All organisations say they’re not racist, but the work of anti-racism requires more than words.
Today, the Utopian dream of an anti-racist world has become a living nightmare; a nightmare in which organisations that claim to be diverse and inclusive fail to deliver on their promise of racial equality, and the lived experiences of Black, Asian and ethnically diverse people are routinely ignored.
Just last year, a landmark study by the TUC found that 120,000 workers from ethnically diverse backgrounds have quit their jobs due to racism. According to the report, more than one in four of these workers have also been the target of racist jokes at work, and many have faced bullying, harassment and worse.
More recently, research uncovered what many of us already suspected – that “systemic” levels of discrimination within the NHS have resulted in one third of ethnically diverse healthcare staff being subject to racism or bullying.
So why is this happening? Why are organisations that claim to be anti-racist failing to meet the mark? What does it mean to be truly anti-racist, and how can your organisation step up?
What does it mean to be anti-racist?
First, let’s examine exactly what we mean by the term ‘anti-racist’. To be ‘anti’ anything, by definition, you need to stand against it. Simply stating your opposition is not enough. For example, it’s easy for an organisation to say that it supports Black Lives Matter. But actually being anti-racist means moving away from vague soundbites and performative gestures, to actually aligning what you say with what you do.
It means being proactive in your behaviours and actions, and in the conversations that you’re having, because you are intentionally trying to bring about a change to the current system.
The journey to becoming an anti-racist organisation starts with focused intention.
But intention is not enough to achieve any goal. Our state of being and the organisational cultures that we create and inhabit can only change through consistent action. Only then can anti-racism truly become part of your organisational DNA.
As an anti-racist CEO or team leader, we urge you to ask yourself these three key questions:
1. Are you setting and monitoring meaningful targets?
It’s now commonplace for organisations to set DEI targets – and this is a good starting point. But you should also regularly report on these figures. Are you seeing a shift in the right direction? Month on month, year on year, are you increasing the number of Black, Asian and ethnically diverse employees in senior positions?
To make these measures meaningful, you need to avoid taking the figures at face value. It’s vital to go beyond the numbers and interrogate the data with an intersectional lens. For example, 30% of your workforce may not be white, but if most of them are Asian males, you still have a diversity problem.
An anti-racist organisation will collect and interrogate data through an intersectional lens, and act upon it, by changing its policies and practices to reflect a real focus on DEI, and ensuring development, progression and retention for all.
2. Are you listening to (and improving) your employees’ lived experiences?
Even with the best will in the world, your ambitious DEI targets won’t be met without concerted action. In order to move from a burning ambition to a big impact, you need to tear down the borders of difference that exist within your organisation.
Discrimination exists everywhere, and it’s often insidious and concealed in corners. As an anti-racist CEO or team leader, it’s your job to shine a light in those corners and uncover the hidden barriers that are holding people back.
On a practical level, are you asking the Black, Asian and ethnically diverse talent in your organisation (in a regular, supportive and structured way) about their lived experiences? What is it like to be an employee in this organisation? Does it actually live the values of being anti-racist?
Perhaps most importantly, are you truly listening to (and believing) what your people are telling you about your organisation? What action are you taking as a result? How are you using that data to improve your employees’ lived experiences?
In a truly anti-racist organisation, there is a Mobius loop of open dialogue and continuous improvement.
3. Are you embedding DEI into your culture?
In an anti-racist organisation, DEI isn’t just a target, a page on your website, or an annual training course. It’s everywhere. It’s baked into your policies. Your employees live and breathe it through their actions and their values. It guides your business decisions and it is central to your vision and mission.
Much of that comes from you, as an anti-racist leader. You need to be able to clearly articulate why racially diverse talent adds immense value to your organisation. You need to empower your Black, Asian and ethnically diverse employees to reach their full potential, by opening closed doors and shattering glass ceilings.
If the majority of your employees are white, you need to provide them with the tools they need to work on their own mindsets and behaviours, so that they take equal ownership of a culture of anti-racism. By taking a ‘majority focused’ approach, you put the onus for change on the majority, rather than making it the responsibility of the minority.
Bold changes require borderless leadership
If you want to bring about real cultural and organisational change, you have to be fearless about asking the difficult questions.
Borderless leadership means identifying and breaking down harmful barriers at all levels, integrating DEI into all aspects of your organisation, and developing the skills to leverage difference as a strength.
None of this is easy. But the choice is simple. In fact, it’s black and white, as there is no middle ground here. Put plainly, you’re either working towards becoming an anti-racist organisation or you’re not.
It will take work, but it is possible for you to get there.
Set meaningful targets, actively listen to, and act upon, your people’s lived experiences and bake anti-racism into every aspect of your organisational culture. This is how you create an organisation that is anti-racist to its core, and that has DEI running through its very DNA.
Those organisations that are truly anti-racist – in their actions as well as their words – will be the winners of tomorrow. Will yours be one of them?