Transforming the System
By Nicole Andrews, Audrey Elegbede and Emily Watkins

Systemic racism (or institutional racism) refers to “the systems in place that create and maintain racial inequality in nearly every facet of life for people of color” (from USA Today).  These engrained sets of policies and practices negatively impact Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) in everyday aspects of life. As Rochester Women Magazine continues its anti-racism work, we again asked Nicole Andrews and Audrey Elegbede to teach and guide us.  


Andrews explains that hearing the phrase “systemic racism” can trigger emotions ranging from confusion to frustration and apathy to rage. “Some may feel like they did not create these problematic systems and therefore shouldn’t be responsible for fixing them,” she says. “Some may not believe systemic racism exists and that people of color use the term to get out of working hard and ‘pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.’”

“One way to ease into becoming aware of systemic racism is to think of other “isms” or phobias (such as classism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, Islamophobia),” says Elegbede. “Society determines what is valued or ideal and what is not.” She gives an example of a system embedded in our lives: Our traditional work week is Monday through Friday with Saturday and Sunday as days of rest to coincide with Judeo-Christian days of worship. For those in religions whose observances are on other days, this causes a conflict between faith and duty to work. This is an example of a system in our society where Christians are privileged.

Those not experiencing systemic racism may point to success stories within communities of color or rely on the narrative that African Americans have seen more successes in the last four years than under any other administration. “However,” says Andrews, “the data and the lived experiences of Black people do not support those assertions. In the last year, we have seen systemic racism in our judicial and policing systems and watched the pandemic ravage communities of color. Our health care system continues to treat patients of color, and particularly Black women, with deepening disparities. And Minnesota’s educational gap is one of the worst in the country.” 

She continues, “While there are exceptions, they do not erase the rule. Racism continues to create hardships for many.”


After acknowledging that systemic racism exists and informs all of our policies, we can start to dismantle how it shows up. Andrews says, “We look at each system individually and pick apart policies, practices and procedures that are born out of white supremacy and the centering of white as the norm. We construct policies that are inclusive and culturally relevant. We look at our participation in these systems and how we continue to uphold these practices.” 

Some examples of systems are IQ tests and using ACT and SAT scores for entrance into college. These tests are intended to measure individual effort, intelligence and future performance, but instead serve more to reflect the lack in preparation that students of color receive. They can also contain biased questions or questions based on knowledge of white culture or norms. White students are more likely to have had exposure to concepts that are typically included in standardized tests, based on their access to education in school and at home. White students are also more likely to have access to testing accommodations than students of color with similar disabilities.

If students of color score lower on standardized tests, they will then have a lower chance of being accepted to college. This means that they will not be able to be considered for higher paying jobs, leading to their inability to have equal access to housing and a lesser ability to generate wealth.


Elegbede says, “Systemic racism can exist despite our best intentions. Health disparities exist despite the best intentions of medical personnel, and educational disparities continue despite the best intentions of teachers and school districts. If it was enough just to have good intentions, we wouldn’t continue to see gaps in wealth, health, education, justice and mass incarcerations. Since those gaps do still exist, that tells us that there is something bigger and more systemic at play.”

Racism as individual acts (name-calling, white hoods, etc.) absolutely exists, but the continuance of racism through systems and institutions and the normal operating procedures of everyday organizations becomes the baseline of what is harmful to marginalized groups. Elegbede goes on to say, “The state of Minnesota has identified systemic racism as a public health crisis. While acts of individuals to overcome racism and avoid racism in one-on-one interactions are important, individual best intentions cannot independently transform the entire system if the system continues to marginalize and disenfranchise.” 


According to Elegbede, Kimberle Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality explains, “We all occupy multiple identities simultaneously among socially important variables such as race, ethnicity, gender, class, ability, age, immigration status, language and religious affiliation. We each may identify with certain variables that make us feel privileged or not, and according to Crenshaw, we are more likely to see the spaces where we are marginalized or disenfranchised than the areas where we have greater opportunity and benefit.”

In the wake of last fall’s election, Andrews worries that what many view as a “return to normalcy” may erase the work done in recent years when acts of racism have been more visible to a wider audience. Current calls for unity may seem good on the surface but may also signify the possibility that some will return to past practices where racism happens more covertly.

Andrews reminds us, “The great (but not surprising) news is that Black women have been leading this work throughout the country for decades and continue to push this work forward in all of our systems. We see it in new, culturally responsive practices being introduced by organizations like the NAACP, Southern Law Poverty Center and Midwest Equity and Plains Center. We see it in our own Diversity Council and Intercultural Cities Initiative, as well as community organizer-led trainings and protests and student activists who are demanding changes in our education policies. All of these individuals and organizations are at the forefront of dismantling systems and are working on new strategies to include other marginalized identities in this work.” 

What can you do? Continue reading this series to learn and grow with us; invite a friend to start the journey with you; research the organizations, key concepts/definitions and individuals mentioned here; answer the questions posed about your participation in systemic racism (spoiler: We all play a role, regardless of identity); write us to discuss the topic further or inquire about trainings; read one of our book recommendations.

Book recommendations on systemic racism

“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota” ed. Sun Yung Shin

“The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander