Is My Workplace Racist?

Ashanti Bentil-Dhue

Asking the Hard Questions to Encourage Proactive Anti-Racism

“I like to think of myself as open-minded and well educated. I, of course, don’t think that I’m a racist, but could I be?”

The above question was one of many difficult questions asked of diversity and inclusion practitioner Ashanti Bentil-Dhue in her 29 October talk on anti-racism in the workplace. Ashanti is part of the 100 White Allies consultancy, who aims to support organisations to become proactively anti-racist. She spoke to an audience of CEOs, managers, and employees and gave them the tools to ask the hard conversations about race in order to spark change in their workplace. The following article is based on the talk and the subsequent Q&A session.

This talk was a part of a monthly event series run by DINT, a free online community created to enable connections and increase conversations about diversity and inclusion in tech. It took place inside the Teooh application. If you’re interested in joining the DINT community, click here.

Organisations around the world have been stepping up and taking action to increase diversity and inclusion in the workplace. In an increasingly conscious environment, it is vital that workplaces take steps to create accepting environments that hinge on mutual respect, understanding, and open-mindedness.

In order to do so, organisations need to be proactively anti-racist. According to Ashanti, the first step in becoming anti-racist is recognising systemic inequality and the role of your workplace in contributing to that inequality. As Ashanti asserted, “Systemic inequality is just that: it is a system. We all operate within that system, regardless of who we are.” Instead of drawing distinctions between individuals being called or self-labelling as ‘racists’, we need to recognise that “we all operate within a system that essentially was designed to be unequal.” So, despite an individual’s proximity to people of other races, whether that is having friends of different nationalities or enjoying music made by POC artists, we all still operate in a system which thrives on inequality.

“Quite often, individuals may be thinking about racism in their personal lives…If we’re talking about it in terms of a workplace, an organisational environment, it’s about thinking about how our systems and processes, the way we do things, our attitudes and our behaviours, and how they uphold or encourage or facilitate equality in the workplace.”

In order to improve our organisations, companies, and firms, we need to explore the inequalities that exist within the system by asking difficult questions. We need to accept that those inequalities already exist. The question is not if inequalities exist — the question is how can we reduce the impact of the inequality. This is the first step organisations can take to becoming proactively anti-racist.

So how do I ensure that my organisation is proactively anti-racist?

“Essentially, when we’re talking about organisations becoming actively anti-racist, it’s for organisations to recognise that systemic inequality exists in a society, recognise that as an organisation, they play a role in that, and identify the systems and processes within their organisation that are upholding these inequalities. These inequalities, as identified, disadvantage a minority group within their organisation already or a minority group that they haven’t yet welcomed into the organisation.”

In order to adhere to this system of recognition and identification, there are actions that we can take on both organisational and personal levels to ensure that our organisations are proactively anti-racist.

Organisational Level

The inequalities that exist at an organisational level are the top-down processes that drive daily inequalities and inhibit proactive anti-racism. These include the culture within an organisation, the hiring and recruitment processes, and the access given to employees. In order to look at these wide issues, organisations need to begin to ask hard questions.

Senior leaders and the board should be asking questions that are very difficult to answer — the questions that they may not currently have the answers for…

“When I look at people in senior positions, is there any diversity there?”

“Why are we lacking diversity at a board level or on senior management teams?”

“Why do we see a drop off at the 24-month line of minority employees? Why are they leaving?”

“Are we paying all of our employees the same amount for doing the same job?”

You’ll notice that many of these questions are data-driven. It is much easier to begin to address inequality in a workplace when you can see figures on paper, but that is just the first step. It is the role of an organisation to not only collect this quantitative data, but to integrate it with qualitative surveys and feedback opportunities within your organisation.

Often, this process reveals that an organisation has been neglecting or disregarding the systemic inequalities that exist within their organisation.

So what now?

“Diversity and inclusion, very similar to sustainability, to mental health, to productivity, profitability…is a business-performance metric, and therefore the accountability and responsibility for improving diversity and inclusion lies with the organisation. Just like any other business performance metric, you usually hire a team or an individual who leads on that particular pillar or function. Diversity and inclusion should be no different.”

This is a vital step to making your organisation proactively anti-racist. Organisations should consider hiring a diversity and inclusion practitioner or expert to advise the organisation on how to implement initiatives, meet their targets, etc. “It is unfair to rely on your employees of any minority as your source of information, awareness, education, and even implementation for your initiatives…if you think of some of the challenges that many of our minority colleagues might be facing (trying to be respected in their role, trying to do their job so that they can get a promotion), adding in this additional responsibility doesn’t help them achieve those goals…A lot of minority employees want to prioritise their competence within their role and not necessarily by being inextricably linked to being a race sponsor within their workplace.”

By asking the hard questions, collecting data, and hiring a D&I practitioner, organisations can work to become proactively anti-racist.

Personal Level

While many large-scale aspects of change come from the organisational level, there are indeed actions that you can, and should, take on a personal level. Ashanti works with organisations to encourage individuals to take personal action. First, they encourage people to ask themselves the following question: “What ideas beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours do I have that uphold systemic inequalities which result in some of our colleagues or peers being marginalised or excluded from our workplace?”

Many of these beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours are due to inherent biases which present themselves in the form of microaggressions. Microaggressions are small, subtle, colloquial statements or actions that display or demonstrate a lack of understanding or ignorance about different groups of people. They can seem benign, like asking where someone is really from or touching someone’s hair. By recognising that small actions can be classified as microaggressions that promote inequality or racism in the workplace, individuals can actively work to avoid microaggressions in their own actions.

Often, it is easy to feel as though you can’t make a difference in an organisation because you are not directly responsible for making decisions or implementing initiatives. Ashanti reminded us that it’s important to remember that everyone has a sphere of influence, regardless of their seniority or their job role. “It’s really about exploring our own attitudes, ideas, and beliefs about people who are different to us, then seeking to address those biases that may impact the way we manage people, the way we treat people, who we consider for promotions, who we assign new tasks to…It’s really about the individual reflective work in understanding systemic inequality, and how we in a small way on a daily basis could make a difference to the way our organisation looks.”

In addition to recognising and adjusting our own actions, Ashanti discussed what to do if you notice a colleague displaying racist behaviour. The 100 White Allies program teaches organisations to use something called the Brave Conversation Framework, which lays out key pillars for when we have to, or choose to, address this situation in the workplace. These pillars include choosing a time and place to address the issue and relying on facts during the conversation. Addressing racist behaviour can become uncomfortable very quickly, as humans have a natural tendency to become defensive, so it’s vital to rely on facts and address any issues at the right time and place, ensuring that only people who need to be a part of the conversation are there.

Organisational proactive anti-racism comes from both a managerial level as well as an individual level, and it’s important to address and act on microaggressions, biases, and overt racism in order to create a positive environment in your workplace.

What next?

Following her presentation, Ashanti was very willing to offer 100 White Allies as a resource for practical aims that outline clear steps to change the experience of your organisation. They also sell a discrete self-reflection journal which individuals can use to start to identify positive allyship behaviours and work on demonstrating those behaviours in the workplace.

Visit http://100whiteallies.com/ or email team@100whiteallies.com to learn more.

In addition to reaching out to 100 White Allies and applying the above lessons, DINT encourages you to continue to ask the hard questions that make your organisations proactively anti-racist.

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