It’s only by really understanding the terminology around race that we can get to grip with the debate’s key issues, argue Katie Fudakowski and Shehnal Amin, with ‘white privilege’ being just one term that is much in need of clarification.
One year on since the murder of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter protests which followed, there is a growing awareness of the systemic racism that exists in all aspects of life, including our workplaces.
Language plays a crucial role in bringing about equality in the workplace. In her 2017 report Baroness McGregor-Smith highlighted that “too many people are uncomfortable talking about race. This has to change”. Where employees understand the complexities surrounding the movement for racial equality, including appropriate terminology, they will feel empowered to participate in meaningful discussions about it.
Race at work
The role of HR professionals is key. Not only are they at the forefront of communication between an employer and employees, but they also develop the culture of an organisation and facilitate access to it through recruitment and management processes. In order to lead discussions around race equality in a meaningful and sustainable way, it is essential to understand the terminology.
Anti-racist v non-racist
As explained by Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, “you don’t need to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fighting racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.” Albeit slight, the linguistic difference between “nonracist” and “anti-racist” encompasses a large shift in responsibility, from passive to active.
A central tenet of the anti-racism movement is that combatting racism is an issue everyone has a responsibility to address, rather than just those who experience it, while recognising the systemic nature of racism. Many organisations are therefore now declaring themselves as anti-racist, rather than non-racist.
Microaggressions are everyday slights, indignities, and insults that marginalised groups experience in day-to-day interactions. Common examples in the workplace include calling someone by the name of another person of the same ethnicity, continuously mispronouncing someone’s name and asking where someone is “really from”. Even if unintentional, these experiences can cause long-term damage, contributing to a feeling that the individual does not belong.
White privilege can be misunderstood as insinuating that people who are white do not face any hardships in their life. This is not the case. Rather, it means that an individual’s life has not been made harder because of the colour of their skin.”
White privilege can be misunderstood as insinuating that people who are white do not face any hardships in their life. This is not the case. Rather, it means that an individual’s life has not been made harder because of the colour of their skin. An important aspect in the movement for racial equality is for white people to recognise the privileges they are afforded by virtue of the colour of their skin, and to take action to dismantle the systems upholding systemic racism.
Systemic, structural and institutional racism
It’s important to recognise that structures and systems exist which can favour or disadvantage a particular ethnic group. Systemic racism can be deeply embedded in workplaces, and therefore it’s essential that employers assess elements of their organisation that might be upholding systemic racism, working to undo them and create equal opportunities for all employees, regardless of their race.
Use of the acronym BAME
Published in March 2021, the government’s recent Sewell Report examined issues of race and racism, and recommended discouraging the use of the term BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic). This term is regarded as problematic as it implies that individuals who are not white are part of a single homogeneous group, thereby masking the different experiences of different ethnic groups. This can mean that issues that disadvantage a particular ethnic group go unaddressed.
There is currently no consensus on a term that should be used instead of BAME. However, a report from the thinktank British Future found that most people from ethnic minorities slightly preferred the term “ethnic minority.” The debate over the most appropriate terminology continues, but where possible, employers should aim to refer to people by their specific ethnic minority, unless requested otherwise by the individual in question.
There are various steps that HR professionals can take to open up the discussion around race and ensure that employees understand the linguistic nuances in this area:
• Self-education – systemic racism is complex, and it is important that HR professionals educate themselves on the barriers faced by ethnic minorities in everyday life and the structures that contribute to this. This will assist HR to remove these barriers in the workplace. With terminology in this area changing rapidly, it is vital for HR to educate themselves on an ongoing basis.
• Training – high-quality training on race equality should be provided to employees, including on the importance of language and terminology; perhaps forming part of a wider programme of anti-discrimination training. Importantly, HR should remind employees that such training is not a tick-box exercise; it should be ongoing, engaging and refreshed frequently to avoid it becoming stale.
• Facilitate discussion – by creating a safe space for employees to air their views and share their experiences of racism, employers can open up and encourage discussion about race equality. These spaces can facilitate learning within an organisation, enabling employees to ask questions and form bonds, however they need to be carefully managed, ensuring respect is preserved. HR may wish to invite an external specialist to facilitate the discussion.
• Whole company approach – this acknowledges that the culture of an organisation requires the participation of all its members. HRs can play a valuable role in formulating the organisational strategy on race equality. This could involve reviewing recruitment procedures, updating policies to show a commitment to anti-racism and reflecting the appropriate terminology in the context.
There are a number of positive measures that HR professionals can take to open discussions with employees about race and race equality: but in doing so, they must ensure they are fully aware of and understand the key terminology.
With special thanks to Siobhan Murray, paralegal, and Tabitha Juster, associate at Farrer and Co for their contribution to this article.