I’m first generation Black British. My father is from Barbados and my mother is from Trinidad and Tobago. Growing up we listened to Motown, Calypso, and Soca. We ate pelau (a Caribbean one pot rice and chicken dish), on Saturdays my dad cooked his famous fish and dumpling stew, and I added pepper sauce (hot sauce) to everything. EVERYTHING!
We lived in communities where we were the only Black family and at school there were very few children who were not White. I knew that I was Black, but at home we never really discussed what it meant to live in a White majority country. We were told that we had to behave better than other children, but not why. We were told that we had to study harder than our friends and pay more attention at school, but not why. When I told my parents that sometimes people stared at me or I was often left out, they empathised, but never explained that it could be because I was Black.
In 2020, before I joined Big Life, my previous employer asked me (and I imagine other Black staff) what the organisation’s Black Lives Matter supporting statement should say. This was not a unique experience, there are many stories of Black people around the world being suddenly asked to construct and vocalise their organisation’s stance on racism. I had never been asked to share my thoughts on race and racism by a White person at work (or anywhere for that matter) before that moment. In fact, my experience of engaging with most White people about racism had mainly been a series of microaggressions and blatant denial that it existed.
After I got over the shock and fear of being asked (I resisted pointing out that the very act of them asking me and putting that burden on me was racism), I joined other staff in the organisation – Black, Brown and White to develop a solidarity statement. After the statement was published, the leadership team decided that a statement was not enough and that they wanted to become an anti-racist organisation. So, the working group became a permanent steering group with a Chair, sponsorship from an Executive Director and financial resources. We felt empowered and legitimised as the Anti-racism Steering Group. We made a few tweaks to the membership as we wanted to ensure that the voices of those that face racism were in the majority. We spoke with staff, discussed racism with our executive team and sought external help. As a group we went on a year long journey to understand how we could become an anti-racist organisation and here’s what I learned.
One of the powers of racism is our ignorance of its history as a global community. Our collective lack of knowledge and understanding helps to support racist structures and policies. We are not taught about the impact the enslavement of Africans, and subsequent colonialism had on countries. Nor about the wealth and power it brought to Britain. It’s glossed over in our education system as something that happened elsewhere, and it happened because those countries were uncivilised. We weren’t taught that racism was a tool that was created to increase the wealth and power of White majority countries.
Racism is so entrenched that it can be hard to shake off – both for those that are racialised by the colour of their skin and for those who aren’t. It can be isolating to be the person who speaks up about racism and some people may choose to stick closer to status quo and not rock the boat. It’s easier to believe that we don’t live in racist structures and be singled as an agitator or a problem maker. After all, all many of us want is to belong.
I heard this on a podcast once and it stuck with me. Many of us who experience racism, are often the ones who are asked to explain and deal with the aftermath of that explanation. The hurt, fear, denial, and shock. Those who experience racism are often expected to carry the emotions of others and excuse their lack of knowledge. We are asked to tread carefully and not use language that may make people feel uncomfortable or responsible as “we don’t want to alienate them from the conversation”. This can be difficult and traumatising.
Becoming anti-racist is difficult and challenging. Some days, I don’t feel like having a conversation about race and racism or learning about its roots as it can take a lot out of me. It can leave me full of self-doubt, fear and sadness. But I have realised that I have a voice and I am going to use it. I don’t want my nieces to ever be in a working environment where a Director uses ‘normal’ to describe a White person. Or they are singled out in a training exercise as the best person to talk about ethnicity data to win a competition (like that is their only asset to the group). So that they don’t have to and because my parents were never given the chance, I will continue to use my voice to talk about racism at work, its impact on organisations and their customers and clients.
Many of us benefit from the systems that cause harm and need to change. This can lead to a reluctance to take responsibility for helping to dismantle them, as then we would need to recognise our part in those systems. Culture change is not a quick or easy process. It takes commitment (especially from the leadership team), time and an understanding of the tools and support that will be needed.
The commitment is there at Big Life, and we are working towards staff (as individuals) and us as an organisation recognising our part in the systems that cause harm. Before we look externally, we are focusing on our organisational culture, our policies and changing the voices of the leadership within the organisation.
In 2017 whilst carrying out a succession planning exercise it was noted that Big Life’s leadership was mainly White women. This was a surprise to the organisation, as 35% of staff identified as Black, Asian or from another ethnically minoritised community in the UK, and more importantly it is an organisation that was founded in racially diverse communities of South Manchester.
In 2019, alongside the gender pay gap, the ethnicity pay gap was reviewed. The findings showed that there was a 10.3% ethnicity pay gap in the organisation and that staff from racialised communities were not in leadership roles. The data highlighted an issue that previously had been assumed did not exist. This is not an issue that is unique to our organisation; in their 2022 report Racial Equity in the Workplace Flair stated that 46% of organisations do not use data to measure and track race equity.
The board of trustees and executive leadership wanted to know more and most importantly wanted to take action to change the leadership of the organisation. The appetite and urgency to make the culture shift to become an actively anti-racist organisation is high. This sometimes feels like we can rush headfirst into solution before understanding the problem, and that while the leadership bags are packed ready to go, staff are still pondering where the destination is.
To help guide us we have:
We have faced challenges to deliver these steps. Whilst resources have been allocated to support the development of the anti-racism work and we are engaging with external consultants for support, most of the work is an add-on for staff and keeping it as a priority can be tricky. Also, if we were to take the survey in isolation then it would appear that we have little work to do. However other forms of feedback such as grievances, staff make up and anecdotal stories told by staff, tell a different story. This highlighted that we need to consider other information and interrogate the organisation as a whole system to understand how racism manifests in our organisation.
We have done some work, but it’s not enough. When will it be? I’ll let you know…
This blog first appeared on the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter website.