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Diversity and inclusion in the workplace
Diversity and inclusion in the workplace

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3.3 Enhancing your awareness

A photograph mosaic of different faces.

White privilege

Privilege can be experienced in numerous ways, and you’ll explore the overall concept in more detail in Week 4, but here you’ll concentrate on white privilege.

The term was probably first used in the 1930s, to try and explain how white workers in America benefitted from the colour of their skin and racial segregation. It then gained more prominence in the 1980s through the work of Peggy McIntosh (1989). It is an important concept to understand, particularly in the context of your own self-awareness. Watch this short BBC Bitesize video, again from psychologist and athlete John Amaechi:

What is white privilege? [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

As John explains, it is important not to interpret the word privilege wrongly – a white person can live a very challenging life, full of hardship, but the difference is that their skin colour is unlikely to have been a contributing factor. A key feature is that most people who have white privilege don’t recognise that they have it, so it is hard to understand the impact it has on people who don’t have it.

Once you have acknowledged your own privilege and educated yourself about the lived experiences of people facing racism, you will be in a better position to take action.

You’ll explore privilege in more detail in Week 4.

Racial gaslighting

Williams (2020) defines racial gaslighting as ‘taking someone’s lived experience and telling them they’ve imagined it, or that they’re overemphasising something that, really, isn’t such a big deal.’ She explains that ‘In doing this, we belittle their experiences, and re-cast them as unreliable narrators of their own lives.’

Morris (2020) provides some classic examples:

  • a.where a person of colour describes a racist interaction, only to have it immediately questioned. ‘Are you sure that’s what it was about?’, ‘Was it definitely about skin colour though?’, ‘But I don’t think that was about racism.’
  • b.denying the existence of systemic racism when a person of colour is telling you that it exists. For example – saying, ‘oh, it’s only a few bad apples’, tells them that their experiences of systemic discrimination didn’t happen, that instead they were individual, unconnected events.

Many of us will have witnessed or even participated in conversations like this, perhaps because we don’t want to believe that the other person or people involved are racist, or perhaps because we want to somehow reassure the individual who has raised the issue. What we’re actually doing is undermining the experience that this person has just described and disempowering them.

Nazeer (2020) describes five ways to stop racial gaslighting:

  1. If someone shares their experience of racism with you, learn to listen carefully to what they have to say and acknowledge their feelings.
  2. Educate yourself on racism and understand the issues related to white privilege.
  3. Ensure that you offer support and empathy and don’t question a person’s lived experiences of racism.
  4. Recognise if you have internal defensive responses to racism.
  5. Call it out and be an ally to those who have suffered from racism and the forms that it manifests in.

You’ll notice the use of the word ally in point 5 – this is a topic you’ll come back to in Week 8.

Activity 3 Black Lives Matter

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes for this activity.

Take a few minutes to reflect on your own awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement. What impact did it have on you? What impact did it have on your workplace?

If you wish to make notes, use the box below.

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Black Lives Matter is not a new movement. It was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer in the US. However, the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstrations have led to increased momentum in addressing racial inequalities in many organisations. For example, some companies have increased the resources available for training and change management, others have set up better monitoring and reporting, or updated their policies.

Everton (no date) suggests these and a range of other practical steps, including:

  • Offering reverse mentoring for senior staff to help them understand the challenges faced by junior employees – in this context, that could be between senior white leaders and other diverse colleagues.
  • Establishing or participating in an inclusivity network and ensuring that feedback from the network is listened to and acted on by senior management.
  • Opening up opportunities for work placements to a more diverse demographic by stopping unpaid internships and approaching different schools, colleges, and universities.
  • Avoiding interview panels of just one manager to reduce the risk of bias.

In the next section, you’ll look at another regularly discussed protected characteristic – sex.