I am hopeful that Black History Month 2020 will not be just another year when photos of Martin Luther King Jr and other Black Americans will temporarily be pinned up on walls around offices and in school hallways. The Black Lives Matter movement has reminded us that Black people here in the UK still face discrimination not only in the criminal justice system but in employment, education and wider society.
What came to light this summer wasn’t anything new. Since 2013, Black Lives Matter has drawn attention topolice violence towards Black people in the US. Many studies over the years have confirmed the level of discrimination that Black people face in the UK on a regular basis from being disproportionately stopped and searched to being discriminated against in the workplace. We know all this, so why am I so hopeful that this summer’s protest will make any difference?
Here are my three reasons why.
1. We can all challenge discrimination
The death of George Floyd was viewed as not just a ‘US problem’. For the first time that I can recall, people from a wide range of backgrounds wanted to take action to confront racism in this country. A discussion started about what and who in our history we remember and what we forget, and how we celebrate our history. I followed the media debate the impact of high unemployment, low pay, poor housing and discrimination on People of Colour. Conversations took place in board rooms around the country about how they could change led many organisations to action. Whether you agree with statues being removed, or with taking the knee, for me the most positive thing to come out of the protest was that the burden of challenging racism and discrimination in society became the responsibility of us all.
2. This is an opportunity to ask for change at your workplace
Most organisations strive to be representative of the communities that they serve. Both private and public organisations recognise the importance of diversity in the workforce.
However, asking yourself a few simple questions can help reveal how much your workplace still needs to do. Firstly, are staff of Colour evenly spread across your organisation, for example, in admin roles, policy, and operations? Are they managers and senior managers, are they concentrated in particular roles or departments? These are challenging questions that you can ask yourself, your work colleagues and your managers. If you are unhappy with the response, you have the responsibility and the power to call for change.
Improving the diversity in our offices really matters. When I first joined the civil service five years ago, a colleague referred to me (a Black woman) as being “coloured”. I thought it was sad that he didn’t know anyone who could share with him the painful history of this derogatory term. I live and work in London, which is 40% BAME (although my London office does not reflect this), I’m lucky that I have close friends from different cultures that I can learn from – I would like everyone to have the opportunity to learn from others.
I would like my workplace’s discrimination training to improve to include things like unconscious bias, intersectionality, being an anti-racist, and White Fragility. I also think that it’s vital that all organisations hold mandatory, annual discrimination training for all staff, so that we can all continually develop in this area.
3. This is an opportunity for us to change as individuals
The way that we ensure that this summer was not just a moment but a turning point for long-lasting equality will be what we do as individuals. It’s not good enough to just say that you’re a ‘not a racist’, which suggests you try not to consciously participate in anything that’s overtly racist but that you’re not doing much at all about the racism that can be found hiding in plain sight all around you. I’m striving to be an anti- racist, which means that I acknowledge my own prejudice and how that impacts everything I do. For me, being anti- racist means action to support People of Colour in my workplace, in business, in arts and literature. A friend asked, “what can I do?”, I was happy to recommend books and films that would help them to understand the issues and experiences of Black people, which is a great starting point.
My optimism will always be kept in check by the little voice in my head telling me that things take time and the reality that there is still a huge section of society that is resistant to change. The challenges in achieving social change are well known to those of us on the left. The history of economic and social struggle provides us with a blueprint that is clear and well-tested. Campaigning, organising, and community mobilisation are skills that we share on the left that can propel this moment into a movement.
Josie is a Labour Councillor for Barking and Dagenham. She works in the civil service and is passionate about addressing the barriers that those with caring responsibilities and women of colour face.