The spotlight on systemic racism in 2020 has led to a strong desire to discuss and redress racial imbalance. Leaders must embark on this work in a considered and pragmatic manner. The stakes are far too high for antiracism learning to be dealt with in the same manner as First Aid training for instance. It is process driven and must factor in impact, resources, time, emotional tax, bravery and much more. This article focuses on three high priority questions leaders must ask before engaging in antiracist work to improve chances of success.
What is the desired impact?
Just with any other training, it is imperative to have a clear idea of what success will look like. Is the desire to become an antiracism workplace or is it to create a general awareness of systemic racism so staff avoid racially discrimination? Having a clear idea will enable the trainer to design a package that will help the goal to be reached. It will dictate the level of depth, type of activities and questions to be asked.
Rarely will one-off sessions have a major impact on staff. For training to be meaningful, it must form part of a process that allows learning, discussion and thought between sessions. Systemic racial discrimination is embedded in society and inevitably has infiltrated the workplace. To undo contributory behaviours, practices, policies, beliefs and procedures that disadvantage marginalised communities, takes time.
This is not to suggest solo sessions have no use. It can serve to begin an exploration of the topic and alert staff to the direction of travel.
Are leaders prepared to be vulnerable?
No individual is neutral and objective when talking about ‘biological’ race (a social construct we have been led to believe exists). The work is deeply personal. Many mainstream white people have not been used to discussing issues of race. Such conversations have been taboo for centuries and when they do take place, are often fraught and lead to anger, resentment, guilt, fear and a desire never return to the topic.
Engaging in conversation pertaining to self, is a very brave but essential act. When we raise barriers, skim over important aspects, become defensive, angry, etc… the chances of success are greatly reduced. Author Brene Brown in her book ‘Dare to Lead’ states:
“If the culture in our school, organization, place of worship or even family requires armour because of issues like racism, classism, sexism, or any manifestation of fear-based leadership, we can’t expect wholehearted engagement.”
Leaders must lead by example and be honest whilst taking part in difficult conversations. This bravery is not to be underestimated as it is highly likely to influence the workforce. To ethnic minority staff, this is likely to be viewed as a major step in the right direction, increasing a sense of belonging, confidence in the company’s credibility, and loyalty.
How are racially marginalised staff safeguarded?
Racism is often traumatising, and most racially marginalised employees protect themselves accordingly. In the report ‘Day to Day Experiences of Emotional Tax among Women and Men of Colour in the Workplace’, it is stated that 58% of men and women across racial and ethnic groups report being highly on guard. (D.J. Travis & J. Thorpe Moscon – 2018).
Feeling on guard is often masked as a lack of desire to share personal information with colleagues, code-switching (hiding aspects of culture), pretending to not hear racist jokes, changing appearance to look ‘less ethnic’, internalising microaggressions, to name just a few practices commonly utilised.
When these employees are unwittingly and unsuspectingly encouraged to engage in discourse on an incredibly raw and private aspect of their lives, in a setting where they are often trying to avoid these conversations, it can be shocking, highly triggering and deeply traumatising. Many places of work do not have a safeguarding policy for racial distress. Generally, this is because systemic racial discrimination has allowed a wall of silence to be constructed and normalise cognitive dissonance and thus before now (for many organisations), racial safeguarding has not considered. It is imperative leaders have these staff members in the fore of their minds when planning such initiatives. Involve ethnic minority staff in conversations about the work, avoid tokenising and expecting them to know all the answers and provide safe spaces for expression, to be heard and air emotional distress.
This article merely scratches the surface of the work needed. To be impactful, those with the power must think holistically about how antiracism work is to be successful. Time, people, finances and other resources must be allocated sufficiently. The business plan, terms of reference, key performance indicators, contracts, recruitment posts, employee experience etc… must reflect this work. It is not a simple process.
However, the journey must begin somewhere. Therefore, to those unsure on how to begin. Start with these three questions. To not ask them, is to risk the work being tokenistic, disingenuous and at its worst: traumatising.
If you would like to talk further about your antiracism requirements, get in touch today.