the history and activist movements around racial justice here. The work to undo it has been undertaken by generations of people who have learned valuable lessons. If you are new to this puzzle, consider the depth of the big picture and seek out the resources that will help you find the connection to your piece.

#6 Expect trial and error. Sometimes a piece you think fits in one place actually goes somewhere else. It can be frustrating to keep searching for a specific fit and be thwarted. Expect to be discouraged, but be persistent and resilient.

Studies show that many past efforts to ‘fix’ systemic racism have led to greater inequality. ‘No Child Left Behind’ created a system to identify and remedy gaps in student achievement....but created a burdensome reliance on standardized tests which perpetuated inequality in new ways. Best intentions don’t always lead to progress. Being able to recognize when something isn’t working and go back to seeking new ideas, new perspectives, and new solutions is important. Keep trying and adapting as you gain more understanding.

#7 When your eyes get blurry, take a break and rest.

You don’t have to finish the whole puzzle in one sitting. Trust me, I've tried. Sometimes taking a break helps you re-energize. You might struggle to build one section of a puzzle, only to come back the next day and find five pieces in a row which fit. Dismantling racism is a marathon, not a sprint. Step back sometimes to avoid burnout.

#8 The final picture is beautiful.

The promise of creating a more equitable world is rewarding. While puzzles have a set amount of pieces that can be “finished,” remember that systemic racism could be like a million piece puzzle. It will take a lot of people to work on a lot of pieces to make lasting progress. Don’t give up. Celebrate small wins, but keep working towards completion. The effort will be worth it for everyone.

What is your starting (or continuing) point? What part of the puzzle are you working on?

To learn how KMS Intercultural Education can help, contact us today.

Previously published by Kennedy Schultz on LinkedIn, February 21, 2021.

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