How to start anti-racism conversations in your organisation.
In what felt like an instant, the killing by police officers of George Floyd, a black man in the US, and the subsequent worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, took our attention away from the urgent, all-consuming news coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic, towards a topic we have historically and culturally found difficult to talk about; race, racism and institutional racism.
But how did we get here? Well the answer is slowly and steadily. Over the last 8 years there’s been a rise in mobile phone video recordings of racist incidents around the world, but primarily in the United States and South Africa, the two countries with long histories of legalised racial segregation. Curated by members of the public, and distributed onto social media sites, these scenes have ranged from incidents of police brutality to racism displayed in everyday situations such as in grocery shops, fast food drive-ins and public parks. A dark reality has steadily emerged from these sporadic and seemingly unrelated incidents. It speaks to what many on social media platforms have agreed upon. The fact that racism is not dead. We’re just filming it.
This plethora of “evidence” has gradually created a platform for a new type of discourse. One that not only allows for a closer examination of the racism captured in these individual moments, but also allows for voices once left out of formal academic research, to be incorporated into the emerging discussion and analysis of racism. The general public has been able to comment, discuss and learn alongside the media, political analysts and academics, diagnosing and understanding that these incidents of racism are not isolated and unique. They’re part of the long standing and insidious problem of institutional racism that exists equally across Europe and Australia. The truth about our so called “post racial” world has been exposed. In a black government led SA and post-Obama US, social justice activists have been tackling issues of institutional racism and inequities which continue to plague education, health, housing and corporate spaces. Amongst the many statistical facts generated on the impact of race in our societies, are those that document just how black and brown people have been systematically left behind or left out of most measures of social access, opportunity, integration and participation. One of the stark examples is that out of the Fortune 500 companies in the US, only 4 are led by black people, and none of the four are women. This points to the fact that the problem lies deep within the structures of institutions. “Anti- racism is the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organisational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably.” To begin anti-racism conversations in order to surface the thoughts and feelings in your organisation, begins with frank conversations and unflinching self-reflection. In an organisation that has a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategy plan or policies, it may be easy to piggy back conversations on racism onto those that are already happening as part of cultivating a culture of inclusion. If this isn’t the case, it’s perhaps wise to strike while the iron is hot. Now’s the time to take the leap and begin the anti-racism conversation in your organisation. Black Lives Matter If you haven’t done so already, communicate with your organisation through your usual channels, and acknowledge the Black Lives Matter protests and the events that led to this moment. Be sure to avoid the “All Lives Matter” tone. Although there are many other injustices happening to different groups of people, this particular moment is about Black Lives. Any other prejudices or causes you may want to declare your support for, are not on the table at this moment. Racial literacy For the most part, the reason we’re historically incompetent at talking about race and identity, is that it’s an overwhelming subject and most of us feel out of our depth around the terminology and language that is used. Arrange racial literacy education sessions for your organisation. These ensure that conversations begin from the same knowledge base and that people have the opportunity to engage in the accompanying self-reflective process. Most people of colour have had regular race related conversations from a young age, and often have to carry the burden of “educating” mostly white people in conversations about race. Having racial literacy sessions helps everyone become familiar with terms like anti-racist, stereotype threat, and micro aggressions. They allow for the conversations to be about listening and being heard. There are many resources available on the internet that will support this process and point to ways of continuing further dialogue.
Do not be afraid to speak to the issue. Find a coach who specialises in this work and tackle your own unconscious bias. Model inclusive leadership, call out unfair and unjust practices, acknowledge your bias and mistakes, amplify black and brown voices, and acknowledge your own complicity in upholding the system. These are some of the ways you can lead by example. This means being able to say “I’m working to transform race relations and I would like to start doing something about it”. You will need courage, vulnerability and to be able to risk saying the wrong things, or offending people. A quote by Brene Brown; “…how do we talk about race? My response you first listen about race. You will make a lot of mistakes. It will be super uncomfortable. And there’s no way to talk about it without getting criticism. But you can’t be silent. To opt out of conversations about privilege and oppression because you’re uncomfortable is the epitome of privilege.”
In the end, one needs equal measures of courage and vulnerability. Name the elephant in the room instead of leaving it until your employees are speaking about their experiences in their exit interviews, or worse on the internet in not so polite terms. Be vigilant. Racism does not take a day off. Be sure you’re not part of the performative allyship crew, who will be seen to be anti-racist in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and never thereafter again.
With a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology and certified in mindfulness based practice, Kehiloe works within the Diversity and Inclusion field, facilitating Transformation conversations and processes in NGO, higher education and school settings in South Africa. She is a consultant with Rosa Burns Ntsekhe - global consultants working with behavioural change, tackling issues of socio-economic inclusion, as well as organisational diversity and inclusion.