Understanding and Challenging Systemic Racism: Readings and Practices

After the murder of George Floyd, one way in which I responded was by writing blog post, and what follows is another post sharing readings, insights and practices from my own learning journey to better understand something that by design has been made invisible to me for most of my life– white supremacy culture.

Over the last year and a half of the pandemic, I’ve made time to read multiple books focusing on systemic racism and the role it plays in shaping our culture and lives.  After my three children fell asleep, I mostly listened to these books (checked out from the public library) while I washed dishes and cleaned up around our home. I found myself so grateful to hear the stories and insights of a community of wise leaders so essential to this moment of cultural transformation.

Below is a list of books, in the order that I read them, and some of the lessons that left the greatest impact. I recommend them all.

I recognize in the grand scheme of things, reading a book is a relatively easy, safe and comfortable way to begin to understand the multiple layers of systemic racism. At the same time, it’s an important step and was very powerful for me (I did something similar when I realized I needed learn more about facilitation and organization development a few years back…in a similar way, I felt compelled to learn more about racism and where it shows up in often unspoken norms, values and assumptions that guide our collective behavior). As I read these books, I worked to create a space in my various identities to put some of the lessons into practice (similar to what I did to become a more collaborative leader), which I share more on below the books.

White Fragility – Robin DiAngelo

I appreciated the macro/sociological perspective on racism, and how it shows up in white progressives like me. As a facilitator, I especially enjoyed the chapter where she examined some unspoken racist assumptions that are embedded in often used groundrules for group decision-making, many of which I’ve used over the years.

Me and White Supremacy – Layla F. Saad 

I found the overviews in each chapter very helpful, along with the journaling questions, which I took the time to write and learn from. White Silence, being silent when it comes to race and racism, among other things, is something I’m doing my best to break.  

So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Olou

I appreciated her personal perspective on a wide variety of related topics. I’m someone that loves to talk things through, though in the past I know I’ve shied away from conversations around race. Hearing her own stories and experiences gave me helpful guidance in understanding some of the nuances when it comes to talking about race.

Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life – David Billings

This book charts the tragic amount of racialized violence that’s taken place, and continues to take place, in the United States, highlighting how deeply entrenched and embedded white supremacy culture is. I also appreciated learning more about the work of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.

How to Be an Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi

I found the racist/anti-racist frame a very helpful, and appreciated the author’s own story that he shared, which got me thinking more about my story and actions. 

My Three Homelands – Noburo Inamoto

Written by the husband of a woman who is like a grandmother to me, this moving personal story shared numerous instances where the author experienced racism, and how he navigated those situations with grace. I’ll carry his mindset forward. 

The Color of Law – Richard Rothstein

I found this history of housing discrimination in the United States very powerful and sobering, and it relates directly to housing related issues I work on at Smart Growth California. While I knew discrimination has unfortunately always been a part of America, I didn’t quite realize how deeply it was baked into federal policies and programs, which helps explain the stark inequalities that exist today.

The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander

The criminalization and incarceration of Black and other communities of color, much of which happened as a backdrop of my own childhood, helped me better understand how racism plays out in the criminal justice system. 

A More Perfect Union – Calvin Baker

This eloquent take on American history, and the opportunities we’ve collectively missed to make a more perfect union, resonated deeply with me. Integration is key is we really want to uphold the values of American Democracy, count me in.

Racism without Racists – Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

This book helped me realize how I was raised to be color blind, but that oppressive racism can and does thrive in a society that claims to be color blind. It also helped me realize some of the reasons why engaging in dialogues on racism could be uncomfortable for me. 

How We Fight White Supremacy – Akiba Solomon

This book lifts up the voices of many engaged in fighting white supremacy, from activists to poets, providing a wide spectrum of strategies to make a difference.  This book encouraged me to step into the fight more.

The Inner Work of Racial Justice – Rhonda V. Magee

I appreciated the mindfulness/meditation approach to this book, providing practices for healing trauma from within while also alongside one other. 

My Grandmother’s Hands – Resmaa Menakem

I found this book very powerful, elucidating how white supremacy shows up in the body, and the harm it inflicts on bodies. It includes a broad set of embodied practices to begin the long process to heal and transform generational trauma. I particularly like the breathing exercises and various practices to become better in tune with my own body.

White Supremacy Culture – Tema Okun

While not a book, this article lists ways in which White Supremacy Culture shows up at work. It makes visible often invisible norms, values and assumptions that show up in organizations (and in my own work habits at times), along with helpful antidotes to counter these dominant forces. 

Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals – Alexis Pauline Gumbs

My wife gave this to me for Christmas, and I just started reading it, and wow! As someone who loves dolphins, I’m finding it a beautiful way to connect that natural world to ways in which we can incorporate racial justice into our own daily practices.

Do you have any book recommendations? If so, please contact me to share the book, and what insight you gained from it.

Beyond the learnings and insights I gained from these readings, I want to share that these brought up a wide spectrum of emotions in me, from sadness, discomfort, melancholy, empathy and hope, to name a few. Throughout it all, I felt a deep sense of mourning for the pain and suffering caused by systemic racism, which I’m all too aware continues into the present day. With increased consciousness and awareness, I worked to translate my own learnings into ongoing practices based on different aspects of my own identity, which includes the following:


As a consultant, I’ve facilitated numerous conversations about race and racism, and how it shows up in the work of the organizations I serve. 

For Smart Growth California, we shared some ways in which we do this in a recent blog post, including creating a space for dialog, prioritizing BIPOC leadership, sharing learnings with my team, and participating in TFN’s Racial Equity Committee. TFN, which I consult for, has made racial equity a key pillar of its work, having recently completed a racial equity audit and is now in the process of developing an action plan. 

For Southern California Grantmakers, I’ve organized quarterly convenings for their Environmental Funders committee that has prioritized racial justice as a major theme in all of the sessions. 

For the Urban Land Institute, with my colleague Sara Daleiden, we’ve facilitated spaces for cohort members in their Health Leaders Network to incorporate social equity practices into their own work.

As an organizational development practitioner, I think a lot about organizational culture, and how that’s shaped by national culture. I’m trained in various methods to assess and change culture, and am doing my best to support organizations, and people within those institutions to move in the right direction. I’ve engaged in conversations and dialogs about white supremacy culture, and how that shows up in our work environments and in my own unspoken norms and assumptions I make.

As a network practitioner, I’m mindful that networks can play a role in changing culture, and are shaped by the organizations and individuals at the table. Building trust and relationships helps create a space for folks to take risks and find opportunities to do this work together. I’ve put more intention into representation in the networks I serve, who is and is not at the table, and have taken steps to invite BIPOC leadership into various spaces, while being aware of tokenism. In my role facilitating network spaces, I’ve been mindful when and how to intervene around creating a space for different voices to be heard.

While the above identities are more professional, I’ve found that there’s plenty of opportunities to practice being an anti-racist in all aspects of my life, including:

As a white man, I admit my own lack of awareness into the deep complexities of systemic racism, am mindful that I was raised in a country built on it, and that my own values, norms and assumptions are often complicit, whether I realize it or not. I’ve also given thought to unintentional microaggressions I may have made, based on assumptions/norms I’ve been brought up with. I’m also mindful that I have the privilege to not think or worry about racial inequalities, and quietly benefit from a broken system. I don’t want to do this, so as a part of my own development process, I’m sharing these books and practices.

As a parent, I’ve read books to my children to help raise their awareness and consciousness about race, and have also engaged in dialog with them, along with other parents. Some books I’ve read include: Hey Black Child – Usain Eugene Perkins, Hands Up! – Breanna J. McDaniel, A Girl Like Me – Angela Johnson, I am Enough – Grace Byers, Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race – Megan Madison, Jessica Ralli, Isabel Roxas, Black is a Rainbow Color – Angela Joy. I welcome any suggestions you have.

As a family member, I look for opportunities to discuss race with my mostly white family members, and have found it a space to reflect on and practice racial equity – even if clumsily at times – to build up my own muscles to have these conversations. I’ve asked about their own histories and perspectives while sharing my own. I’ve also been reflecting on the immigration stories of my grandparents, and great grandparents, all of whom came to the United States at different times for different reasons.

As a friend, I’ve reflected on the nuances and challenges of challenging systemic racism. With years of trust and relationships built, I’ve shared my own struggles with this and have listened to where my friends are at in this journey.  While I have observed how others are more reluctant to take deep dives into these issues, I’m grateful that most of my friends are willing to go there with me.

As a citizen, I read up on the candidates, issues and propositions, and vote in every election.  I’m mindful that we’ve got a critical election coming up later in 2022, and that this is an opportunity for us to collectively work towards a more perfect union.

As a someone who rides a bicycle to get around town, I can’t help but think how much of transportation and built environment in the United States is linked to systemic racism, whether it be the ripping apart of Black and Brown communities by highway construction, or the value placed on speed, individualism and convenience that comes with driving a car over safer, more communal and socially/environmental/economic inclusive means of getting around like walking, riding a bicycle or taking transit. 

As someone getting older, I’m mindful of this being a multi-generational project, but one that I’m convinced needs to take place. I don’t move as fast as I once did, and I am increasingly conscious of making the most of the remaining chapters of my life.  I’ve taken to sitting quietly in the morning and evening for a few minutes, listening to my breath, slowing down, reflecting, and finding that very helpful too. If I am not present to myself and continually return to my intention of becoming anti-racist, I cannot effectively be a part of the change.

Putting these insights into action, and integrating them more fully into who I am and how I engage with the world, has been a fantastic journey! I’ve grown more aware, comfortable and confident in engaging in conversations and actions I may have shied away from previously. I’m grateful to the many friends and colleagues who gave me helpful feedback on a draft of this post before I shared it publicly. I also acknowledge that this is one of many ways to approach work to challenge systemic racism, and by no means is the only way. I also welcome any other suggestions you have for how you’ve approached this, and any insights you’ve again along the way.

About Ron Milam

Ron Milam, MSOD, works to transform the Pacific Coast into a sustainable region through leadership and organization development for collaborative change initiatives. Since 2005, Ron has served over 150 clients as an organization and network development practitioner.
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