I waited a little anxiously on the stage as the chair of the conference stood at the podium welcoming everyone. I was next up and going through my talk in my head I was only partially concentrating on her remarks. And then she got my attention: “We need to move beyond race,” she said. “We need to look at the multitude of ways in which people are different. Focusing on race,” she went on, “was so limiting.” In her day job as an academic she is known for her work on intersectionality, so why did this comment catch my interest? Because this was a conference about race. Yes, I remember thinking, you can make those comments, but not today when this is the focus. It would be like turning up to a conference on jam making only to be told by the organiser that they’d decided to move beyond jam and were going to talk about ketchup instead.
Another keynote speaker, the head of diversity and inclusion at a media organisation, later said, at the same event, that he “genuinely did not see colour”. Another panellist, the director of D&I at a major global consultancy organisation, then confidently asserted that by the time her children’s generation had grown up and reached positions of authority, race discrimination would be a thing of the past. All we have to do is sit tight, be patient and this whole thing will just go away.
And this was all said at a conference on race! The audience was people working in the diversity and inclusion field from major organisations, and while I know some were bemused and baffled by the tone of some of the speakers, others were without doubt relieved. They needn’t worry, race could remain on the back burner. It was, as they had always hoped, not such an issue after all.
Now, just over a year on, those same individuals and the organisations they work for are tripping over themselves to show how much they care about race and how seriously they take it. The ignorance they had displayed was mind-boggling, the lack of concern they had was frustrating – but the hypocrisy they are now displaying frustrates me.
But what exactly are they, and many more like them, expressing concern about? The killing of George Floyd? Possibly. President Trump? Maybe. The protests? Yes, but it isn’t just that. It’s the length of time the demonstrations have lasted and how they have spread across the globe. What’s certainly putting pressure on many CEOs, directors of D&I and HRDs is the fact that their competitors have issued statements of concern. Whatever the reason the motivation for the response is an external one – it is the events outside the organisation that are making them pay attention.
And of course these statements are about events that are happening elsewhere, about people who have little in common with those running our corporations: police officers in the US. We share your concerns, these statements say, and thank goodness nothing like that could happen here. It’s all at arm’s length; they are interested observers, but not active participants.
Well, perhaps some of the complacent corporate D&I teams and their colleagues in HR need to take another look, because not only are there some unpleasant things going on in your own organisations but you may be guilty of some of them yourselves. Last year, Oxford University published results of a study using the classic paradigm of sending two versions of the same application form to organisations with only the name being changed. Majority applicants were shortlisted on 24 per cent of occasions, whereas for applicants with minority-sounding names, the figure was only 15 per cent. The researchers reached the shocking conclusion that there was “no sign of progress for Caribbeans or for south Asians as a whole over the past 50 years”.
In research we carried out in 2018 found from a sample of nearly 1,500 people, 60 per cent of black people and 42 per cent of Asian people said they had experienced race discrimination in the workplace and, of these, 20 per cent said that they had experienced physical and verbal abuse. Of the actions that were taken to address these issues, the least effective was reporting the incidents to HR – fewer than a quarter of people who had done this found it helped.
So by all means put out statements professing your concern about the incidents in the US. But if you are really serious about this, then take a good, hard look at your own attitudes to race, your practices that may be perpetuating race discrimination and your responses to complaints about racism. If not, then may I suggest that you keep the statements you are issuing somewhere safe so that you have your response ready for the next time people are moved to demonstrate and you feel you need to ‘say something’.
Binna Kandola is co-founder and senior partner at Pearn Kandola