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Why you should celebrate Black History Month at work – and how to get it right

1 Oct 2020 By Claudine Charles and Geoffrey Williams

Marking this event will continue the dialogue around race and identity and help address societal educational imbalances, say Claudine Charles and Geoffrey Williams

October is Black History Month, a time when we celebrate the contributions of black people in the UK and on the world stage. Black History Month was first marked in the UK in October 1987. Many organisations and bodies celebrate it each year, but some HR practitioners may have questions about how best to do this in their businesses – and, most importantly, what they should avoid doing. 

Why was Black History Month launched?

Many of us are aware we haven’t been taught much about black history beyond slavery or the US civil rights movement at school. The people from the African diaspora (the term used to denote the mass dispersion of people from Africa during the transatlantic slave trades, from the 1500s to the 1800s) have made major contributions in various ways. But many in the UK and the US felt black history and innovations were not recognised, deemed important or even acknowledged. In response, Black History Month was established – in the UK, through the leadership of Ghanaian analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, who worked for the Greater London Council.  

Why should you celebrate it?

If your business celebrates and acknowledges other days such as International Women's Day, Pride Month and Mental Health Week, you should include Black History Month in your roster of activities – even if you only have a small percentage of black employees. It continues the dialogue around race and identity in your business, and ensures your organisation is contributing to educating its employees and addressing the societal educational imbalances we experience. It creates spaces for professionals to visit and deliver speeches that will enable all employees to learn about UK black history. 

There is a tangible movement for change currently that’s centred around black people wanting to be seen, heard and simply able to bring their whole selves to work, not just the part that is deemed acceptable or appropriate. It’s also centred around white people wanting to understand how they can do things differently. Many allies want to help usher in an evolved and inclusive anti-racist world. 

What should you avoid?

One key pitfall to avoid is only celebrating and acknowledging black history by highlighting ethnic food weeks in the canteen or holding ‘wear your traditional outfit to work’ days. This approach is a very 1980s way of celebrating Black History Month. Not everyone who is black grew up in or has visited where their ancestors came from, so they may not wear or even be aware of the traditional dress of their parents’ or ancestors' place of origin. And it doesn’t make them any less black.  

What should you do?

  1. Research and share achievements and historical milestones of black people in the UK. There are lists of hundreds of achievements and key figures on the internet. For example, you could discuss Mary Seacole, a nurse who set up the British Hotel during the Crimean War, or the history of the Windrush generations from the Caribbean, including the fact that in 1956 Transport for London began to recruit workers to work on the buses from Barbados. 
  2. Have leadership share messages and encourage all to participate.
  3. Partner with your employees and either your D&I team or your events committee to plan at least one activity. 
  4. Bring in external professionals to speak to all employees. Ask the leading black voices in your sector or profession to speak to your staff.
  5. Encourage non-black employees to engage. (We cannot tell you how many times we have had non-black employees ask if they can attend a black employee event. The answer is always: of course, it’s a work activity taking place in your business – engage and learn).
  6. Partner with customers or suppliers to host joint events. 
  7. Sponsor charities that support the black community.
  8. Attend the many external events that will be taking place across the UK. 
  9. Ask your children's school what they are doing and encourage them to start the dialogue – again from a UK perspective not just that of the African-American civil rights movement.
  10. Sponsor and buy tables for the many black-focused awards that happen across the UK during this period.
  11. Engage with carnival committees in your regions and pay them to come in and share stories about music and history. 

Black history is everyone's history as we are all global citizens. The victor gets to tell history, but this approach creates blindspots and blinkers. So it’s time we took those off and celebrated all of the continued contributions black Britons are making in the UK. 

Claudine Charles is founder and director of Blended Learning Studio, and Geoffrey Williams is founding director of GOW

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