Inclusion not Exceptionalism

This is a blog from Dumi Senda – thank you for sharing this with us. More information about how to get in touch with Dumi is at the bottom of this blog. #Blacklivesmatter

Inclusion not Exceptionalism: How to effectively support (your) Black+ colleagues in the workplace.

Conflict can be an opportunity for change, if it is embraced for what it can help us to become more aware of. It becomes a problem when we ignore the lessons it throws up for us. The currently resurgent (not new) racial tensions, however tragic the events that triggered them, can be a window of opportunity to move the needle in the right direction on racial equality and inclusion.

I have written at length about race being a social construct (which is to say it is something society made up and attached meaning to for purposes of advantaging some groups while disadvantaging others). For example, in my LinkedIn article entitled Dare to go there!: How openly talking about ‘race’ helps to make diversity & inclusion real. I will not labor the point further here, except to say just because race is a social construct, it does not mean it is not a social reality!

Those who follow my work closely know that I advocate social integration, as illustrated through, among other literary offerings, my poems entitled A different kind of soldier and Black, White, Brown, Mixed… So What?! (which I had the honour and privilege to perform for President Mandela). However, integration that ignores inequality is like a party where all are invited but only a select few can step on the dance floor.

It is undoubtedly well-meaning and even ideal to view society as being race neutral. I, too, have promoted the idea of a race neutral society throughout my activism, as illustrated in an excerpt of an old BBC Radio interview I gave entitled A Message for People not Skin Colour.

However, the resurgent Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has awakened people of all skin shades to the urgent need to rise to the challenge of the (racialised) world AS IT IS, and not be lulled into inaction by the utopia of the ideal (race neutral) world we are yet to achieve.

A race neutral society is a noble ideal I believe we should collectively aspire to. However, we must be as cognisant of the lived experiences of people which are shaped by how they are perceived and regarded because of their skin colour as we are of the lived experiences of people who are viewed through the gender, nationality, sexuality etc. lens.  

To “not see skin colour” or to be “colour blind” is tantamount to not seeing that party guests of a (particular) skin shade are routinely kept away from the dance floor and the few that are admitted are either denied the space to dance or must endure music that does not resonate with them. Of course, with much graver consequences than merely feeling out of place at a party, such as being subjected to micro-aggression, denied education, employment and progression opportunities, and, as painfully illustrated by the death of George Floyd and countless other Black man in the US and elsewhere, having your life ended prematurely. 

So, where do WE go from here? Below are a few pointers, which I hope may be a helpful starting point towards improving workplace racial inclusion through supporting (your) Black+ colleagues:

1.     If your Black (and other ethnic minoritised) colleagues say racism is a problem (for them), believe them: Do not assume racism is not a problem based on your perception, rather be intentional about understanding the (actual) lived experiences of your colleagues. Research shows that the majority of White people believe racism is not a salient problem in today’s society, while the majority of Blacks and other ethnic minoritised groups believe it is (based on their experiences).

2.     Avoid divisive language that pits one group against another. Racism against Blacks is not a ‘Black issue’ just as antisemitism is not a ‘Jew issue.’ Placing the burden of responsibility to justify why anti-racism and racial inclusion should be a priority for your business or organisation on your Black colleagues is neither fair nor effective.

3.     Open up the space for open, bold, non-judgemental and purposeful team conversations on race: These may be uncomfortable initially, but being clear about the outcomes you hope to achieve can help keep your team on-track towards achieving collective understanding of problems, issues, gaps, and opportunities. Bring in external experts to facilitate/moderate, as this creates a safe distance and space for participants to feel liberated enough to share openly and honestly without fearing retaliation.

4.     Plug the Investment gap: Time for making statements that sound good but are not matched by real investment and action on racial equality and inclusion is way past its sell-by-date. The public expect more accountability; countless businesses and organisations have been named and shamed for either not doing enough to combat racism or contributing towards it while issuing ‘solidarity’ statements with the BLM. Not having Black+ people in your team is no reason for inaction, rather it is an indication that you have a lot more work to do to improve workplace diversity.

5.     Design targeted interventions to empower your Black colleagues: While generalist employee support programs have their place in the workplace, it is necessary to have specially curated and targeted programs that are sufficiently culturally sensitive, appropriate, and inclusive. Consider bringing in cultural competency and bias awareness training for your White colleagues to enable them to become effective Allies.

6.     Diversify HR and D&I positions: Research shows that HR and D&I positions are predominantly held by White people. The limitation of lacking diversity in diversity-focused roles is that the business or organisation is likely to have blind-spots on racism and racial discrimination. As a result, D&I interventions may repeatedly miss some root causes of persisting inequalities.

7.     Make D&I programming/training central and mandatory: Viewing D&I as an add-on to your core business strategy is counterproductive. Research shows that more diversity and inclusion equals more business success. The BLM has also highlighted the moral case for diversity and inclusion, which businesses and organisations would be well-advised to heed and act on decisively by prioritising educating their leaders and employees as part of their standard appraisal. Black employee (and other) staff networks can be a helpful part of your D&I strategy, however do not defer responsibility for D&I programming to them with little to no extra time allowance, hiring of D&I professionals and experts, and budget support.    

Some managers and leaders have admitted feeling unsure about where to begin to address some of the issues highlighted by the BLM in relation to workplace racial inequality. The key is to not be daunted by how big the problem seems and start where you are with what you have (level of understanding, resources, networks etc.). Here are a few questions that may help you get the conversation going with (your) Black colleagues:

1.     How comfortable and welcome do you feel in our office and team?

2.     How represented and valued do you feel in our business and organisation?

3.     How reflected do you feel your culture is in our activities, products, services, branding etc.?

If your business or organisation would like expert help on how to effectively support (your) Black colleagues, reach out for an exploratory chat. For more information on my D&I services, visit www.dumisenda.com

A bit about our blogger: Coach Dumi (Dumi Senda) is a globally acclaimed Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Expert and go-to Coach on workplace inclusion for people of Black and minority ethnic backgrounds (BAME). Having gone from a life of sweeping factory floors to Oxford university MSc graduate in just four years, Coach Dumi has first-hand understanding of the challenges and limitations faced by people of BAME background in workplace environments.

Dumi Senda delivering one of his sessions

Coach Dumi has delivered or participated in high-impact programs at top firms and organisations such as the UN, Houses of Commons, Commonwealth Office, Bank of England, Google, Goldman Sachs, Baker McKenzie, Morgan Stanley, UK Department for Work & Pensions (DWP), Black British Business Awards (BBBAs), among several others. He has been twice voted the most inspirational leader by over 700 young people on the UK National Youth Service (NCS) and has given career insight talks at over 50 universities across the UK and internationally. 

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