A year on from George Floyd’s death, we asked a group of diversity, equality and inclusion specialists if anything has changed within organisations regarding race equality. Here Susan Popoola, award-winning consultant and public speaker specialising in talent management, inclusion, and engagement, shares her views.
Is talking about race still taboo?
I don’t know anyone who wasn’t horrified by the video of George Floyd pleading that he couldn’t breathe as a police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, supposedly to restrain him from moving.
This incident has definitely had an impact on the world of work. I have led several leadership conversations over the past year, which have provided a safe space for leaders to better understand issues around race and begin the required transformational work within their spheres of influence.
Predominantly Caucasian, the typical response from those I have engaged with at a deeper level is best explained by the lady whose initial response as she watched in horror was to think of it as an American issue. “Thank God things like that don’t happen here”, she said.
Subsequently, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations started in the UK, and people of colour across the land started to tell their stories and speak of how they were re-traumatised by the event. “Why did it have such an impact,” someone else asked. I explained that it wasn’t just that it was horrific, but that for many people of colour, they saw themselves and/or their relatives in the experience of George Floyd. Even though they may have never had anyone physically step on their necks, there are experiences of discrimination that leave them feeling suppressed, as if they literally had someone kneeling on their necks throughout their lives.
In addition to leading such conversations with leaders from a cross-sector of organisations, I’ve done so internally with organisations as well. That includes work with the senior leadership team of a school whose head stated that she had thought legislation had sorted out the issues around race, despite the many reports that have been produced through the years since racial equalities legislation was put in place, which highlights the racial disparity in the workplace, education and wider society. I believe she – at least in part – reflects the attitudes and beliefs of many people pushing back against discussing issues around race.
Legislation, policies and procedures provide frameworks for what should be. They don’t, however, change hearts and minds and the attitudes and beliefs that come with them. That change comes only comes from a deeper level of understanding and empathy.
Has progress been made to level the playing field for minorities in organisations?
In the past year, there have been some changes, such as the rush to recruit non-executive directors of colour and the recruitment of diversity and inclusion leads. At times, these changes seemed to be focused on improving organisations’ public image and feel superficial. The changes will be superficial, and organisations will be found out unless those recruited to positions are given the opportunity of full expression, are heard, and relevant actions are taken and followed through with support from the leadership team and everyone else in the organisations they work for.
What more needs to be done?
I take time working with leaders to help them understand the embedded beliefs that exist around race that have an engrained impact at both a structural and institutional level, impacting on how we do things and leading to discrimination again people from different racial backgrounds (as well as areas such as gender and disability).
Until we begin to unpack the long-held beliefs held about people, progress around race will always be limited. I’m therefore an advocate for continued conversation and dialogue about people and places that create greater understanding, break down false beliefs and stereotypes, and show the humanity of others.
When we identify with and can see shared humanity with others, we naturally want the best for them and take the time to understand, support, guide, and remove any unnecessary barriers to their success. We not only want the best for them, but we also feel connected to their success – especially if we work with them. It’s now widely accepted that diverse organisations do better than those that are not, but only if that diversity is effective with free expression of itself.
Have lessons been learnt?
Real transformational change typically takes time, so it’s difficult to say how much has really changed in the space of a year, especially as we’ve all been grappling with the pandemic, which is recorded to have disproportionately affected people of colour.
Conversations and learning to understand the changes and barriers faced by people of colour remain critical, as is the need to take the time to build genuine relationships with people that appear different.
I conclude – become curious about the people who work with/for you and gain a greater understanding of their interests, dreams and aspirations. See everyone’s individual success and the resultant optimisation of their value within the workplace as integral to the success of your organisation and make necessary changes for it to be fully realised.