Have you ever heard a colleague in a meeting say something about race in the workplace that just comes out wrong? They may have hesitated or stumbled over their words and appear embarrassed. And what about you? Did you watch but not say anything?
We found from numerous conversations had over the last few years that there are three main reasons why people are more likely to stay silent and do nothing when the topic of race comes up.
The first is that people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. They would rather not comment than say anything that might appear insensitive.
The second is that they do not know which words and phrases to use and feel woefully out of date and thirdly they do not want to expose their lack of understanding and come across as disrespectful. In a nutshell, people were scared.
Being afraid to act hinders progress and was one of the reasons we wrote My Little Black Book: A Blacktionary, The pocket guide to the language of race.
The aim of our A-Z book of words and phrases, is to help everyone further their own knowledge and understanding and to have a starting point for conversations about race at work and at home.
It was also in response to organisations looking for support in navigating the language of race through the lens of Blackness.
We wanted to encourage and enable more people to become comfortable having uncomfortable conversations in an ever-changing environment. It was a way to remove the excuse ‘I don’t know how to.’
We know it takes courage to admit that help is needed and even more to have conversations around race. Here are a couple of terms, explanations and tips from our book that people have found particularly helpful:
Definition: Adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behaviour and expression in ways that will optimise the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment.
Adjusting ourselves to different situations is something that most of us do unconsciously. Much depends on the dominant culture which may be explicitly or implicitly stated. Think about a time when you were in a social setting and you felt that the topic of conversation made you feel uncomfortable. Initially, you probably showed interest by nodding or making the odd comment in agreement, but what you really wanted to do was speak out. This is an example of code-switching and we all do it.
However, for some people code-switching isn’t a once-in-a-while technique but a regular way of life. Many Black people will be used to code-switching and do so by trying to ‘fit in’, hoping that by making others feel comfortable, they will be treated more fairly.
In a workplace environment, we may feel the need to dial down our accent, alter the way we dress, change our hairstyle or hide tattoos in order to progress professionally.
In November 2019 Harvard Business Review published an article identifying the main reasons why Black people code-switch: downplaying membership in a stigmatised racial group helps increase the likelihood of being hired and seen as a leader; and expressing a shared interest with members of dominant group raises the chance of promotions.
Yet code-switching comes at a huge psychological cost as it involves changing behaviour, predominantly toning down a part or parts of one’s personality, and it takes a toll on those who feel the need to constantly monitor themselves, what they are saying, what they are doing or how they are behaving. Being vigilant of one’s mannerisms is exhausting and ultimately results in burnout, mental health issues and emotional stress.
So, what can people do to be truly inclusive? Here are a few tips:
1. Identify ways to educate yourself on what code-switching looks like at work.
2. Create a safe place and environment so Black employees have a voice at the table without fear of recrimination.
3. Encourage senior leaders to champion authenticity at work.
4. Have a ‘come to work as your authentic self’ day each week or month.
5. Plan activities that encourage everyone to engage during Black History Month.
Definition - A denial of thought when seeing someone’s skin colour, especially when it’s Black, and being unaware of the challenges that come with it.
Colour blindness in relation to skin colour is an untruth. The brain is designed to seek out differences in order to identify an immediate threat to guarantee survival. It is a basic human instinct. Unless an individual is sight impaired everyone sees the colour of a person’s skin. Saying we don’t see colour infers a lack of awareness, dismisses lived experiences, ignores inequities and minimises the need for conversations around racism.
We found in our research that many well-intentioned people say, ‘I don’t see colour, I just see people.’
Have you ever said this and asked yourself why you say this? Are you aware of any reactions when you do? Perhaps you’re trying to be inclusive and helpful; however, in reality it ostracises those affected. Not having one’s skin colour acknowledged implies only chosen parts of a person are ‘seen’ and not the whole person. Invalidation of heritage, experiences and cultural differences occur when this happens.
Think about this. We think nothing of updating the operating system of our technology devices. It’s been made easy and safe to do so. The updates are regular; we receive an alert, we plug our device in to a power source and we act automatically. This approach can also be adopted for the language of race. Update yourself regularly and be plugged into networks, books, articles, podcasts before you receive an alert.
Jane Oremosu and Dr Maggie Semple, OBE – co-authors of My Little Black Book: A Blacktionary - The pocket guide to the language of race
Want to know more about Maggie and Jane? Go to www.i-cubedgroup.co.uk