Anti-racist work is being side-lined or wilfully ignored in many organisations, despite the groundswell of support that began in 2020. This needs to change.
The murder of George Floyd was an act of racial injustice and brutality that sparked huge debates about racism and inequity. The incident captured the realities of police violence and racism against Black people across the world and highlighted the need for radical change.
These issues do not revolve exclusively around policing but are present in almost every facet of society. For example, in the UK, the introduction of laws such as the Illegal Migration Act, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, as well as the UK-Rwanda asylum agreement, are deeply harmful to communities that have been marginalised, particularly Black and brown communities.
Since 2020, there has been an increased conviction to create non-discriminatory working environments through diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Many organisations agreed to stand in solidarity with people of colour and pledged to support us in our communities and in the workplace. However, marginalised communities still face violence, and the organisations who ‘shouted the loudest’ about changing, have done the least in reality. It seems like it is still the voluntary reps and staff networks who are the ones to ensure that we keep the conversation of anti-racism going.
Talking about diversity and anti-racism within an organisation is one thing, but to sit and reflect on your ways of thinking and how you have contributed to racism, takes harder work. Individuals are still on this journey with some willing to do the work, but others would rather not. Many have reverted to business as usual, not realising that business as usual is what caused harm in the first place. For there to be tangible change, there must be an active pursuit towards racial justice.
Where has progress been stifled?
The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted systemic inequalities in the global health system. In 2020 and 2021, this provided a hook; a valid reason to care about the impact of systemic and institutional inequality.
Organisations made statements, employed EDI professionals, made commitments and plans and wrote strategies. People of colour were seen and invited in during this period. But many organisations have already headed back to a state of wilful blindness, with their promised commitments and plans never coming to fruition.
We are all tired. The last few years have taken a toll on our collective energy. But some of us are more tired than others. Tired of explaining. Tired of being overlooked. Tired of navigating an increasingly complex world, while having to justify our identity. But change takes hard work. It demands accountability across organisations. For those who are not oppressed to speak up on behalf of those who are. And this is where change is faltering.
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The need for leadership
Leadership sets the tone of any organisation. What leaders prioritise, speak about, encourage and discourage are the things that will permeate organisational culture.
In our sector, the present state of perma-crisis means leaders are understandably trying to ensure they address the latest challenge, whatever that may be. But this is not the time to move on from anti-racist work. This is the time to dig deep. We have the momentum, the resources and the knowledge to intentionally see, rather than be wilfully blind to the obvious. History has taught us that people of colour have been mistreated, marginalised and misjudged. History has taught us that we can make progress. What we do with our piece of history now is what matters most.
The mass marches have stopped, and the Black solidarity squares have all but disappeared, but the issues that Black and people of colour face have not faded from our personal and professional lives.
Anti-racism work is not a fad. Wilful silence, indifference and inaction does not make racism disappear and now is not the time for organisations to mute the diversity chatter. Yet, the movement to create anti-racist organisations has never felt more precarious. Black and people of colour are experiencing fatigue, and worse still organisations are intentionally pushing anti-racism work to the bottom of the agenda.
We must keep going. And this burden cannot rest on the people it most affects, especially when the threat of recriminations looms large as people are sidelined or singled out for being ‘difficult’ and ‘obstructive’.
Racism is everybody’s problem, and organisations that ignore the diversity challenge are effectively failing their Black and people of colour employees, leading to the rightful conclusion that our lives do not matter. Employers must ensure that employees feel safe when reporting incidents, introduce clear reporting and feedback mechanisms, and take ownership of often difficult conversations. Anti-racism work can create more inclusive workplaces and a vibrant organisational culture that benefits all employees at every intersection of our lives.
But for meaningful change, we need leaders who are enabled, encouraged and emboldened to move the agenda forward and embed anti-racist principles across policies and practices. This includes purposely resourcing Black and people of colour leaders who have the authority to create change.
Co-option of language
Organisations that are stepping up to the plate face a number of pitfalls that hinder true progress. One of the most significant is ‘dishonest diversity’, which refers to a superficial focus on numerical representation at the expense of addressing systemic inequities. For example, ensuring a percentage of staff are Black and people of colour may sound sensible. But what is the racial make-up of staff in the higher echelons of the organisation and sector? How much power do those voices actually carry?
To overcome this, organisations must prioritise genuine diversity, equity and inclusion, dismantle barriers to progression and foster inclusive and safe environments in which Black and people of colour can thrive.
The weaponisation of language must also be addressed. When promoting respectful dialogue, reframing conversations and focusing on shared goals and vested interests, we must recognise the power of coded language that triggers, plays into stereotypes and continues to harm Black and people of colour. We must not ignore the spaces where anti-Black narratives exist, and we must push for more than performative words. By being aware of the weaponisation of language, we can overcome its divisiveness.
As the wise saying goes, “solidarity is the political expression of love” – anonymous.