Panel Discussion: What does an anti-racist organisation really look like?
24 November 2020
Hosted by Corndel
Chaired by Grace Mosuro
Grace Mosuro: There was something about the stillness that COVID-19 forced on us all, that enabled us to see what has been happening for a number of years, and actually feel the need to do something to change the face of our world. Racism needs to be tackled not only on an individual level but on a systemic level. Structural racism exists and the world is designed to perpetuate this. To dismantle racist structures, we need to articulate what those structures look like in our contexts.
In today’s event, we will hear our panelists’ thoughts and some of the conversations that should be taking place in workplaces around what racist structures look like; and what impact we can all have to progressively bring about change.
Kim Gieske: There is a model, referred to recently by Corndel, by Andrew M. Ibrahim* which looks at the three stages of becoming an anti-racist organisation – fear zone, learning zone, growth zone. In my last organisation, for many years we patted ourselves on the back as we thought we were a very diverse workplace. We were, in fact, in the fear zone. We didn’t ask ourselves hard questions. We felt very comfortable with where we were. It was only when we had some serious incidents to address that we moved into the learning zone; becoming more vulnerable and looking at our privilege and knowledge gaps. Thirty-three nationalities is great, but if they are mostly European, that’s not indicative of diversity. We hadn’t looked at our BAME pay gap. Was there representation of diversity at all levels within the business? To become an anti-racist workplace is a great thing but it takes really hard work and you need to change the culture of your organisation. This means really listening and taking into consideration minority voices.
Shezan Hirjee: Racist structures to me are any structures that bring about racist outcomes. They can look very different depending on the organisation or business that you are in. A racist organisation to me is any workplace that doesn’t implement specific structures to combat racism.
Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed: My context stretches back 30 years. Although the context has changed, there is a consistency in theme. Resistance morphs to accommodate itself. My experience and challenge has been that humans will do things and maintain things that actually harm them in the long-term, as long as it maintains their advantage. We see this in politics. In the US, why would so many people vote against a health bill that would help them? They do it because they have been told that if this comes into being, poor and disadvantaged black and brown people will benefit. Naming that there is, and will be, resistance is important to acknowledge. There is also the element of things hiding in plain sight; the challenge of denial. “You’re over-reacting.” “But I didn’t mean it.” “You have a chip on your shoulder.” “You misinterpreted.” These are subtle ways of resistance that form a challenge to creating an anti-racist environment.
Sylvana Storey: As a business psychologist, a lot of my work around diversity, racism and inclusion is framed within a psychological background. The problem is that racism is overt; not covert. It lies just beneath the surface and is difficult to unearth. It is deeply engrained into structural systems such as racial hierarchies or talent management systems including recruitment, promotions and appraisals. These systems are protected by the ruling elite which makes it difficult to break down. The other difficulty is that people don’t want to talk about it. People are inherently fearful of having those uncomfortable conversations or calling out actions. Even when they are called out, people often don’t practise ‘active listening’. They don’t hear what is being said. For me, the whole behaviour around racism and the habits that are fundamental to racism need to change.
Kim Gieske: My background is in HR and I believe that this is the moment for HR professionals to really step up and use their influence to show that a holistic approach is being taken to create an anti-racist organisation. They need to embed this in the organisation’s mission, in its HR practices and the behaviours that it values. Moving to a speak-up culture is about people feeling safe enough to have these conversations. Minority voices should feel they can speak up and feel confident they will have fair treatment, and people from non-minority backgrounds need to seek to understand and fill their knowledge gaps. Finally, organisations need to develop a culture of inclusive leadership. The leaders at the top of the organisation really set the tone and have the power to influence.
Sylvana Storey: To me, leaders are the architects of their culture. They have the responsibility and commitment for positioning, facilitating, supporting and integrating anti-racism. If they can use their privilege and power to progress and take a stand, that will make a huge difference as it creates a psychologically safe environment. If they communicate with empathy and act with compassion that also helps.
Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed: There is a lot to be said for not just ‘saying’ your support, but demonstrating that with your actions. I often ask leaders, “how are you putting this into practice in what you do? What is your succession plan? How are you identifying and encouraging a more diverse pool of talent to work their work into leadership roles?” Structures will morph and rearrange themselves to maintain the status quo unless leaders are vigilant enough to identify what is going on. It’s great to have policies and procedures that say ‘this is who we are as an organisation, and this is what good looks like in terms of how we intentionally progress people to make sure the leadership looks like the wider workforce.’
Shezan Hirjee: Racism is deeply personal and we have all had different experiences. Language matters. Some words can feel deeply offensive to some and not to others. An example is the difference in how language is used in the UK and the US. The role of organisations is to foster an open conversation with a focus on openness and sharing of personal stories. We can only do that within a safe space. People need to be allowed to make mistakes, within limits, and to be able to explore our understanding of race. The other responsibility of employers is to achieve diverse outcomes, in particular within senior leadership. We need to shift the emphasis to outcomes and the drive employers to be accountable.
Sylvana Storey: My vision for a fight against racism is that we all behave with dignity, where the full expression of humanity is valued. It is based on an African philosophy called Ubuntu. “A person is only a person through other persons.” We need to stop framing racism as a debate. Racism is not entertainment, it is evident. We need to pull our human DNA together.
Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed: Within Faith groups as a whole, there is a lot of following what is happening in society rather than valuing the teaching of the importance of humanity and being a ‘peoples’ together, with all its diversities. There is a lot of work underway to instil this generation after generation. Anti-racism is not a shiny new project. We must stick to the pillars of what we believe and speak truth through that, in words and actions.
Kim Gieske: I work closely with a consultancy called Equal Plus who recommend a 7-step approach which can be applied to all sectors. Step 1 is to use data from focus groups, surveys etc to understand your organisational context; Step 2 is to develop an inclusive culture; Step 3 involves improving recruitment processes that encourage minorities to join the organisation and progress; Step 4 is around training and mentoring; Step 5 is about employee relations and dealing with employee; Step 6 is motivation and morale; and finally Step 7 requires you to look at your compensation and benefits, reinforcing inclusive behaviours through reward.
Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed: Be very aware of where you recruit and what networks you are dipping into. If you fish in the same pond, you will get the same fish. Think about where you are not? What other networks are out there? Where are your recommendations coming from? Show intentionality and be genuine in your desire to recruit the very best from a bigger pool. There are groups out there. If you don’t know where they are, ask. And keep asking until you uncover those networks.
Shezan Hirjee: It’s about asking those difficult questions; pointing out racist structures or incidents when you see them; creating dialogue in places where colleagues can ‘safely’ exchange experiences; and understanding what’s already happening in your organisation and fitting in around those initiatives. We can all start the conversations and the exchange of information among colleagues.
Kim Gieske: As individuals we can read up on the subject through books such as ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge and ‘Speak Up’ by Megan Reitz. If we see a micro-aggression, we need to be brave enough to call it out – for example if you have been given an opportunity for development that was not open to others. This is often seen as impolite in our culture.
Sylvana Storey: We need to stop tip-toeing around certain conversations. Diversity and inclusion must go beyond behaviour change. If you want to change the system quickly, someone has to give up the seat that they are guarding. In order for one person to succeed and progress, someone has to step away. For example, intentionally positioning people to move into high visibility projects requires the breaking down established systems and structures. Speaking up always plays a tax on the person who speaks up and also on the person that’s listening.
Sylvana Storey: This is about mirroring the wider population and workforce. If talent management and succession planning systems aren’t equitable, then architects of those systems need to address that. It’s time to stop considering diversity as a business case. Racism is not a business case; it’s an act. Boards need to commit to targets and tie in performance measures.
Shezan Hirjee: Why do we have a lack of diversity at board level in particular? Because it reflects the pyramid as you go up and people from minority backgrounds encounter glass ceilings. It’s a structural racism. We tend to recruit in our own image from the networks we have. If we are more white males at the top of the pyramid and we want more people for the board, we recruit people we know and trust – it’s a good recruitment method. Except that it’s not. It puts more people like us into directorship. We need to create ongoing conversations with a diverse group of talent before the opportunities arise so that when positions come up at senior levels, we already know people who are not reflective of our natural networks. Cultivating diverse networks over time is an overlooked strategy.
Kim Gieske: If I hear something, I take that person aside and say to them “perhaps you didn’t mean to be racist when you said…”, and then I repeat what they said. It’s often not done with malicious intent, but we need to have the opportunity to have those conversations with people.
Shezan Hirjee: Micro-aggressions are very common and are often unintentional. It’s about an education. If you are an ethnic minority you might be more sensitive to when they happen to other people. Even getting the term micro-aggression on people’s radar can help. Challenging directly if you feel there was racist intent is important, yet can be difficult depending on your role within your organisation.
Sylvana Storey: There is no way to call people out without that ‘personal tax’. I wouldn’t take people aside; I would call it out there and then because that’s what anti-racism is. If you take people aside, for me, it doesn’t signal to others what’s right and wrong. That takes a lot of courage. If the leaders can role model those behaviours and create a psychologically safe environment, it helps to ease that tax somewhat. I have worked with organisations with very flat structures where anyone can speak up to the CEO. That’s the culture we want to encourage. The first few people that call others out are usually hit badly with that tax and we need to shift the onus from the individual to the collective.
Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed: I struggle with the idea that micro-aggressions can be unintentional. The nature of a micro-aggression is to reduce, silence and dispatch. In Britain, we take micro-aggressions to the next level and it has done a lot of damage. Tackling it is a high stakes action. I encourage people to address it in the moment, in the collective. One useful tool is definition. “When you said XYZ, I heard ABC. Is that what you meant?” You have not accused people of racism but they have to respond, within that respectful space. By asking a question you set a tone that people can’t just throw out words and phrases and negligently. If you feel uncomfortable, trust that feeling and ask the question: “What exactly do you mean by that? This is what I heard … did you mean it?” You then don’t take it home; it’s their opportunity to take it on board to consider and explain themselves.”
Thank you to all our panelists for being so open and supportive as we continue on our collective journey towards creating anti-racist workplaces and society. We hope you have found this discussion useful.
* Based on ideas from Dr Ibram X Kendi’s book, “How to be Anti-racist”