Advancing Racial Equity: Taking meaningful action without a hint of tokenism

In Part One - Start From Where You Stand - Daniels explains what true anti-racist action looks like

Shereen Daniels, Managing Director of HR rewired, Vice-Chair of the Black Business Association, and advocate for anti-racism in business talks taking meaningful action on racial equity without tokenism.

Irrespective of who you are within the workplace – CEO, HR colleague, consultant or D&I lead – start here, right now, by considering what action you’ve taken so far concerning racial equity, as this summary will assist recalibrate your action to date. If you have a racial equity plan or specific work regarding racial equity (rather than a broader diversity and inclusion policy), how confident are you that it’s credible?

Hold these thoughts in your mind.

The fear of saying and doing the wrong thing

There is deep discomfort about race, about talking about racism. And this is across the board. It has nothing to do with skin colour. But what we’re seeing in the workplace now, is an increasing societal backlash against organisations that look and stay the same that are not moving towards racial equity. Particularly when senior people are majority white. Even more so when they are majority white men. A vitally important dynamic when considering racism.

We live in a racialised society

We will never have inclusion if we don’t talk about one of the greatest barriers to its attainment – how people are treated according to their skin colour. How they’re treated according to their proximity to whiteness (as I call it), particularly their proximity to white cis-gendered males. Now, while we talk about racism, we often think about behaviour or individuals, and you know the phrases – the ‘it’s about white people being bad’, ‘she’s racist’, ‘he’s not racist’ etc.

White supremacy has become a casual label in conversation, and we forget that we live in a racialised society with perpetuating systems of policies, approaches, rights and normalcy that creates favourable outcomes for individuals who don’t look like me. The most favoured being white cis-gendered men. And there’s a historical reason for this. But for now, in saying this, I’m making the point that when we talk about racism, it is more than just an individual problem, it’s about whiteness existing as a societal construct.

So a defence of – ‘I’m not privileged’, ‘I’ve had a hard life, and none of this is my fault’, ‘I was born into this’, ‘I didn’t create the systems’ doesn’t wash. The very systems that house the formal and informal ways we do things perpetuate racism, and we’ve never intentionally stepped back and questioned how we deconstruct this? How can we look at a system that time and time again favours white people by default?

A favouritism that is apparent in the data

By way of example, simply from the visuals on corporate websites, it’s relatively easy to work out the makeup of workplaces. Take London as an example, where almost 50% of the population is made up of minoritised communities, yet enter a London-based head office and you’ll rarely see Black people, or only see them in frontline operational roles. This is a consequence of a systemic racialised system. It’s baked in our legal system, our education system. And it’s perpetuated because it’s not talked about. And that’s the broad context here.

Evolving work culture

Pre COVID-19, we all spoke about companies ‘representing the communities they serve’, yet in the past year, we’ve learnt that workplaces need to represent the global community, because a world that once felt very big, became very small, very quickly. And one of the things we’ve recognised is that there isn’t an understanding of where individual companies are starting from on their journey towards equity, anti-racism and kindness. Consider, by way of example, how your workplace historically treated issues of racism, racial discrimination, and racial harassment? How about racial literacy – how often do you talk about race at work?

This is important as it indicates where you are, and what the appetite for change within the organisation is likely to be. Every company has a different perspective. A perspective reliant on the CEO, the board, the non-executive directors, the investors, and key stakeholders.

Start where you stand

This is why we created our Maturity Model for Advancing Racial Equity to help you recognise your company’s starting point. It does so by taking you through significant questions concerning racial equity and fairness in your workplace. Your answers determine where your organisation sits within a four four-level hierarchical structure that highlights your current stance on anti-racism, i.e. your starting point. Here are four levels:

Level One: A Compliance Issue

So no-one wants to be in at the bottom level; however, this is where you’ll find companies that address racism and racial equity as a compliance issue. Purely concerned with reputational risk, it’s about what can be demonstrated, like a tick-box approach. For example, employees have done unconscious bias training – tick, they do it every two years – tick, policy statements are in place – tick, policy statements are updated – tick.

If this is your company, then it’s likely there is no proactive approach to racial equity; the board is risk-averse which probably means the organisation is not 100% sold on the true power of inclusion, equity and difference.

Level Two: Intent to be Inclusive

In level two, there is intent to be inclusive. However, this intent is driven mainly by HR. It’s an ‘HR thing’, probably an individual within the team, or the HR team in entirety, talking about racial equity the most, but with radio silence from the board except perhaps around annual statement time when reports need publishing and engagement surveys need adding. So racial equity is still driven by process, and with the HR team as custodians rather than the board, it’s likely that no overarching strategy exists. Further, even with a certain amount of intent, a level two organisation uses very generic language. Language so we ‘all feel nice’ – inclusion and belonging, ethnic minorities etc.

Level Three: Strategic Focus + Specific Commitment

This is where things become tangible. There is a strategic focus on specific commitments to racial equity. The agenda is being driven at board level. Here companies are likely to have a CEO who is vocal about anti-racism, even just internally – ‘this is what I want us to commit to’, ‘this is how I want us to show what anti-racism means to the company’ etc.

There’s a lot of ‘I’ statements from the CEO rather than ‘we’. The language is specific. And although the company is getting into its rhythms and routines with a racial equity plan, it’s not 100% confident of its contents. The company is likely to struggle with external communication and what it should look like. But they are committed, very specific and have made racial equity a strategic focus.

Level Four: Public + Private Accountability

Level four is the holy grail, right! But not every company wants to be here as level four requires public and private accountability. Here the push for advancing racial equity is a business-led strategy. A strategic imperative. There is specific language about race, racial equity and racism. There is a commitment to inclusion and the different aspects involved.

The company applies positive pressure on their suppliers and partners to do the same, i.e. for us to work with you, we need to know your racial equity plan, your plan for gender representation. They get into specifics, and make decisions based on advancing racial equity.

There is frequent, authentic internal and external communication. This is not tokenism akin to a ‘couple of Black faces on a brochure’ but an acknowledgement that there is a distance to travel, hard work to be done, but a strategic plan is being baked into the corporate culture, one that is measurable, decisive and open to being publicly challenged.

Which companies have attained level four status? No- one has truly nailed it, but the key word here is ‘authentic’. Level four companies make pro-active, authentic decisions: planning for systemic racial equity within their walls and with their supplies and external stakeholders.

Next time we’ll look at what’s next and consider how you can advance racial equity within your company.

Shereen is Vice-Chair of the Black Business Association for London’s Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and Founder + Managing Director of HR rewired. An accomplished HR leader, Shereen is cited as one of the leading voices of anti-racism in the workplace and is a sought-after speaker, instructor and advisor. Nicknamed the ‘Oprah of anti-racism’ due to the international popularity of her LinkedIn/YouTube Live shows, Shereen has been featured in Forbes, BBC Worklife and voted one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices for 2020.

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