Black history and the unfinished work of creating racial equity

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By Tracie Jolliff, director of inclusion, NHS Leadership Academy

This blog is particularly relevant for white colleagues who are wanting to progress racial equity in the workplace and are on a journey of trying to make sense of how to do this. We will miss the point and the chance to be better unless we change the conversations that we’re having in the workplace about race. So, forgive my candour as I dive in with the intention of shining a more searching light on race, and to have a different kind of conversation about race that begins and ends with whiteness.

I find myself wondering each year why we are so keen to celebrate Black History Month and how this compares to our celebrations of black history for the other 11 months of the year. Joy Hajo, the Native American Poet Laureate said recently: “We are always in conversation with history”. Yet I’m curious about what histories we consistently choose to be in conversation with about black people. For example, music of black origins, black academia, dancing or sporting achievements – all have been accomplished through struggle. The uncomfortable truth is that black history is all our history and over the past 500 years it has been dominated by stories about black suffering and triumphs, despite the existence and persistence of white racism. Reading this will make some people feel uncomfortable but please read on, as these are truths we must face and examine if we are to progress race equality. Progress simply cannot be made if white people continue to avoid and deny.

Contemporary expressions of racism can be seen on the football terraces (in its most overt forms), in the criminal justice system which disproportionately incarcerates black children and adults when white people committing the same offences experience leniency, in health outcomes and more subtly in how black and Asian staff are treated in teams, organisations and across the NHS system. WRES scores have, in principle, put to bed claims that discrimination is a thing of the past. But how is discrimination still alive and well when our values and aims speak of inclusion? Let’s look a little deeper at the actions of white people to begin to understand this some more.

The Academy has over 400 accounts from BAME staff (who apply for our positive action programmes) speaking about the barriers they are facing in the workplace. These are augmented by many other stories that people tell us and that black staff experience. All these stories point to how white people are behaving, sometimes for what they conceive of as honourable reasons, but that never-the-less contribute to the maintenance of cultures that discriminate. Some of these behaviours are:

  • Dismissing BAME stories about discrimination within their own teams and organisations
  • Being willing to believe and endorse negative assumptions and stories about BAME staff
  • Not speaking up about or calling out racism
  • Being unwilling to proactively learn about how discrimination works and to ensure that their own practice is inclusive
  • Colluding with other white people to exclude BAME staff; and re-doubling such efforts when BAME staff have been audacious enough to complain about discrimination
  • Not supporting BAME staff or their work and finding opportunities to oppose rather than to support BAME staff
  • Treating BAME staff differently and less favourably compared to how white staff are being treated

It is difficult to hear, but a consistent message that BAME staff tell us is that their own line managers are the biggest obstacles to their progress.

Well-meaning white people are too often caught up in these unhelpful behaviours. Before casting judgments, however, it is surprisingly easy for this to happen, because these behaviours are normalised and routinely enacted without much conscious thought or effort across the cultures that discriminate. critical race theorists talk about the social construct of race and of whiteness – whiteness as a system of beliefs and a way of thinking about the world that drives actions; the results are advantages for white people at the expense of BAME people, with the worst outcomes falling upon those with the darkest skins.

We’re all socialised into these ways of thinking and being, even if no one has overtly taught us to think in this way. The often unquestioned, continual presence or absence of people of colour and their voices in certain spaces has cemented within all of us a world view of white dominance and black subservience. These corrupted mindsets leak into our interactions and drive behaviours such as those described above. If we are courageous enough to look, and are valuers of reflective practice, we will see these patterns playing out around us daily. No amount of ‘let’s be nicer to black people’ is going to change this any time soon. These pervasive and systemic forms of racism will resist our well-meaning smiles, superficial encounters with difference and our attempts to learn more about the cultures of BAME people. To root out systemic racism, we need some radical approaches, all of which begin with the self.

Racism is real, its affects are real and black people suffer when white people choose to ignore racism. White colleagues, we want you on-board, standing with us to eliminate racism in all its forms. Racism has robbed us all of our collective humanity for long enough, it is now down to us to address this. Below are some of the ways that white people can build their anti-racist practice.

  • Resist the temptation to invest in denial and avoidance tactics about the presence of racism. Even if we choose to believe that the world is flat, it is still round
  • Lean into BAME colleagues and learn from them about how racism works and is experienced. This will inform you about how you need to change your thinking and behaviours in order to become effective at eliminating racism
  • Become critically self-aware, courageously examine your own behaviours and continually ask yourself to what extent you are supportive of your BAME colleagues, especially once you have been challenged by them about your practice on inclusion
  • Be humble and say sorry if you have noticed that your behaviours have not lived up to the values you hold
  • Stop defending poor practice, it really doesn’t matter what explanations exist for it; if discrimination has taken place, the practice is unethical
  • Do support others to understand why they need to change their practice. Even when people have good intentions, their anti-racist practice can be deficient

The presence of racism has nothing to do with whether you are a good person or not, racism is a historical fact of life. White colleagues must now learn how to embrace the lived experience of BAME people and to amplify our voices if change is to take place. Finally, the word sorry can go a long way. Don’t keep travelling down the wrong road when you can see that it’s leading to yet more division and discrimination. Stop, and ask yourself to what extent your actions are supportive of progressing racial equity. If not, turn around and go the other way.

BAME people have been waiting a long time for you to get it. Now come, let’s create a better future together.

Inclusion is core to the NHS Constitution, yet it remains one of the biggest challenges that health systems face globally, nationally and systemically. Find out how our Building Leadership For Inclusion programme aims to address this.