It will come as no surprise that, as a black person working in corporate UK, I have an opinion on the Black Lives Matter Movement as it relates to working in the corporate world.
First, I am convinced that the BLM movement is a good thing. Any effort to create harmonious, multicultural relationships and equality for all in society is positive. If that effort also creates tension then it is, by definition, positive tension. We can see that by the reaction to the BLM movement. Whether we think the response is adequate or inadequate; people – including our government – are listening. And many corporates around the world are trying to change, trying to make work a better place for everyone.
But let’s be clear. Here in the UK our problems are different to those in the US in terms of substance and severity. If the definition of systemic racism is planned, structural racism explicitly designed to hold one ethnic minority back then that, for me, describes aspects of what is happening in the US. I don’t believe we have systemic racism in the UK anymore.
Of course, we do identify the remnants of and occurrences of systemic racism from time to time. The scandals of Grenfell and Windrush are two high-profile examples. But I don’t believe that systemic racism as I’ve defined it, is as deep rooted here as it is in the US and other parts of the world.
This doesn’t mean that everything is ok. I do believe that institutional racism is a problem in the UK. It may have evolved to be less conscious – more unconscious over time but, nevertheless, it is there, and it is a problem. Again, my definitions are mine, but to me, institutional racism occurs when people in power turn a blind eye to racism: when they ignore inequality and discrimination. It happens when minorities become the targets of attitudes that refuse to acknowledge the existence of racism by people with power and authority. When institutions turn a blind eye they consciously or unconsciously devalue one race as compared to another.
Notwithstanding the above, in great British tradition we will always hold ourselves up to the highest standards of accountability when it comes to equality, sensitivity to others, political correctness and tolerance in the interest of fairness. This is because these are values that the vast majority of us in the UK GENUINELY hold and seek to uphold. This is why in my opinion there is no better place on earth to be an ethnic minority and arguably any minority including female, elderly, LGBTQ, disabled etc. Yet Unconscious Bias towards black ethnic minorities is prevalent and pervasive in corporate UK. The problem is that it is unconscious!
Victims of Unconscious Bias
Have I been a victim of unconscious bias? Yes of course. Does it happen frequently? To me, No. Yet it has happened enough for me to speak authoritatively on the topic. When it does happen, it is always extremely annoying and sometimes incredibly frustrating and hurtful. It is on par with being a sane person put into a strait jacket.
Because the victim of Unconscious Bias usually feels unable to say anything (at least that’s what I thought). Yet you see it play out minute by minute and have to accept it in the moment along with its negative repercussions. To be honest it drives me (and others) up the wall!
It can create incredible stress, negative energy at home and paranoia at work which perpetuates the situation and creates the ‘chip on your shoulder phenomenon’. Fortunately for me as a business owner I can move on to another prospect or client. But that’s my ‘privilege’. For the vast majority of black ethnic minorities in the corporate world, it’s not that easy.
Depending on who you speak to, Unconscious Bias can take many forms i.e. being passed up for promotions, not being given the same opportunities as others, being perceived as ‘maverick’, unjustified suspicions, an irrational haste to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ on the basis of minor disagreements, over forensic checking of role qualifications, never getting the benefit of the doubt, reluctance to endorse you out of fear of looking bad, blaming your mistakes on your background, cultural denigration (an unfortunate term), not being treated as an individual, flat out ‘face don’t fit’ and so on…
You could be forgiven for thinking ; so what? This happens to everyone. The point is that it disproportionately happens to people of black ethnic origin in the same way that women are disproportionately seen as unsuitable for senior management and board level roles.
Addressing Unconscious Bias – the road less travelled
Great strides are being made through countless diversity and inclusion initiatives. Many companies are trying to address hiring disparities. Some are looking to increase awareness of the extent to which societal stereotypes influence unconscious bias and create barriers in peoples’ careers. More companies are taking a public stance on race relations and fostering internal conversations.
One of the big areas is creating ‘safe spaces’ for open non-confrontational dialogue: environments where people are genuinely free – and encouraged to speak openly about their experiences and the impact that certain attitudes and behaviours have had on their lives. This is great and more companies are doing this at the moment than ever before. That said, I do think that greater attention should be allocated to thinking about how recipients handle unconscious bias in the moment, as it happens.
I’m going to say something that most people either don’t know, haven’t considered or are too afraid to say :
If you are the subject of unconscious bias you must, as far as possible, dispassionately call it out in the moment.
If you don’t then you become part of the problem, not part of the solution.
This means that ‘subjects’ (victims) and ‘perpetrators’ collaboratively, but unconsciously create an environment conducive to racial tension, sexual discrimination, religious intolerance and so on. As hard as this may sound, if something seems unfair or doesn’t make sense based on rational objectivity; you must call it out dispassionately, then and there.
KEY: UB-Unconscious Bias RT- Racial Tension
Dispassionately Calling Unconscious Bias Out in the moment
How do you call out Unconscious Bias without alienating your colleagues, getting management’s back up, creating negative energy, being perceived as an agitator, or in extreme cases, risking your job? There is a way. Trust in yourself and do the following:
First: Use these 3 powerful words:
I DON’T UNDERSTAND (or “It doesn’t make sense to me”)
Second: follow this up by clearly and dispassionately explaining why the decision or behaviour towards or excluding you doesn’t make objective sense. And why it doesn’t make sense to you.
Third: Ask the perpetrator of such bias to kindly explain or elaborate on exactly what they meant.
Fourth: Continue questioning until both of you acknowledge that unconscious bias is at play – or indeed, that both of you agree that there is no problem or a different problem and that the decision or behaviour that you questioned actually does make sense. Either way, the problem becomes self evident, can be addressed in a calm collaboratively manner and resolved relatively quickly.
In this process Unconscious Bias in and of itself does not have to be explicitly mentioned. Yet through rational ‘in the moment’ open dialogue, the misunderstanding or unconscious bias will naturally and effortlessly reveal itself -call itself out so to speak.
KEY: UB- Unconscious Bias IDU- I don’t understand
Yes, but who has the confidence to do all of that?
The answer is: VERY FEW PEOPLE – at least without guidance and support. And that guidance and support must be aimed not just at the subject of unconscious bias but critically, also at Management. The purpose of this support – which can be delivered through careful coaching – is to give ethnic minorities the confidence they need to be confident in the moment when unconscious bias occurs or they suspect it is occurring- without waiting for ‘safe spaces’.
This is because by the time you get to the ‘safe space’ it’s too late! It is the accumulation of unconscious bias moments with zero feedback that leads to the pent up racial tension in the workplace that we’re all trying to avoid and ultimately eradicate.
Not dealing with unconscious bias in the moment increases unspoken racial tension; reduces productivity and affects the development of harmonious working relationships associated with winning teams.
Teaching people to dispassionately say ‘I don’t understand’ in the moment will eradicate the ‘victim mentality’ of recipients that often leads to pent up racial tension, and potential ‘white guilt’ mentality of senior management/managers as ‘perpetrators’, neither of which are conducive to increases in productivity and high performance.
In essence it’s about finding a way to be the nice people that we all really are, sooner rather than later, so that we can flourish together without waiting for ‘safe spaces’.
Stay safe. Stay alert. Stay happy!