Many organisations in the UK are engaging advisers to help them on anti-racism training programmes. But what is anti-racism and what sort of training should organisations be looking for to build anti-racist cultures?
The obvious response is that anti-racism is the opposite of racism. But that is too simplistic an answer. Racism is too complex a challenge for a simplistic or easy solution.
Overt racist behaviours, as a reflection of beliefs of racial superiority or inferiority, are relatively easy to identify and, happily, broadly criticised and condemned. Anti-racism in those instances is something that people can easily understand and support.
However, the existence of racism is not predicated on the existence of intent or a conscious belief in racial superiority. Good people can be and are biased and perpetuate racism through their actions and beliefs. That must be the case because there are many examples of microaggressions and day to day systematic bias in society, organisations and inter-personal relationships despite most people believing themselves to not be racist and trying to treat people equally.
So how can organisations engage with racism to build resilient anti-racist cultures? Firstly, there needs to be a recognition that it is a big challenge that can’t be solved with introductory unconscious bias training and some soundbites. Leadership and transparency are key. This is the start of a journey for many organisations and strategies and practices will need to be tried, assessed and updated over time, embracing a process of reflection and challenging discussions before real and systemic change can occur. There needs to be a clear articulation of why racism is a problem, and that anti-racism is a core unchanging value rather than a current priority. Without that leadership and transparency, attempts to build an inclusive diverse culture will be limited to enthusiastic pockets of staff and ultimately fail. But leadership and transparency are not enough. The majority of racist microaggressions and bias are perpetuated by day-to-day interactions so, with the best will in the world, the CEO or leadership team of an organisation can’t do this alone. Secondly, therefore, all staff and all levels of leadership must commit to change and understand their role in the problem. That takes an honest discussion about the bias everyone has and detailed examples of the issues and the impact they have on individuals.
We recommend that organisations build a strong framework of training and review under the pillars of knowledge, empathy and action.
Understanding the public debate and personal experiences of people of colour leads to a much more nuanced analysis of the issues and their history. Overlayed with knowledge of how unconscious bias operates in all of us as we interact with the world around us, we are then able to understand our responses and actions and critique what we see around us.
Taken in isolation, reasonable people can disagree about the racist intent and the effect of many behaviours that people of colour would identify as microaggressions. But viewed through the perspective of the recipient of those behaviours, with cumulative effect and impacts across a lifetime, those behaviours look very different.
People need help to open their minds to the perspective of others and build empathy with their experiences. This can present a challenge, with the automatic response within organisations often being to ask people of colour to share their experiences. Any such steps should be wholly voluntary and sensitively requested, appreciating that this is someone re-living and sharing their trauma. And for those who receive the microaggressions and bias, there needs to be support to help them engage (or not) whilst also recognising that such behaviours are not always conscious or negatively motivated.
Having built knowledge and empathy for everyone, a much more productive discussion can be had around anti-racist action. That action should involve building support networks, critically assessing processes and policies through the lens of equality, and identifying what would be achievable if no racial bias existed. Would it involve a management team with broad racial representation? If so, how will you get there?
Finally, no one should be under any illusions that being neutral or colour blind to racism is a solution. Applying neutrality onto inequality will never result in equality. We need to see colour and power, critically analyse ourselves and the behaviours of those around us, and be open to change. And that analysis must be a core part of everything we do in order to build a resiliently anti-racist culture.
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