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The way to discuss racism in the workplace is to listen

16 Jul 2020 By Kelechi Okafor

The murder of George Floyd has spurred many firms into frenzied attempts to show how anti-racist they are, but there is still so much work to do, says Kelechi Okafor

It is the conversation a lot of people don’t really want to have, even if they work hard to convince themselves that they do. So how do we discuss racism in the workplace? Many organisations allow for committees to be formed to show how ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’ the working environment is. Yet employees from marginalised backgrounds still feel unseen and unheard. 

The murder of George Floyd in Minnesota has spurred numerous companies into frenzied attempts to show how anti-racist they are and how much they are committed to ‘listening and learning’ about how they can do better. But can I be honest? I don’t believe much of it. 

Before I became fully self-employed around four years ago, I worked in call centres, then as an administrative assistant and receptionist in various environments. My focus had always been acting, so even though part of my bachelor’s degree at university was Law, I had always known I didn’t want to work in that field. (When you have a Nigerian mum, it is akin to an insult to confess you want to be anything other than a doctor or lawyer.) I appreciate my time working in these environments because I was able to observe dynamics around race and gender primarily. 

I had become so skilled at watching different people that I began noticing a trend in how difference is approached in the workplace. The short answer is that it is not approached very well. I created the character ‘Sally In HR’ as a way to address the micro and macro aggressions faced by marginalised communities at work. I was surprised to see just how many people my sketches resonated with. The main comments I receive are how “accurate” Sally’s behaviour is as the overbearing head of HR. 

Sally’s online success has led to me delivering workshops on racism to audiences that vary from high school students to police officers. My opening question is always the same: “To the white people in the room, when was the first time you realised you were white?” There is always a quizzical look that jumps across the faces of some of the white participants, and I am prepared for this. It seems a lot of people have been attending diversity and inclusion workshops and somehow avoiding discussion of race. 

White workshop participants usually give me varied responses to my question, but the most common is that a lot of them only realised their whiteness recently. Whenever I ask the non-white participants when they were made aware of their race, the common answer is usually: at a very young age. I have experienced participants in my workshops state they feel very uncomfortable with being referred to as white, and again this statement is not shocking. Generally white people are not accustomed to being referred to as ‘white’ because the forming of our society has meant that whiteness is set as the norm and anybody who is non-white is assigned a prefix to their personhood. 

Racism is, in my opinion, a deep malaise that festers away at any opportunity we have as a global community to unite. Just like any other illness, imagine trying to treat it but avoiding any reference to what caused it and how you could be making it worse with the day-to-day activities you engage in.  

The Race Relations Act 1965 was the first piece of legislation in the UK that was passed to directly address racial discrimination. There had been bills put to parliament previously but these were unsuccessful. The Act made it an offence to racially discriminate in public spaces but it wasn’t until the 1968 Race Relations Act that employment, housing and advertising were addressed as other areas where racial discrimination should be illegal. 

Simply passing legislation didn’t actually deal with the issue of racism, but to a lot of people it was seen as a step in the right direction. How is it, then, that in 2019 the Centre for Social Investigation (CSI) published a report which showed that of 3,200 fake job applications sent out, Nigerian and South Asian applicants had to make 80 per cent more applications compared to white applicants to get a call back for an interview, and applicants of Middle Eastern or North African heritage had to send an alarming 90 per cent more?   

The immediate reasoning one might be tempted to apply is that ‘maybe the CVs showed different education and work experience…’ But all the applications were exactly the same and the only thing altered on each was the name of the applicant. One way to tackle name-based bias is to remove all names during the recruitment process. But while this might seem a great way to get around that pesky ‘unconscious bias,’ the reality is that once applicants get to the interview stage, the recruiter will know their name – as well as their gender and educational background if that had also been hidden in the early stages of the process. This means the likelihood of hiring from a place of prejudice is still prevalent. 

So a black applicant makes it past the hurdle of interviews and is now in the working environment; what now? Well there is a lot that takes place within the culture of many organisations which can only confirm that racism hasn’t been eradicated by legislation, but has in fact evolved. When it comes to pay for instance, black and Arab academics on average earn 26 per cent less than their white colleagues, with female academics within this group earning even less because they are dealing with racial and gender inequality (black women in academia earn on average 39 per cent less than their white male colleagues). 

Then there is the resistance that ethnic minority employees face across various industries when it comes to being promoted. The 2018 Race at Work report highlighted that 38 per cent of white British employees felt they would need to leave their current organisation to progress in their career. When you compare this to the 52 per cent of BAME employees who shared the same sentiment, it is clear that many things need to be addressed in the working practices of organisations in the UK. 

It also makes it more difficult to progress if non-white employees are tasked with ‘promoting diversity in the workplace’ and this is being added to performance reviews at a higher occurrence than for white British employees. The work to undo oppressive work practices should not be placed on the shoulders of those who are being oppressed. What this demonstrates is an apathy towards change and self-reflection to identify complicity in toxic work environments. 

Unpaid internships, “friendly reminders” to not eat “smelly food” in the office kitchen, being jokingly told my white colleague could not recognise me because I’d changed my hairstyle, with them then wanting to touch my hair... These are all examples of various practices that have been normalised in the workplace that only serve to ‘other’ people of a particular race and class. 

You only have to read the comments under any of my Sally in HR sketches to see the number of BAME people who have been mistaken for another colleague or had their name consistently mispronounced or misspelled. 

I receive letters to my podcast weekly from black women who are afraid to speak out about mistreatment in the workplace because they do not want to be labelled as ‘angry’ or ‘aggressive’ and unfortunately the probability of this fear being realised is very high. This isn’t a moment of finger wagging but rather a call to white people across every industry to take in what is happening around the world as motivation for self-reflection. Often it is a scary prospect to consider the ways in which you may have been complicit in oppression, but it can only truly be dismantled if we practice radical honesty. 

Sociologist Robin DiAngelo coined the term ‘white fragility’ to address the very real way that a lot of white people become defensive when discussions about race and racism emerge, because ultimately they become preoccupied with not being seen as a ‘bad person.’ DiAngelo is a white woman and her book White Fragility is addressed to white people and I think this is a necessary yet frustrating structure. The discussions that DiAngelo raises in her book aren’t new to me as a black woman, because many black activists and academics have said the same thing and more for centuries. The reality is that these findings weren’t making their way to the majority of white people because black people were being systematically and institutionally silenced.  

DiAngelo rightly highlights that the issue with discussing racism is that it is posited as a “conscious thing that bad people do” as opposed to centuries of socialisation into believing that there are races of people who are lesser than whiteness. Racism is perpetuated when those oppressive beliefs are 
enacted whether directly or indirectly by individuals through social situations that many may not question. 

This brings me back to my workshop-opening question about when white people realise they are white. Maybe some readers are considering this question more reading this piece. It is not a coincidence that many white people haven’t considered their whiteness because that is in fact the way race and thus racism was constructed. As DiAngelo describes it, “to be white is to move through a racialized world in an un-racialized body” and examples of this can be seen even when cosmetic brands label products as being suitable for “normal to dark skin tones.”  

So before you hold your next D&I workshop, take time to consider the elephant in the room – that big old elephant that goes by the name of ‘racism.’ It is the mechanism of race that we should all be affected by it but think it taboo to talk about. Real change requires real conversations and the work doesn’t start and stop there. The conversations are only a precursor to the more challenging and messier work of unlearning and uprooting all the practices in our personal and professional lives which dictate that – as author Toni Morrison so aptly described it – we can only be “tall when someone else is on their knees.”  

Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race is a great resource for anybody who is serious about truly doing the work to change. I use this book often during my anti-racism workshops and always receive feedback from participants that it has helped them begin to understand just how deeply etched into our society racism actually is. 

The way to discuss racism in the workplace is to listen. It will be hard I’m sure. There will be the temptation to explain away the instances that employees might share of their lived experience of racism. But you must try very hard to fight the urge to interject or cry. Whether you realise it or not, these are also tools used to thwart meaningful conversation. 

I’ve heard people proclaim many times that they don’t have a “racist bone” in their body. While that might be true (I don’t know where that bone is on a skeleton), there is a high likelihood that if you’ve experienced the school curriculum in the UK without further reading, there are unchallenged perceptions you might hold that could in fact be racist. It is time to stop avoiding words and begin to address actions. 

The truth is that the government can pass as many updated versions of legislation as it likes to address racism in the workplace, but until historical and present day injustices are acknowledged, organisations will only be doing superficial work on issues that go far deeper. To put it simply: legislation will not work unless we do.

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