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The nonprofit I work for, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, centers all of its projects in equity. I’ve always respected and appreciated this mission. But I wasn’t able to comprehend its power until last week.

CSSP has been developing an “equity onboarding” for the past year. With this day-long workshop, new staff will be introduced to the organization’s equity focus and the importance of viewing all policies through that lens. Last week, CSSP’s interns – myself included – sat in for a pilot.

After giving us the day’s agenda, my boss handed us all a blank sheet of paper. She told us to reflect on our equity journeys – the experiences throughout our lives that have contributed to our current perspectives on equity.

I grew up in Southeast Tennessee to an affluent, White, Christian family. Throughout my life, I was surrounded by more of the same kinds of people – with some variance in socioeconomic status and religion, but little to no variance in racial identity. There was only one Black child in my elementary school class, and she left after second grade. In my all-girls high school, only one of the girls was born to two Black parents. Even the few girls who were half-Black were completely whitewashed.

All of my closest friends were White. All of my teachers were White. All of my family members were White.

As I mapped out my personal equity journey, I quickly noticed a trend – an emphasis not on race, but on sexuality, gender, and mental health. As a bisexual woman who has struggled with various mental health problems throughout her life, I’ve been forced to expand my ideas about what is “normal” in order to reach self-acceptance. Those are the areas to which I had previously devoted most of my focus.

But I never had to think about my race. I rarely considered the racial struggles of others because I had no one close to me experiencing those struggles. I was unable to understand how anyone could fail to recognize the inherent equality of all human beings, and clueless about how these perspectives directly affect the lives of Black people in the United States every day. Even my own implicit biases remained unexplored.

After I shared my own equity journey with the room, I heard from my coworkers about their experiences. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had far less exposure to racial diversity than the rest of the group. Almost everyone else in the room had been forced to confront painful truths about race multiple times throughout their lives. I sat and listened, filled with a discomfort that I recognized to be a form of White fragility, beginning to grasp the consequences of my homogenous upbringing.

The two months I’ve spent at CSSP have been a shock to the system. I’ve quickly learned that the pervasiveness of structural racism has few limitations. Race is always a primary predictor of outcomes. There’s no escaping it. You can be rich, conventionally attractive, straight, cisgender, and able-bodied, but if you’re not White, society will force the effects of racism into every day of your life. This starts early, with Black children receiving harsher punishments in school despite misbehaving at the same rate as White children. These punishments often include suspension or even expulsion, which puts kids at greater risk for falling behind or dropping out, facilitating the school-to-prison pipeline. And that’s how we treat our children.

Racial disparities are present everywhere – in employment rates, housing and urban development, mortality rates, and beyond. When we fail to recognize them, we lose the ability to develop policies that address the unique needs of everyone, especially those pushed to the sidelines of society.

I still debate how much of this close-mindedness is my fault and how much is merely the result of my upbringing. But ultimately, I think that debate is a waste of time. What matters is where I go from here – how I dedicate myself to understanding the depth and breadth of racism in the U.S., especially anti-Black racism, and how I dedicate myself to advocating for racial equity moving forward. I have a long way to go, and I couldn’t be more grateful to CSSP for giving me just the push I need.