Over the past five months, I have been inundated with requests for reading lists, information on how to help individuals review their work or to set up their business with a goal of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The result has been an explosion of diversity consultants and training products. Diversity, equity and inclusion, or various iterations of it, has never been so popular. For those of us who have been consultants for some time in this field are only too aware that this work is not for the faint of heart or the ill-prepared and inexperienced. Nor is it for easy money as I was told recently. The materials are also not bedtime reading.

Before the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, many Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) could not speak to leaders, managers or supervisors about their reality. The words racism, racial discrimination, or institutionalized racism were absent from conversations in the boardroom, conference halls or classrooms. If you dared to speak up, it was met with a strong rebuke or denial. Employees who experienced racism in the workplace were often told to “forget it,” “that never happened,” “you’re being too sensitive.”

So many BIPOC have suffered in silence, some going through years of excruciatingly painful experiences of racism, sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, all of which is an intersection of diversity, equity and inclusion. Some have taken the bold step of making a human rights complaint as a last resort and for justice—at a high cost to their health and wellbeing. 

Not all acts of racism are blatant or overt. Many are subtle, covert, and often take the form of everyday microaggressions. In many instances, it would take an extraordinary or courageous White leader to believe a Black, Indigenous or Person of Colour over a White colleague or employee. As a result, many discriminatory acts continue and people suffer deep emotional stress in the workplace.

Over the years, my experience has taught me that many organizations are so afraid of being called out for racism that they go to great lengths to legally protect themselves rather than have a hard or uncomfortable conversation with employees. Others want to engage in uncomfortable conversations but are afraid of getting it wrong or just don’t know how to begin.

After the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hand of a police officer in the glare of the world, many people, including leaders and organizations, have sought to educate themselves and their employees about the issues and I hope that this is not just a passing phase. 

The opinion of those impacted must be sought and it means that White employees and leaders will have to listen actively and intently to what their Black, Indigenous and People of Colour are saying. Let them speak.

The communication about the organization’s strategy has to be clear to everyone to get the buy-in. When considering a major change in an organization, one of the first questions often asked is, “What’s in it for me?” If employers or leaders cannot answer such questions, then I fear a serious backlash. Some employees would sabotage the attempted change because it is taking them outside their self-identified comfort zone. They may also feel resentful that others are seen to be taking away “their” jobs. This is a common phenomenon, especially during an economic crisis.

In Nova Scotia in 1988, a group of 17 Black firefighters were employed through a designated hire initiative because of the need for Black firefighters. People have not forgotten, and it has been said many times that young White people cannot get into the fire service because it has been “taken over” by Black people. The sad irony is that those men were treated so badly that they brought a class-action suit against the municipality. The racism and ill-treatment they received was deplorable. To date, there has never been another designated hire nor are there large numbers of Black men joining the fire service. However, the myth continues to replay and the narrative has not changed.

Addressing racism is difficult. Businesses, corporations, educational institutions and community organizations will have to be intentional and take action to grow diverse talent in their organizations at an early stage in their employees’ careers. They will have to accurately address the number of diverse cultural groups in their organization, engage with them and together work hard to remove systemic barriers that prevent others from moving forward.

For BIPOC, we have to learn to live within the skin we have as we navigate, negotiate and even network our way through our personal and work lives. We do this not only for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren and for all those who for varying reasons cannot do it for themselves.

In 2017, I was given a gift by my husband from his travels to the UK. It was the book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, written by Reni Eddo-Lodge. The following year, he gave me White Fragility, written by Robin DiAngelo. At that time, I did not realize how significant they would become, but I guess he was giving me a heads up. Over the past decades, other authors like Audre Lourde, Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin have eloquently and pointedly voiced their truths and are now given world recognition.

Conclusion

The starting point for organizations to purposefully make desired change is as follows:

  1. Closely examine your staffing compliment to see where the gaps are in the pipeline.
  2. Explore and build trust with your employees of BIPOC and maintain a meaningful relationship with them.
  3. Examine your unconscious bias. Look at how you were raised, your social location, the media, images you portray and who are in your close social circles.
  4. When making decisions about BIPOC, who do you consult and are their views considered?
  5. Identify what additional skills they can bring to the decision-making table. Many BIPOC are leaders in their communities with incredible skills and knowledge.
  6. Take decisive action against employees, service providers and other stakeholders who express racist views and behaviours.
  7. Systemic discrimination does not end with diversity and inclusion training. It is a path of continuous learning for everyone.
  8. Analyze how racism has manifested and thrived in the organization.
  9. People are becoming more embolden with racist attitudes and behaviours. 
  10. Do not deny that racism exists. It is an everyday occurrence.
  11. Create Employees Resource Groups in the organization, they are tremendous source of information if well organized.

I am cautiously hopeful because with allies like you, the reader, we really can make the desired change a reality.

Ann Divine

Ann Divine

Ann Divine, founder and CEO of Ashanti Leadership and Professional Development Services. Her consultancy provides extensive services in Leadership Development, Cultural and Organizational Change Management through Diversity and Inclusion lens.

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