Dismantling workplace racism means doing more than just posting a black square
For a long time, I’ve been reluctant to publicise my thoughts just in case I said the wrong thing or offended someone. The more I read up and educated myself, the more I held back — but the recent BLM (Black Lives Matter) protests and the racial injustices it’s bringing to light has made me question this attitude, and the importance of voicing what I know and how I feel.
Like many others, I’ve experienced a hurricane of emotions in the past few weeks. At FutureLearn, we’ve been having company-wide discussions about BLM and what we could be doing better. Education is key, and as an ed-tech company, we have the power to make a big difference by providing access to education about British history that the national curriculum doesn’t cover. We can also use our social-learning experience to create opportunities for learners to have global discussions about these topics and learn about each others’ experiences. This is a great start, yet I can’t help but feel like this isn’t enough. I’m interested in the changes companies are willing to make internally, on top of improving the product’s external offering.
Stop relying on ‘people of colour’ to do all the hard work
I’d like to see more companies provide training and encouraging employees to educate themselves about microaggressions and covert racism. ‘People of Colour’, particularly Black people, experience these frequently, and it can feel like it’s our responsibility to challenge these and educate others. I don’t think I’m the only one whose name has been mistaken for that of another Asian or heard colleagues say things like “I don’t find Black/Asian people attractive.” These are just a few examples, and there’s a myriad of other microaggressions like these, including touching someone’s hair “because it looks cool” or saying they’re “well-spoken for someone who isn’t white” or “pretty for someone who is dark-skinned”. These microaggressions hurt because they reduce someone to their skin colour. They homogenise, other, exclude, alienate and stereotype people. What’s more, from a young age, ‘People of Colour’ internalise these comments and spend years trying to be comfortable in our skin.
It isn’t always easy to call out racism at work, and we have to weigh up speaking up against the impact it may have on our career. At best, we’d be labeled “overly sensitive,” and for Black women, it could lead to being stereotyped as the ‘the angry Black woman.’ This type of belittling is hurtful, not least because it shuts us down and completely dismisses our experience. Speaking up is awkward, exhausting, and sometimes just not worth it, especially in a professional environment. This has weighed heavily on me over the past few weeks because it shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate anyone about our experiences. It’s painful enough living it, and companies and individuals need to take responsibility to invest time educating themselves, understanding personal biases, and speaking up. At the very least, if someone does try to talk about their experience of racism, listen, and don’t deny their experience.
Create safe spaces for raising grievances
Companies also have a responsibility to put procedures in place to ensure that employees feel comfortable raising grievances if they were to experience racism in the workplace. It’s important to feel protected, and to feel that workplaces put our wellbeing first. Get this right and companies can improve their staff retention too.
Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable
I feel lucky to work in an environment where I can open up to colleagues about how I feel, but I think workplaces can do more to support staff at a time like this. I’ve noticed that, in some cases, race is a taboo subject in a professional environment. How many people do you see speaking about BLM on LinkedIn versus on social media? In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed some people feel deeply uncomfortable talking about it, and at times this comes from a fear of not knowing what to say. We should work towards creating work cultures where we feel comfortable with this discomfort. This is pertinent for those who manage others. It’s important to feel like we have someone to talk to that cares, and at times it’s okay if you feel awkward and don’t know what to say. In fact, maybe awkwardness is necessary so that it feels genuine. I’ve been challenging my own discomfort too so that I can support colleagues that have recently joined the company, and it has led to having better, more open relationships with them during this time.
There is a lot more to be said and done if we want to truly challenge racism in the workplace, beyond what can be covered in a blog post. It’s a lot more complex than even systemic racism, and yet it feels like people are only now starting to discover and learn about it. I’m feeling sceptical, but I hope that this does lead to genuine, lasting change in the long term. I guess only time will tell.
If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on this topic, I wrote a blog post about how workplace diversity needs an intersectional approach last year. It’s a bit of a long read. I also highly recommend this thread from Sheree Atcheson for more advice on what companies can do to support Black employees at a time like this. Check out this video from Hustle Crew too, about addressing race in the workplace and how to call it out or manage it when you’re seeing it from colleagues or managers.