It is easier for white leaders of organisations to focus on the safer ground of historical racism than to identify racism in the workplace today, warn Professor Binna Kandola and James Meachin
Increasingly, organisations are paying attention to historical racism. English Heritage has pledged to review all its blue plaques, so the associated online biographies can “provide a fuller picture …including any uncomfortable aspects”.
Similarly, the National Trust produced a Colonialism and Historic Slavery report, highlighting the links between its properties and historical racist practices.
An unwillingness to examine our own motives and attitudes often leads to people adopting a supposedly colour-blind approach.”
Addressing historic racism is important for many reasons, including highlighting the immense damage that an acceptance of racism has, and can have, on individuals and societies. However, even more important than investigating historic racism is addressing the everyday racism that ethnic minority groups face today. For example, almost half of black office workers surveyed have suffered racism at work, with many ethnic minority workers who have experienced racism at work reporting that it negatively impacted their mental health and wellbeing.
A real risk is that the mainly white leaders of many organisations choose to focus, if they do so at all, on the safer and easier ground of historical racism instead of the much harder, more personal, and more essential task of addressing modern racism and disadvantage. Many senior leaders either don’t see, or chose to ignore, modern manifestations of racism in the workplace. Crucially, while modern racism may look different to the historical acts of racism that organisations are now focusing on, it still has very real impacts of ethnic minorities’ careers, health and wellbeing, as the survey results described above illustrate.
Ethnicity and discrimination
What is modern racism and why is it harder to detect?
Modern racists neither express nor endorse racist views and stereotypes. They believe in greater integration between people. However, modern racists also believe racial equality has been achieved and that we need no further policies to promote equality. If racism has been neutralised, then it’s reasonable to maintain the status quo. For people who think in this way, racism is over and there’s nothing left to discuss.
Modern racism reveals itself at opportune moments, is more oblique than confrontational, and often leads to a conflict in our own personal values.
In other words, racial prejudice has not disappeared, it has mutated. This can manifest itself in numerous ways:
- First, avoiding any meaningful contact with the minority group
- Second, practising racial discrimination when the circumstances allow it
- Third, rather than criticising a minority group, those with racist beliefs will attack a policy or action, and use that as an outlet for their attitudes
- Fourth, making a distinction between groups in terms of their ‘values’
Put simply, overt and obvious forms of prejudice are witnessed less than they were previously and as such, people are inclined to take comfort in the false belief that racism exists only in the past.
Why our understanding must become more nuanced
Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. Today, prejudiced attitudes are expressed in more subtle and nuanced ways. For some of the points, valid claims can be made that this is not racism at all.
Disagreeing with a policy (for example, on target setting) or an action (for example, football players taking the knee) is not prejudiced. That is correct of course, but the fact is it could be, and it is this ambiguity about the position taken which demonstrates the subtlety of the behaviour.
An unwillingness to examine our own motives and attitudes often leads to people adopting a supposedly colour-blind approach. It’s as if we pass legislation on ourselves and the job is done: “I don’t notice a person’s colour”. Our understanding of racism needs to become much more sophisticated in order to match its increased subtlety and elusiveness.
Tackling modern racism at work
Change, especially tackling racism and inequality at work, takes effort, commitment, and resources. It requires visible sponsorship from senior leaders and an examination of existing processes to weed out opportunities for bias that we know currently exist.
It also requires a change in culture so that different voices, experiences, and people are actively included, involved, and valued.
Finally, it requires a recognition of the ongoing nature of this challenge, rather than leaders seeing it as a task relating to a historical event that can be “ticked off”. Leaders need to do more than update the online biographies of blue plaque recipients. Their understanding of racism needs to become much more sophisticated in order to match modern racism’s increased subtlety and elusiveness if we are to see a real difference.