Let’s be honest, this year has been one of great unease. The way we live our lives has changed in the space of six months and has understandably made many people anxious for the future. However, contrary to the slightly ominous tone, this post is about hope. Hope in the form of opportunity, to learn and adapt, thus strengthening the culture of inclusivity in the workplace. In light of recent events, I’ll be focusing on race and elements of the black experience and how certain narratives can contribute to our conscious and unconscious bias surrounding “black-ness.” It is my belief that to dismantle destructive attitudes that lead to discrimination, you must first look at the root cause. Through understanding and examination, we can start to develop behaviours that encourage equality and support growth.
The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer became global news, when the world watched a man being deprived of air for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. His death, along with those of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, sparked the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had started in 2013 after the man who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was acquitted of his murder. In the last few weeks, we have witnessed a worldwide push back against incidents of police brutality and the effects of systematic racism. Unfortunately, many news outlets are not highlighting the solidarity that all races are showing for the black community, creating a false, subconscious narrative of apparent division when there should be none.
Being opposed to racism and bigotry should not need clarification, so why does is seem like such a radical concept? Let us go back only a few hundred years, to a time when it was widely regarded as scientific fact that black people were inferior to whites by many highly regarded academics. For example, British historian and slave-owner, Edward Long, described black people as being “monstrous in nature” in his book, History of Jamaica, which was first published in 1774 then again in 1970s. In an edition of the Medical Association of Louisiana, published in 1851, American physician, Samuel A Cartwright claimed that black people had “smaller brains” and “a tendency toward indolence and barbarism.” Whether these claims were to cast doubt on the abolition of slavery or to rationalise centuries of social economic dominance, the result was the continued dehumanisation of black people, in order to maintain the idea of white superiority. Reinforcing the idea that black people were subhuman and only useful as things allowed for slave owners to continue business. Racism was born out of commerce.
Being able to ask yourself honest questions will help gain clarity when considering how your work environment is constructed and the ways it contributes to the culture of inclusivity. It is easy to look at equality in terms of outcome, but it is more advantageous to focus on equality of opportunity. Having colleagues with unique experiences from contrasting backgrounds benefits the working environment and has proven to be a formula for success for companies like Coca-Cola, Mastercard and Disney, to name a few.
Managing instances of racism in the workplace requires that same amount of diligence; “the Parker review, established to improve ethnic diversity on the boards of UK-listed businesses, showed that 37 per cent of companies in the FTSE 100 had no non-white board members.” (Tabby Kinder, A third of FTSE 100 companies set to miss ethnic diversity targets, Financial Times, February 2020). It takes courage to challenge people in positions of power and hold them accountable. Training on having challenging conversations can provide tools to do this effectively. Calling someone out for potentially discriminative behaviour is everyone’s responsibility, regardless of who it is aimed at. If you witness a colleague being racially abused, act as an ally and report it. Likewise, if someone has experienced racism, it is imperative that they feel listened to; that they are offered support but most importantly, that their experience is in no way negated. Being empathic builds trust and gives insight if you are ever in a position where you need to manage a sensitive situation.
Because of highly complex issues surrounding race, no one is expected to have all the answers but having a willingness to learn, starting a discourse and listening to the information provided, you gain the tools needed to fight for equality. Nelson Mandela said ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’ And our education around race has been disturbingly selective. With an enquiring mind, ask yourself and others questions, challenge your preconceptions and personal bias. These questions may be uncomfortable and it might mean coming to terms with your personal unconscious bias. However, if people continue to avoid these uncomfortable conversations, they risk repeatedly making the same clumsy mistakes. This will result in the problem becoming conscious, intentional, and discriminatory. It is equally important to set aside the time to have open and honest conversations with your team. Establish and utilise BAME networks in your workplace. Make time to assess the diversity of your team, ensure everyone has a voice, identify positive behaviours to encourage inclusivity – the rewards for all will be profound.
Here are some articles, books, videos and podcasts at our fingertips to help us gain a better understanding of the issues we face. Raising awareness of racial injustice on social media is fine but if you want to go further, The Independent has published a list of 10 anti-racism charities in the UK that could use your support.
Vincent Jerome is an award winning actor and screenwriter, who has been working in the field of diversity and inclusion training for the past 7 years