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Taking Steps To Eliminate Workplace Racism


Every now and then, we find the need to depart from our normal topics of business coaching, entrepreneurship, productivity, and growth to discuss important subjects that are at the forefront of global conversation.

Now is one of those times.

Over the past few months, the topic of racism has exploded in the global ecosphere, and for good reason. Incidents of police brutality like we’ve seen with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Eric Garner—among hundreds of others—have served as a harrowing reminder of the systemic racism that affects nearly all aspects of our society, whether we realise it or not. The Black Lives Matter movement has been reinvigorated with protests around the world calling out for equal justice, fair treatment, and fair opportunities for Black people and other marginalised groups.

In a recent Team Success podcast episode, Shannon Waller sat down with Strategic Coach team member Forsythe Olafioye to discuss the issue of racism, what it means to be anti-racist, and what we can do to make the world a better place for all marginalised communities.

Let’s take a look at some of the insights from this episode so we can all start taking steps to eliminate racism in the workplace. This is not something that will happen overnight, but it is possible to achieve if we begin to understand our biases, recognise the microaggressions happening around us, and embrace the concept of anti-racism.

Anti-racist: more than just not racist.
If you were to ask the average person if they’re racist, the answer you’ll most likely get is a simple, “No! Of course not!” But is that really enough?

In recent years, it has become clear that simply being not racist is not enough. Being a non-racist individual is great, but it doesn’t actively help those marginalised communities who are being affected by racism right now (and have been for generations).

Instead, we need to learn how to become anti-racist as a society. This idea has been receiving more attention recently, but it is far from new, with roots dating back to the civil rights movement. The concept of anti-racism is simple: instead of passively claiming to be a non-racist, we need to actively fight against racism and the systemic oppression of marginalised groups.

When we talk about how to eliminate racism in the workplace, it’s not enough to simply turn a blind eye and claim it’s okay because you’re not racist. When we see racism in the workplace, we must call it out. And we must act against the systemic racism that is prevalent throughout our society.

Just because you are not racist does not mean that we’ve eliminated racism entirely. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done, and the first step is to embrace anti-racism.

What are microaggressions?
The next step in eliminating racism in the workplace (and everywhere else) is to understand what microaggressions are and how to combat them.

The reality is that, even if you are non-racist or anti-racist, you might still be acting in a way that could be perceived as racist. Most racist incidents in the workplace occur without one party even realising it.

These incidents where someone makes a racist comment without realising it are called microaggressions. As Forsythe describes in the podcast episode, a microaggresion is “indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalised group.”

These are small incidents of racism that go largely unnoticed by most people, yet they’re found throughout everyday life—and they are more common in the workplace than you might think. Microaggressions may not seem like a major issue, but when they consistently appear day after day, year after year, they can have a massive influence on the way we perceive marginalised groups and the way these groups perceive themselves.

Curious what we mean?

Phrases like “You’re so articulate for a Black person!” or “You have such beautiful hair for a Black person!” are clear microaggressions. Even though these might sound like a compliment, they have some underlying problems. They reinforce negative, false stereotypes—that most Black people are inarticulate or don’t have beautiful hair—and they alter perceptions on what Black people are supposed to be like.

Imagine children growing up hearing these types of comments in school. Telling a young Black girl that her hair is “so beautiful for a Black person” is subtly telling her that her hair is not supposed to be beautiful. It’s also telling everyone else in the room that Black people’s hair is not supposed to be beautiful.

These small microaggressions can have major, lasting effects over time. They may not be meant to be racist, but they actually reaffirm a prejudice or stereotype. They change everyone’s perception of what it means to be a Black person, which can be difficult to reverse.

Calling out microaggressions in the workplace.
The examples above clearly show why microaggressions are one of the biggest race-related problems in our society and in the workplace. So, what can we do about them? And how does this play out in the workplace?

The number one thing you can do to eliminate racism in the workplace is to call out microaggressions when you encounter them. This could be if one of your colleagues uses a microaggression, if someone uses a microaggression against you, or even if you use one by accident against someone else.

We need to cultivate a workplace culture where everyone feels comfortable calling out these microaggressions and understanding people’s boundaries. It’s also important to keep in mind that what’s considered a microaggression can be very personal. What one person sees as a microaggression may not trigger someone else. Even a comment like, “Your hair is so curly!” could be perceived as a microaggression by some.

As entrepreneurs and business owners, we are in a unique position to eliminate racism in the workplace by setting clear rules, creating a culture that calls out microaggressions, and constantly redefining the boundaries around what’s acceptable in our businesses.

Levelling the playing field is better for everyone.
It’s important to remember through all of this that entrepreneurship isn’t a zero-sum game. There’s room in the entrepreneurial world for anyone to take part, and yet systemic racism prevents many people from becoming business owners and bringing value to the world. That’s a problem.

Eliminating racism creates a better outcome for all of us. When there are more opportunities for marginalised people, they’re able to bring more value to the market—which helps everyone in the long run.

The unfortunate reality is that our society was never intended to be a level playing field. Systemic racism was built into all aspects of our society. But we now have the opportunity to level the playing field by providing opportunities, education, and initiatives for marginalised communities.

It’s not about stacking the odds in one side’s favour. It’s about levelling the playing field. And when we level the playing field, everyone wins.

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