One FinanceWe need to talk about race in the workplace

We need to talk about race in the workplace

By Abdul-Jalil Ali - director of finance and IT, Mercy Corps

Why do we find it much easier to talk about diversity and inclusion in the workplace than about race? It is in our comfort zone and often supported by the pumping rhetoric coming out of our People teams. Talking about diversity and inclusion makes it easier to downplay conversations about police brutality, systemic racism and violence, and the marginalisation of Black and brown people. It makes our colleagues more comfortable about having the “uncomfortable” conversations.

Talking about racism has historically been seen as a ‘downer’ and dismissed as a difficult subject, often at the expense of Black and communities of colour. On the other hand if you are black, brown or from an ethnic background, it is not hard at all.

But the past couple of months have seen a lot of talk about race and racism, and there have been a wave of public and private statements and commitments following the disturbing death of George Floyd due to police brutality. That video will forever stay with me. As will the photo of Patrick Hutchison, a black man in the UK, carrying a far right supporter to safety. This is the image I use to balance my mental wellbeing – his act of saving one life, means that it might be possible for all humanity to be saved.

I have been reflecting on Birmingham, where I grew up. Now a thriving multi-cultural city, but one that has had its fair share of racial challenges. I recall the many struggles that my father went through in the 60s to stand up for his right to stay in a majority white street in the inner city. Bricks, bottles, and sticks were thrown at him and his home, racial abuse and physical attacks on the doorstep were many. But, what the racists faced was a 6ft1’ ex-military policeman and immigrant who had been through a civil war and partition in India who knew how to take care of himself – certainly against individuals, but perhaps not against a whole system of bias. His brothers in arms were a sole Jamaican neighbour and a few Irish lodgers living in his house. By the time our family arrived in the 1970s, a few more Asian families had moved into the street, and there was some solidarity and less violence, but the racism was still there.

In 1985 when the Handsworth riots broke out in Birmingham, I had just completed my university placement and was preparing to go back to complete my final year. One evening I had planned to meet some friends for dinner, but I was fortunate that my parents kept me indoors. Handsworth was in flames and I was all pent-up. Those riots were the result of frustration built up over years of people suffering from poor job prospects, poor housing, poverty, harassment, racism, and a ‘them-and-us’ bias. Has this changed in 2020? Well, yes and no.

It should come as no surprise that the coronavirus has disproportionately affected the Black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities. We saw lockdown reintroduced in Leicester with Rochdale, Bradford and Oldham possibly to follow next, all predominantly Asian clusters.

The pandemic is revealing the inequalities and deprivation in Birmingham as it is across the country. For us from the West Midlands, the data and information has always been there, you just had to look. I recall my cohort of three non-white classmates with over 500 rejected job applications between them had to turn to their only other options – moving into their parents’ business, setting up corner shops or opening a curry house. I too had doubts and was faced with rejection after rejection. I was advised to change my name and use family addresses in prosperous areas – of which I had none. I was lucky, I secured a few temporary jobs, and embarked on an MBA, which has landed me on the path that has shaped my professional destiny to now.

I have faced physical attacks, abuse and discrimination all in the UK and like many, find it difficult to discuss openly. Now I live and work in Edinburgh, a predominately white city, and I reflect on the imprint that racism has left on me. I constantly worry for the safety of my family and children and I wish for a better outcome than my father had.

Racial discrimination comes in many forms and while the face of racism in the UK is changing, it still has a long way to go. In our workplaces we are seeing increased transparency with reporting on gender pay equity but the same can’t be said of the racial pay gap that exists. Certainly, there are not enough numbers in the middle to higher-ranking management positions to be able to report on such indicators, which illustrates the racial divide that exists.

In business we start with a problem statement and plan to solve it. But, race or racism is not a problem to be solved. It is the injustice, discrimination and hate that goes with it, those are the problems that need solving. A farmer can improve the yield of his crop by addressing the quality of the soil composition, but not just by picking out the damaged crops. It is the societies, institutions and organisations that need to change so that one day we will not need to say ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has announced that he will set up an equality commission to focus on discrimination in criminal justice, health, employment and education. However, to me, this feels like the long grass.

We need urgency and sustained attention, and we all have our role to play. Business leaders must have the courage to disrupt and step outside of their protectionist systems. Structures need to change and there must be an overhaul in decision-making at the top, inclusive of non-white hierarchies.

Workplaces must demonstrate compassion and provide training and coaching. We need much fairer recruitment practices including the anonymising of CVs to root out any discrimination from the start. Target setting is the easy part; the real work begins with the clear implementation of actions. If you are a predominantly white business, it will be harder to attract black, brown or ethnic minority background team members unless there is a real, commitment to inclusion. As Nelson Mandela said, “action without vision is only passing time, vision without action is merely day dreaming, but vision with action can change the world”.

I, like all people of colour, welcome the solidarity from our anti-racist allies and I am hopeful about the future. Now, the real work must begin, going beyond words and translating policy frameworks into palpable change in workplaces across the country.



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