We live in a racialised society

Racism continues, despite the claims that we are a more enlightened society, and to advance racial equity within your organisation, you must first understand how we arrived at this point, says Shereen Daniels, author of The Anti-Racist Organization

We don’t understand racism.

Our lack of moral courage in at least talking accurately about racism, whether in the workplace or in wider society, means that we have reduced it to overt, easily identified behaviour.

Depending on the individual, the position they hold and how valuable they are to the company, we may be unceasing in our vilification of individuals, their specific actions and the agendas we deem racist. But a zero-tolerance approach to racism is never truly zero tolerance. And it can’t be, because racism is insidious and isn’t just about how we act.

Dismissing racism’s origin story

We brush off racism as incidents isolated to specific individuals’ opinions and actions, ones we soon forget when the individual is, hopefully, disgraced. Yet when we inevitably push these matters out of our minds, making the conscious decision to ‘move on’ with the mechanics of our own lives, we completely misconstrue racism’s existence.

We deceive ourselves, comfort ourselves even, into believing that these odd, occasional incidents by rash individuals are racism in its entirety – something wholly separate from us and from the values on which we base our lives. When we do this we trivialise racism’s reality.

‘I do not condone racism, under any circumstances. This behaviour is abhorrent to me. I would never hire anyone who I thought was racist. Not all white people are racist.’ [Unnamed] clients, 2020

‘I was really offended. I’m a nice person. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.’ [Unnamed] HR consultant, 2020

We may focus more on whether we are being accused of something, hoping to hear, ‘Oh, I don’t mean you of course’, which we can take to mean that we are somehow separate from the issue. If it’s not us, we can continue to talk about those ‘bad people’ over there.

We subconsciously dismiss racism’s origin story, where it came from and how, all these centuries later, it’s still here. It continues to do its work, barely interrupted, despite the technological advances and the claims that we are a more enlightened and civilised society.

A manmade system that feeds off apathy, compliance and obedience

Racism is so entrenched within the fabric of our society that we can’t imagine living any other way. And whether or not we want to address it consciously, we do live in a racialised society.

But the concept of race doesn’t actually exist. It was fabricated to serve a specific purpose that dates back to the 17th century, when philosophers were engaging in their own version of blue-sky thinking and designing what they thought would be the ideal society for men like them to get and stay ahead.

Simply put, the founding principles upon which western society is built purposefully created the racist ideology we live by. And make no mistake – we do live by it. We may not have been around when its concrete foundations were poured, but we exist in the structures those foundations support. We’ve never questioned the inherent fairness of those structures, because it works, for the majority at least. And is it our responsibility to fix something we never had a hand in creating?

Racism is one of the best manmade systems every created. More than 500 years later, it is still doing exactly what it was designed to do. And it feeds off our apathy, compliance and obedience. It rewards insecurity, superiority and scarcity.

The challenge of representation

Despite how uncomfortable this makes you feel, we do live in a society that values whiteness. This creates and reinforces power structures that work for the benefit of white people – to different degrees, of course, but whiteness is central to pretty much everything, with the intended consequence being that Black people (at least those in western society) exist with little or no institutional power to improve our situation.

We are not represented en masse in the political and corporate corridors of power. We are punished rather than rewarded for doing anything that seeks to improve the experiences of people who look like us. In some cases, this is referred to as ‘reverse racism’ and is actively discouraged, lest we be accused of favouring our own.

There might be one or two of us, of course, who have somehow got to that magical seat at the table, but as we’ve seen time and again, the conscious and subconscious limiting of Black representation doesn’t just pose a challenge for the ‘About Us’ section of corporate websites.

We aren’t here protesting, calling for and instigating change because we don’t have the will or the capability. It’s because the systems and structures we inhabit are deliberately not skewed in our favour.

Decisions that affect Black colleagues are universally made by white people. Even if you claim to consult, fundamentally you have the final call. Despite our objections, we don’t have the power, rank or privilege to influence those decisions – not really, despite proclamations to the contrary.

‘We have an open-door policy and we listen to our colleagues. Those issues are in society. We definitely don’t have any of that here.’ [Unnamed] CEO, 2021

You might be thinking, why keep bringing up this messy, complex societal issue and making it a corporate problem? Why can’t we keep it separate? It’s too emotional, too divisive and now if you say the wrong thing you’re done for.

There is no space for ‘politics’ within the workplace.

In order to advance racial equity within your organisation, you need to understand how we arrived at this point in the first place. We got here through rational thinking, through logic and objectivity as decided centuries ago by white Englishmen.

In a strange way, we got there through ‘politics’, as defined as the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power.

This is an edited extract from The Anti-Racist Organization: Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Workplace, by Shereen Daniels (Wiley, 2022).

Shereen Daniels is Chair of the African Diaspora Economic Inclusion Foundation and Managing Director of HR rewired.

BGA members can receive a 20% discount off a copy of The Anti-Racist Organization, courtesy of the BGA Book Club. Please click here for details.

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