When we were setting the agenda and theme for this year’s BAMEed Network annual conference, I have to admit that the idea of a theme of the habits of highly effective people felt like it could stray into contentious territory. I don’t buy into the ideology that promotes a view that hard work breaks all barriers if you just put your mind to it. I do believe that our world is inherently racist, our institutions are structurally racist and that many white people, when faced with challenge on this are prone to being fragile and defensive, often crying out the case for colour-blindness instead of taking responsibility and committing themselves to join the call to be agents of change. We will need to all work extremely hard as a society to make meaningful changes for people of colour, Gypsy, Traveller and Roma people, the working classes, women, people with disabilities, LGBT people and the many marginalised people in general. We will need to understand that these changes need to take place, not out of pity or do-goodery which creates further ‘othering’ people of colour. Change needs to happen for the good of us all.
One of the strong themes of the day was to explore the reasons why diversity and anti-racist practice, in all its forms, is good for everyone. After all, diversity is actually good for business. In our increasingly materialistic and managerialist world, employers in all sectors and business people alike should be aware of the impact of ignoring the issues. It might seem cynical to overlook real human experience in favour of putting the business case for equality, but it might also be a good way to make people start to engage with the issues. Where you can’t first change people’s attitudes, perhaps you can change their actions.
A healthy workforce is a happy workforce
Mental health and wellbeing is a good place to start. The evidence is there, cumulative exposure to racial discrimination has incremental negative long-term effects on the mental health of ethnic minority people in our country. Studies that examine exposure to racial discrimination at one point in time may underestimate the contribution of racism to poor health.
I think what is hard for people to understand is that when we refer to racial discrimination it is not confined to outrageous and obvious racist abuse, it is confined to these small acts, daily reminders, constant and seemingly subtle markers of territory which white people are prone to do. White people too are victims of constant, deep and consistent conditioning that we will need to work hard to free ourselves from.
A person who is consistently made to feel that they do not belong, that they are not fully British, or they are Brit(ish) as Afua Hirsch so powerfully explains in her recent book of the same title, is exhausting. The impact on health, both mental and physical, is tangible and has been researched, written, documented and spoken about extensively. The incidents of micro-aggressions and denying people of colour an equal place in shared spaces is imperceptible to most white people’s consciousness. As a Jew, I know these micro-aggressions all too well but as a secular, white Jew, I can choose to expose my ‘otherness’ and don’t wear it as obviously as many marginalised people do.
The ‘innocent act’ of taking an interest in someone’s heritage is a prime example and in many accounts I have heard, it involves this simple but powerful way to show someone their right to be fully British is under question:
Q: “Where are you from?”
A: “London/Birmingham/Dorset/[insert any part of the UK]”
Q: “Yes, but where are you from? Where is your family from originally?”
Diverse teams are 35% more productive
Diversity in the workplace doesn’t mean having a bingo card full-house of ‘minorities’ or marginalised groups. What it does mean is diversity of thought. If you have a diverse group of people they will differ in the way they approach situations, think things through, perceive challenges, view the issues, come to solutions, work together, articulate themselves, network and collaborate. This leads to higher rates of productivity in all sectors and of course profitability in the private sector, according to a recent McKinsey study. You can’t have diversity of thought if everyone in your organisation has the more or less the same background and experience.
The best way to ensure diversity is to change recruitment practices. Too many employers say that they struggle to recruit a diverse workforce because the diverse candidates just don’t apply. Anyone who attended his workshop or has spoken to him, will know that Roger Kline’s work with the NHS is a fascinating insight into how simple changes in practice make a huge difference. The interesting fact is that while you can’t oblige people to believe this is the right thing to do morally, simple target-setting can certainly be a huge motivator for people to reach the levels of diversity, and therefore productivity, that workplaces should strive to achieve. It’s a two-pronged attack of targets and educating managers that works best of course. It’s not enough to believe, you need the tools and sometimes the carrot and stick approach to make change happen.
But Roger’s work shows that it doesn’t just stop with getting the team in. It also extends to treating people well. His research shows that it is 1.56 times more likely that BAME staff will enter the formal disciplinary process than white colleagues, while in London it is twice as likely. We see this also with punishment and exclusion of our students in schools. We should learn from Kline and colleagues on what works and what doesn’t in promoting equality for our staff members and our children.
Change always begins with me
There is a place though to consider what measures each of us can take to promote change, point out inequality where it is taking place and to position ourselves as best as we can to mitigate the effects of structural and inherent racism in our society.
For me as a white person, I know that I have a moral responsibility to keep reading, learning, listening and educating myself so that I can open doors, send the elevator back down, and share my privilege where I can. As Peggy McIntosh so rightly points out, white people have a ‘knapsack of privileges’ which we are encouraged to not even recognise or see as inherent to the experience of ‘whiteness’ and white privilege. She says, “As a white person, I realised I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage…I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious”. I was pleased that this year, our conference included more white delegates than ever. We are yet to be blessed with ‘the great white male’ among their number. Next year, our conference will be in Brighton on 15th June and I hope that we can do better on this front.
My fears of even a hint of victim-blaming or ‘just try harder’ message coming across in our choice of theme transpired to be unfounded of course. One workshop I attended, further helped me reconcile my original worry. Issy Dhan’s session explored how we can make our work and achievements more visible in the workplace. He was sensitive to the fact that culturally, especially those not socialised and conditioned in the way our white, British, male colleagues may have been, can find the whole concept of potential immodesty, extroversion and trumpet-blowing hard to stomach. However, some simple processes and actions can go a long way to helping make ourselves more visible as credible people in the workplace and the knock-on effect can be to raise the profile of our perceived minority group, whether we like it or not.
One great and relevant piece of advice came from one of the participants in this particular workshop. She said that where your workplace still isn’t convinced of your strength and worth, consider making your impact outside of the workplace. Get involved in things you can lead, organise, be active in. Show your professional abilities and leadership qualities. Blogging, writing for professional publications and getting involved in movements like the BAMEed Network are prime examples. We’d be delighted to see your blog on the event and to hear what impact it had on you. We are looking for more regional leads who can ensure that across the country we are making change happen. Just get in touch, we’re waiting to hear from you.