Following the Black Lives Matter protests last year, organisation after organisation made anti-racism pledges and committed to tackling racial inequality as an act of solidarity or as a moral stance. But as many aspects of our lives return to “normal” post-pandemic and workplaces continue to open up, how much has really changed?
There were promises from the Government to “‘look at all aspects of inequality”, which, judging by its constant dismissal of the existence of structural racism, doesn’t appear to be happening. Other businesses promised to address the concerns of Black members of staff after complaints were lodged last year. Few were successful.
The Science Museum’s promise, which came following staff complaints, included the launch of a “regular blog series” on redressing racism, which reports point out still hadn’t been added to by November 2020. At the time of writing, there still haven’t been any follow-up blogposts.
Over at the BBC, mere months after Black staff accused the corporation for defending its use of the N-word in two separate programmes despite widespread outrage in August 2020, employees came out this year to complain that the BBC’s diversity pledge had been breached with its all-white BBC News Group Board following redundancies.
And in June 2021, a year after The Barbican Centre posted a “black square” tribute on its social media after “blackout Tuesday”, it was accused of being “inherently racist” in a book by a collection of staff called the Barbican Stories team. Its initial action plan to deal with the issue was then dismissed by staff as being “expected to solve racism at the Barbican in two months”. Since then, the Barbican has announced an apology and a 10-point alternative plan to improve diversity and inclusion. Whether it will lead to the change the Barbican Stories team have urged for remains to be seen.
This is just a snapshot of unfulfilled promises that countless other workplaces across the UK made, leaving many waiting for even a hint of progress. Given the government’s performance as well as the availability of equality monitoring data, we can safely infer not much has changed.
My book Living While Black confronts the ongoing reality of institutional racism in the UK. It speaks to acts of extreme racist violence but also the more mundane acts of anti-Blackness Black people have to endure within society, and in their workplaces, while being expected to function optimally.
In addition to having to work in these conditions, Black people have the added burden of having to accept dehumanisation as well as the minimisation of the harm of whiteness – in this context, whiteness refers to the structure that ensures white people remain in positions of power and domination over people of colour – at work. Ideally with a smile.
Racism adversely impacts both our mental health and physical health. As a psychologist and therapist, I continue to support people who face blatant racism at work and are often left too traumatised to return. But mostly, it is the more subtle, covert and hidden forms of discrimination and marginalisation that cause significant distress. The type that occurs in plain sight and is left unaddressed. And the fact that discrimination leaves us vulnerable to more physical and/or psychological harm is ignored.
Case studies featured in Living While Black show just how severe the damage can be. A patient of mine (who I refer to as “Mike”) had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and drug-induced psychosis years after arriving in the UK as a child refugee, was detained in a hospital under the Mental Health Act, and realised many other Black men were there too. And had been detained in mental health services following the involvement of the police.
He saw that of those men, very few were in therapy or were given the chance to talk about their lived experience. When racism was broached, staff often changed the subject or became defensive. His experience is consistent with well-documented race inequality within the mental health system, inequalities that have not abated.
Another person I came across, Sara, spoke of her experience of working as a manager in the civil service. She experienced severe anxiety, shame and difficulties working with her manager, a white man who she seemed to have developed a phobic response or extreme fear towards.
The context here was that Sara frequently found herself advocating for less senior employees of colour who faced discrimination. In addition to the tension this added to her relationship with management (in their eyes, she became the “troublemaker”), she was treated with hostility and regularly and covertly disrespected by her white peers. Sara, unsurprisingly, found the workplace oppressive and suffocating. When I met her she was hopeless, tearful and overwhelmed.
The evidence overwhelmingly shows that the pledges made last year have not translated into workplace transformation for Black employees. And there’s been even less engagement with how Black people are affected when they challenge workplace norms. As I’ve observed, and as so many Black people have experienced, maintaining anything other than silence can lead to blacklisting and being blocked from career progression.
Let’s be clear: the way to tackle these inequalities is not through unconscious bias training. We need approaches that acknowledge individual incidents as well as the effect of group dynamics and institutional processes on people’s experiences. We also need approaches that disrupt what is “normal” and not seek to re-establish those norms. A course I specifically created for that purpose, aims to do so.
The diversity and inclusion industrial complex ensures organisations continue to invest millions in interventions that placate or protect white egos. By focusing on what people do inadvertently or implicitly, we’re missing much of the picture when it comes to dismantling inequality, which often leads to absolving institutions and individuals of guilt and liability.
Ignoring the presence of racism in workplaces is rarely accidental, nor is it always unconscious. And as I say in my book, refusing to confront the mental health impact and the stress generated to employees of colour, the most likely group to experience psychological distress, is not done inadvertently. Those are institutional choices. And often, they are individual choices.
It’s been a long year of broken promises, empty talks and white liberal performativity. Perhaps it is time we stopped expecting organisations to solve a problem they have vested interests in maintaining, and reclaim that power ourselves.
Guilaine Kinouani is a psychologist, writer, and founder of Race Reflections, a social enterprise dedicated to tackling inequality, injustice and oppression. Her book Living While Black: The essential guide to overcoming racial trauma was published earlier this year.