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Four things to understand before tackling racial inequality at your organisation

30 Jun 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

Speakers on a CIPD webinar encouraged those with ‘all-white leadership teams’ to become familiar with the relevant terminology and historic examples of racism 

“This is not your typical CIPD webinar,” said Frank Douglas, chief executive of Caerus Executive and inclusion adviser, addressing more than 400 delegates during the first of three CIPD-hosted webinars on racism and racial inequality at work. Douglas added that the world changed on 25 May when George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.

“Having been in HR for most of my professional life, I know we often want to rush to a solution… but the HR profession is ill-equipped to deal with issues of race,” said Douglas. “To be blunt, 88 per cent of the HR members in the CIPD are white... An overwhelmingly white HR leadership team trying to advise a white C-suite team about engaging with black staff just isn’t going to work.”

Douglas added that for CIPD members and the HR community to discuss race authentically, they must first understand the history and lexicon of race. As such, the webinar covered some vital steps to take before tackling racism and racial inequality at an organisation:

Know your terminology 

Sereena Abbassi, independent equity, inclusion and diversity consultant, facilitator and speaker, said all professionals needed to do a lot of work to “understand the lexicon we use”, and gave some examples of terminology that would come up while learning about race:

Gaslighting – “It's a term we are more familiar with now,” explained Abbassi. “My definition is that you know you’re experiencing prejudice (be it racism or sexism) and the majority are telling you it is essentially all in your head and you are being ridiculous.”

British history – Abbassi said she preferred the term British history over “black/brown history”, adding that we were all “one race split into different ethnicities”. She asked delegates to consider how the Irish experience differed to the Polish experience, for example. 

Eugenics – Despite how uncomfortable this might be, “you can't talk about race without talking about eugenics”, said Abbassi, explaining that this “very outdated” term means ‘good creation’. Plato may have been the first to curate the term, but it was coined by British scholar Sir Francis Galton in 1883. “He says there are five different races: African, Asian, European, Native American and Oceanian (Indiginous),” she said. “It is problematic and the thinking was utilised in Nazi Germany and within 20th century works regarding sterlilisation.” 

BAME – This is a term Abbassi said she was “hell bent against”, because the black experience was different to Asian experience, for example. She explained it was also more nuanced than this, with the black British African experience different to the black British Caribbean experience, and some experiencing privilege relative to others. “Black British Africans are doing much better [than black British Carribean], and British Asian Indians are doing better than British Bangladeshi, [so] it needs to be more nuanced than BAME,” she said.

Familiarise yourself with ‘untaught’ racist events in history 

Douglas compared learning about race and racism to driving a car, explaining that this webinar, for example, would only “get you into first gear, and the gears will squeak”. He assured that as people shifted gears they would feel uncomfortable, but added: “We are going to get you to start attempting to talk about race with your leadership team.” For this to happen, individuals must first familiarise themselves with ‘untaught’ race-related events in history, Douglas and Abbassi agreed, such as:

Colonisation – “In order to colonise, there needs to be a sense of supremacy. Specifically white supremacy,” Abbassi explained. She drew connections between empire, the Industrial Revolution (which was fuelled primarily by slavery) and capitalism (which was founded on exploitation, she said). “They created consumerism, which has created globalisation as a product. It’s all inextricably linked. This work is complicated in many ways and it’s uncomfortable as well,” said Abbassi. 

Windrush – Abbassi explained that her grandparents were of the Windrush generation of 1948 and were given higher mortgage rates compared to white their counterparts. “They [Carribean immigrants] were told they would be British, but the reality was very different; they were faced with signs saying ‘no blacks, no Irish and no dogs’,” she said. “The recent 2018 Windrush scandal saw just under 100 people deported and their citizenship revoked. This is a very recent manifestation of racism.” 

American history – Abbassi added that many events in American history, such as the destruction of Black Wall Street as a result of racial violence in 1921, and the demolition of Seneca Village (made up of freed African-American slaves, and German and Irish immigrants) so Central Park could be created, were examples of systemic racism that not enough people were aware of. “There have been many historical attempts to create wealth. The black community has made attempts to be self-sustaining and have power, but the system decided to stamp it out time and time again,” said Abbassi. 

Relate historic events back to your organisation 

When trying to relate historic examples of racism and the recent Black Lives Matter protests back to their organisations, Abbassi asked viewers to consider why borders around countries were created. She said “dispossession is a big reason”. “The same borders we create around countries are the same barriers we create when it comes to accessing our industry or company, because whatever issues are outside will be the same inside,” said Abbassi. 

‘Belonging’ is an organisational term that can accentuate the problem, she said, with organisations feeling that letting “different types of people in will compromise that sense of belonging”. “Diversity is a choice. And if your businesses are not diverse it is because you have actively chosen to not pursue diversity,” she said. 

“For some, that will jarr you and there are always exceptions to the rules. Some job roles require specific skillsets and historically certain demographics have not gone into that field so there are always exceptions. But if you want diversity, you need to look in diverse places.”

Get creative with talent sourcing

To tackle the issue of certain demographics potentially lacking specific skillsets, Abbassi suggested organisations think laterally about different industries that might be a source of transferable skills. “We need to be creative with how we find talent,” Abbassi explained. “We have to do a lot of reframing of what brilliant, acceptable, presentable [and] respectable looks like because that is bound up in gender, race and class.” 

She added that the onus for lack of representation in organisations was often put “on the person rather than the system”. “It’s important we realise that the system has people at a disadvantage rather than the person being accountable for not being advantaged,” she said.  “We need to shift responsibility to the system by looking at systemic inequalities and the system that keeps these as they are presently. 

“We are the gatekeepers to people’s career progression and getting them through the door; diverse business has to start with education.”

This is the first in a three-part series on tackling racism in your organisation. The second webinar on ‘Creating a pro-inclusive leadership plan’ is also now available on the CIPD website

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