Shonagh Reid portrait

Written by Shonagh Reid

Shonagh Reid is a former secondary school senior leader. She is now a Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Consultant and Coach.

After the awful events of last summer where systematic and institutional racism where laid bear with the murder of George Floyd, organisations have become more acutely aware of their approach to diversity, equality and inclusion. It is easy to believe that people of colour have become more outraged by systematic and institutional racism because of George Floyd, but this is not the case. There are plenty of events here in the UK that have added to trauma and exhaustion of our ethnic minorities. A few examples:

Mercy Baguma, originally from Uganda who lost her right to work in the UK and ended up starving to death next to her baby. This case highlighted the lack of care for black people in the UK and the vulnerability of refugees, who are more likely to be black. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-53904251

The data around the impact of Covid 19 which clearly demonstrates that BAME communities have been more at risk of long term damage from the virus and death. There are lots of reasons for this including but not limited to: the high level of BAME people working in the NHS in jobs that placed them at higher risk; cases of PPE being given to white colleagues over BAME colleagues when supply was short; BAME people more likely to work in jobs that cannot be done at home placing them at higher risk.

The experience of black women in childbirth where they are more likely to be left for longer periods of time, less likely to be given pain relief and four times more likely to die. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/jan/15/black-women-in-the-uk-four-times-more-likely-to-die-in-pregnancy-or-childbirth

The handling of the disappearance of Richard Okorogheye and the lack of urgency in his search when compared to other missing persons who were of a different ethnicity around the same time. The case highlighted the feeling of distrust towards the police and the fact that not all people in the UK feel they can rely on them. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-56674932

These examples all tell us what people from ethnic minority backgrounds already know. Now that these stories are exposed more often they are quite rightly triggering leaders to take action in their organisations whether these are schools, hospitals or private companies. 

The difficulty here is that some leaders have a knee jerk reaction which then leads to a tokenistic response which can in fact make systematic racism worse and has little or no impact on long term diversity and inclusion. 

Easy Mistakes to Make

Realising you need more representation in your leadership structure and making quick appointments. 

Most people would agree that representation matters but just having someone of colour on your leadership team does not make it diverse or inclusive. Without leaders understanding that the new member of staff will need to be heard, valued and most importantly comfortable to show up as their authentic selves, they will not make the contributions they want to make, or the organisation expects. In fact, they may retreat from ‘harm’s way’, try to ‘blend in’ and suffer with mental health problems which in turn can lead to retention issues and so the problem continues. 

Assuming you already know what the problems are

Sometimes organisations will rush ahead with strategies they feel will fix the problem such as creating a network or group for BAME colleagues, asking a BAME colleague to be the spokesperson and lead on diversity often with no pay and organising ‘training’. This means that diversity feels like it is being done to an organisation rather than being an organic and meaningful process. A member of staff who is approached to be a representative or leader for diversity can sometimes feel that this in itself is a micro aggression. BAME people cannot speak for all BAME people, the term BAME has its own challenges and within that broad acronym the racist and discriminatory experiences of sub groups are vastly different. 

Creating an ethos of ‘not seeing colour’

The motivation behind this sentiment is often from a very good place: seeing people as equals, not being judgmental etc. The difficulty of ‘not seeing colour’ is that the by-product is that you are suggesting that you don’t see the person as an individual, don’t see their challenges and don’t recognise the barriers to success for them. It also means that you don’t have to challenge your own innate biases and behaviours. This can then lead people of colour feeling unseen, unvalued and ‘othered’.

Some tips:

 

  1. It is worth getting some professional support in your approach to diversity and inclusion at your organisation. Professionals will have a range of strategies to help but importantly will be able to see issues dispassionately, offer a third party that your teams can speak openly to without fear or favour and provide a critical friend relationship. 
  2. Get proper feedback from your stakeholders about what is going well and what isn’t. Listen to their suggestions about how they are made to feel by people, policies and systems in place and then respond. Ensure you have a regular and meaningful system of hearing everyone’s voice and vary how this is done.
  3. Look carefully at your data. Who has been promoted recently? Where are your pay gaps? Look at the qualifications, skills and abilities of your entire workforce, are people working at the level they really should be?
  4. Communicate openly and be honest. Tell all stakeholders where you are, where you want to be and what you plan to do to get there. 

 

It is understandable that leaders of organisations want to press ahead with ‘tackling the problem’, they don’t want to be seen as behind the times or insensitive and most people recognise the need for change, beware of rushing in without in-depth analysis and systematic change. 

The issues and tips here are just the beginning of a much wider discussion. There are a huge number of issues for diversity, equality and inclusion and an equal number of ways to approach a robust and meaningful strategy. It is very important to bear in mind that this blog has focussed on the issue of race and hasn’t discussed other protected groups which need a similar approach in any good diversity, equality and inclusion strategy.

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