Dear White Leaders
I’ve had to take a minute after the shocking events that have been unravelling in the US. And for those who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m talking #BlackLivesMatter. And for those who think it’s not the same in the UK, you’re mistaken.
For someone who specialises in inclusion and race at work, the past couple of weeks were a (horrific) real life masterclass of how racism works, what institutional racism looks like and White privilege in action. The case studies kept coming, each one as f*cked up as the one before.
As someone who is Brown (Indian), I’ve innately understood that in the racial hierarchy that plays out everyday - and therefore the workplace is not immune - it was better than being Black. But not as good as being White. Assimilation was my friend (Belonging was definitely not a thing when I started working) and strangely, the more White I acted at work, the more successful I was. Crisp, spoken English made me more palatable. And boy did I work it. But it became tiring and I’ve been actively undoing the harm this causes in the last few years.
But looking back, I was upholding this racial hierarchy. I wasn’t challenging it. When Boris Johnson announced his new cabinet and people like Priti Patel and Sajid Javid were appointed, I was told by other White people that Britain was becoming more inclusive.
However, I saw in Patel and Javid what I had despised in myself - I’d sold out to Whiteness to get ahead. Before you @me, can you really imagine Priti Patel being selected as Home secretary if she had a thick, Indian accent?
All of this may feel jarring, but this is received wisdom amongst Black people/People of Colour.
What’s the point of all this?
It’s to say that despite working for organisations that espoused diversity, inclusion and acceptance, the underlying power structures were still controlled by Whiteness. Be that in the form of White men and after the focus on gender equality, White women.
This institutionalised way of being is a default; reflective of society as a whole. The research done by Kandola (2018) supports this notion of a racial hierarchy at work. Because we let these structures continue to exist, we see the effects played out as institutional racism which I’ve defined as the ‘collective effect of attitudes, behaviours, actions and processes that (unintentional or not) create barriers for POC* employees’. I liken it to the glass ceiling, it’s invisible yet you know it’s there.
As organisations, we can be active participants in supporting #BlackLivesMatter by tackling race in the workplace. I’m not gonna lie, it’s not always easy and it will involve discomfort but if you can break down the barriers of race in your workplace (one of the most insidious, yet fundamental principles we use to organise society), you will accelerate your efforts for inclusion and reap the rewards (the most obvious being a culture where people are truly respected and valued regardless of skin colour).
How do you begin?
Look inside: Do you have any Black employees? If you do, how many and where are they placed within the organisation? And no, you can’t substitute Black with other People of Colour. This in and of itself is a quick litmus test on how inclusive your workplace is.
Educate yourself: This has been doing the rounds, but rightly so. It’s a brilliant collection of resources for White people on how to educate yourself on racism. In particular, spend time on the difference between being a non-racist vs. anti-racist.
Talk about race: Yup, this is the scary part. Even if you’re an all White/White majority organisation, I would still urge you to talk about race in the workplace. You can have tremendous power in bringing awareness and focus on these issues right now - chances are you serve diverse markets and customers, so it’s important to reflect that authentically back into the workplace. If you need help with this, that’s what we’re here for and countless other Black/POC led inclusion organisations.
Understand White privilege: This does not mean you are racist. However it does exist because of historical and enduring racism. It’s also different to class privilege. This is where the discomfort often tends to seep in, so listen and reflect. No-one is saying your life has not been challenging, it’s simply that your skin tone is not making it harder.
Participation, not representation: So much energy is wasted on representation. Yes, representation of underrepresented groups (that’s a mouthful) is vital, but ensuring they are active participators is even more critical. How are you truly engaging with Black/POC employees to design your processes and culture? If they aren’t present in your workplace, how are you actively finding them to join your organisation?
If you’re really here for diversity and inclusion, this is the time to show up. Inaction or silence maintains the status quo - and the status quo is not neutral.
*POC stands for People of Colour (which is my preference over the term BAME, but may not always be someone else's).