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Musa P M Chunge reflects on his experiences as an engineer in an industry where he's a visible minority, and some ideas for what organisations can do to support staff like him.
Over the past few years, the prevalence of racism in the UK has become a major talking point. It’s still an awkward subject to negotiate though, isn’t it? If you’ve been through an experience of racism it can often feel embarrassing and painful to tell someone else, or to have to explain why it was or felt racist.
If you’re looking in and trying to empathise or understand, you might worry about being judged for saying the wrong thing (“don’t all lives matter?”), and it feels like there can be little grace if you do, regardless of your intentions. Difficulties aside, it’s fair to say that racism is a problem that won’t go away without an active effort.
On paper I tick the mixed black African/white European box. I came to the UK as an adult, having grown up in a black-majority culture in Kenya, a country that was a former British Colony until the 60s. Racism in the UK was a distant concept to me. I had heard about it, but it wasn’t my experience.
My view on it has had to change, not because of things I’ve been through, but instead through the stories of friends who’ve have lived here much longer.
Racism is demeaning and disempowering to individuals and entire people groups. But despite its potency, it somehow manages to lurk in remarkable subtlety where it can be difficult to correctly classify and challenge it.
For example, it’s easy (and right) to condemn online abuse launched at a Black football player who misses a penalty, or the verbal abuse and physical assault of Asians being targeted as the group to blame for Covid-19.
It is much, much harder to correctly classify, and accurately challenge what psychologists call “microaggressions”, like a colleague coming up to me and asking why I haven’t grown an afro or dreadlocks yet. It could be completely innocent, it could be malicious, or perhaps revealing of their perception of me as a person of colour. How should I feel?
The difficulties of addressing these subtleties can sow seeds of self-doubt, distrust, and lead to pent-up frustration, anger or even social exhaustion. These experiences are subjective, and always intertwined with complex feelings and past experiences. That also means it can be easy for a listener to dismiss or explain away a concern, rather than sympathise.
I find these subtleties also make it difficult to gauge how to feel about positive actions that are coming out of our heightened awareness of racism.
Last year, when the world watched George Floyd’s brutal killing, I received corporate emails in the wake of all the protests and wondered whether they were a form of gesture politics (being seen to be doing the right thing) or genuine care and concern for my emotional state and wellbeing.
I remember watching as social media platforms erupted with signs of solidarity, with blacked out profile pictures appearing everywhere. Again, I wondered whether this was really mass morality, peer pressure, virtue signalling, or a fear of being ‘cancelled’ for making the wrong move or not making any moves. All of the above will apply, but how could I know what each individual action was coming from?
I remember, walking in one morning to the atria of an office building I worked in. I was greeted by a multi-racial palette of warm smiles on larger-than-life posters put up in a recent rebranding campaign. It was simultaneously pleasing and uncomfortable. The former, an appreciation of the effort being put into messages like this, the latter because it made me ask whether there really is more to it than the optics.
In our industry it’s great to see a mixture of ethnicities more actively selected as role models in media campaigns and the effort to celebrate the successes of people of colour is excellent. I take hope in that, especially where there is a sense of continuity and momentum.
However, I do admit that I sometimes wonder if my selection for a role or campaign had something, or everything, to do with the colour of my skin.
Has that been the definition of my worth? Have I been used as a token? Do other people see me as one? Am I an achieved objective in the diversity (or marketing) strategy? A checkbox on someone’s list – colour in the picture - tick. Am I being singled out as a member of a group (my race) and therefore being treated a certain way because of that?
If I’m treated differently because of the colour of my skin, I feel uncomfortable, even if that treatment is positive. But how would I ever be able to find out the motives and beliefs of everyone behind the scenes in order to judge a right response? And how much should it matter – if a person or an organisation does something good for a less honourable motive, how much does that negate the good?
Say a business runs a publicity campaign highlighting the diversity in their people, but the driving agenda is to avoid a social media backlash. If that campaign encourages a student to think that that they too can be a top engineer despite their race, it still seems better than no action.
What should an organisation do if positive actions like visible representation can still make staff feel conflicted? One alternative is to do nothing but as we’ve established, we need positive action to drive change..
Continuity over time is key. Trust is earned over time. Though I still sometimes doubt the motivation behind marketing campaigns, consistent messaging over time will help and will encourage my generation to give the benefit of the doubt over positive visible efforts for greater inclusion.
These visible messages importantly need to be coupled with tangible actions.
Here are a few things I have found really helpful as person of colour in the workplace.
Finally, three other spaces that have been crucial in grounding my identity and helping bolster my self-worth and confidence as I live in a culture where I am a visible minority:
I recognise that I’ve been very fortunate and have no painful work experiences of discrimination.
I want to hear the experiences of other readers from minority backgrounds and learn how their colleagues and their organisations have supported them through experiences of racism at work. What have you seen that works well that other organisations can learn from and adopt?
Let’s create a collection of good practices that organisations and teams can look at when thinking about how to build healthy cultures for racial minorities.
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