Arrival Education
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Arrival Education

Becoming a better White Ally

By Alison Horner

White people and white-led organisations are learning many lessons right now about racism, systemic inequalities and inequities, and what it really takes to be anti-racist.

I am the (white) CEO of Tesco Asia and I have the honour of leading our businesses in Thailand and Malaysia. I am also a member of the Tesco Executive Committee.

These views are my own. What I write here is my own perspective, though that perspective is informed by my world at Tesco, where I’ve proudly worked for over 20 years. A world, where ‘Everyone is Welcome’ — be they colleagues, customers or the communities we serve.

Alison Horder, CEO, Tesco Asia

The lesson I want to share with other white, privileged leaders is that without fully understanding the lived experience of people of colour, it will be impossible to be a true white ally.

In order to help me be a better white ally, I have been working with Arrival Education, who are facilitating a leadership programme that has Tesco Executive Committee members mentor ethnically diverse talent. I have been very lucky indeed to have the pleasure of mentoring Ama Ankobia.

As Ama’s mentor, I hoped I would help her achieve some of her career goals, but I never imagined my learning would be so rich, or the opportunity so timely. I cannot thank Arrival and Ama enough. I will do whatever I can to give back what I am gaining from this experience.

Why so many organisations and leaders are learning lessons right now, is an interesting question.

The lessons of the killing of George Floyd are amplified daily across social media. The audience, may in the light of Covid19, be more collectively receptive to unfairness and suffering that we somehow ignored before. Let’s not forget Covid19 is a disease, which disproportionately kills people of colour. And yet, those same people of colour are disproportionately taking risks, on our behalf, as key workers in our supermarkets, hospitals and care homes.

Perhaps then, a more interesting question is why wasn’t there this level of interest in racial disparity before?

The answer is complex because the problem is systemic, and not simple. If we accept that racism is an output of a system, in which we are all invested, rather than individual discriminatory behaviour, then we have a better chance to resolve it.

Systems have characteristics, which make them resilient and hard to change. By definition parts of systems are interconnected and rely on other parts to keep them going. All the roots in the rhizome are interconnected, keeping the whole system alive. Failure to understand that racism is systemic, means that changes, which do not fix the structural and systemic causes of inequality, will not fix racism. We need to resolve the causes of racism and NOT focus merely the consequences.

An example of this is that despite making discrimination unlawful, the data continues to demonstrate that the life experiences of most black men, women and children is still considerably worse than the life experiences of most white men, women and children.

With Arrival and Ama, I’ve learned that in order to break the systemic nature of built-in bias and racism, I must not only be racially conscious but consciously — anti-racist. And like many white people, I’m learning right now that the lesson that doing nothing, while benefiting from the system, is not conscious anti-racism.

Just because we aren’t racist doesn’t mean the system isn’t.

It’s obvious that maintaining the status quo in institutional diversity suits white people better. Unless white people reject a system that serves them at the cost of others, then that system will never change.

Put bluntly, power in the system is unequally distributed, so active intervention is needed to provide equity and justice. We can’t rely on individualism and meritocracy to subvert the system, think representation on boards; or, for people in the system to be heard, when the system is doing wrong, think Windrush or Grenfell.

Our failure as white people to learn within this system is because our lived experience at school, home and work are mainly white. We are not exposed to the impact of the system on people of colour day-to-day. And therefore, cannot comprehend its inequalities.

Small shoots of hope

We can get a sense, if only a glimpse of what that must be like, through conversations with people who DO experience those inequalities. This is what’s so powerful in the work that Arrival does — it intelligently connects leaders with smart and thoughtful socially and ethnically diverse talent.

Despite the continued inequities for people of colour today, there are small shoots that give hope. Social media for instance, for all its flaws and failings, has become a powerful movement of change and social evolution. Enlightened conversations and debates are happening everywhere, and people are changing and expanding their views as a result. We shouldn’t underestimate that.

We now see images, in a way that perhaps we didn’t in the past, where people of colour openly challenge exclusion and racism. Organisations and leaders are listening.

As I connect to ever more diverse people, my social media feeds are influencing how I appreciate their lived experiences, be it in work or in the world. Which in itself is a lesson that my ‘real-life’ network has not been diverse enough.

Walking the talk

As leaders, as well as examining and addressing our own responses, we must examine and address the responses of our organisations.

As I said, I’ve worked at Tesco for over 20 years now, and for all that time, one of our core values has been — treat people how they want to be treated. From a systems perspective, that value alone will never be enough to deliver inclusion and diversity fully.

While the percentage of people of colour in our leadership reflects the UK working-age population, it does not always reflect the communities we serve or our colleagues on the frontline. And this really matters if our lived experience as leaders is going to be diverse.

We must continue our learning to understand better the barriers in the system to progression and the adjustments we must make to allow for structural inequalities and inequities faced by people of colour.

This takes active intervention.

In the UK, we have signed up to the Race at Work Charter and committed to its 5 calls to action.

In Asia, we are committed to making sure that all colleagues in Tesco and our supply chain are treated according to ILO labour standards, however, they are employed and wherever they are from.

As a Group, we are acting to be intentionally inclusive at every stage of our hiring, development and review processes. This means diverse internal and external shortlists. This means a diversity challenge on every promotion. This means that salary increases and bonus payments will depend on demonstrating inclusive leadership.

For us at Tesco, inclusive leadership means three things — setting an inclusive culture, leading with curiosity, and being self-aware and authentic.

And to make a difference to diversity in our leadership population now to help us better drive inclusion, we are accelerating the development of people of colour. Already in our UK channels, there are 55% of our cohort, in our Own Your Career programme.

As white leaders, we must continue to listen and learn. We must not sit passively in a system of advantage that helps us and hinders people of colour, whether in their basic rights or realising their career and life dreams. Anti-racism must be active.

I am a white ally.

Alison Horner is the CEO of Tesco Asia



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