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This is how workplaces can be better environments for black employees

If you, as a white person, are frustrated and angered by police brutality and you are passionate about reform, then you can start in your workplace, says Danielle Dash.     

Aside from writing about race, gender and popular culture, I am a development executive for a respected television production company. Our company is small – there are six of us in total and we’re split equally along gender lines. I’m the only black person in our core team and the rest of my colleagues are white. Yet, I am comfortable in my role because I have never needed to be anything other than my authentic, black woman self in this space. Meaning, I didn’t have to change my hair or the way I speak to find employment there.

When I started my job four years ago, I was welcomed into an environment that encourages hearty discussions. No topics are off the table. We speak about race and gender, and space is made for any of us to agree or disagree. We learn and unlearn ideas without the fear that our jobs might be affected. While we are respectful and thoughtful about what we say, my colleagues are not caricature white saviours who do no wrong in the same way that I am not a ‘Magical Negro’  with all the right answers. When mistakes are made, we talk until we come to a common understanding, apologies are made and then we work on a plan of action for how to do better in the future.

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My race has never been ignored, but understood to be an integral part of who I am and how I experience the world. This freedom means our workplace is more inclusive. When I invite black screenwriters into the office, they recognise my comfort, and are able to relax and focus on what’s important – producing great work. It is a privilege I do not take for granted. 

Since the brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of police on 25 May, marches in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement have rolled out across America as well as here in Britain, protesting not only Floyd’s killing but also those of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and all the black people whose lives have been stolen by white supremacy. My colleagues, who are now more like family than workmates, have reached out to check on me and make sure that I know they support me as a black woman. 

Protesters march on Hiawatha Avenue while decrying the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Protesters march on Hiawatha Avenue while decrying the killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

My workplace experience is not universal for other black women working in Britain today, and it is unrealistic to want or expect it to be. Not every black woman wants to be as close to their colleagues as I am; some people prefer to keep a strict separation between their professional and personal lives. 

Black people are not a monolith and some might prefer if their white colleagues didn’t call them out of the blue to discuss police brutality. But with some companies seemingly feeling duty bound to respond in some way to the racism, we must dispel the misconception that the racism we see perpetuated by the police is the only way in which white supremacy takes hold in our society. White supremacy, the racist belief that white people are superior to people of other races, is in many, if not most, workplaces.

Britain is not a post-racial society. The racism we see on display in the States is a British export – the Americans have only learned how to make their racism more graphic and sensationalised. British racism is insidious and polite, but its effects are just as devastating to the black people it affects. According to the 2017 government-appointed, independent review led by Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, you need look no further than your own workplace to see how racism operates.

Titled, The time for talking is over. Now is the time to act, the McGregor-Smith review highlights how very bleak the situation is here. The latest government figures, from 2019, showed that 77% of white people were employed across England, Scotland and Wales, compared to just 65% of people from all other ethnic groups combined.

Despite the McGregor-Smith review finding that people of colour in Britain are “more likely to be overqualified than white ethnic groups”, it also found that “white employees are more likely to be promoted”. If you, as a white person, are frustrated and angered by police brutality and you are passionate about reform, then you can start in your workplace. 

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It is not enough to simply hire black people and feel as though your work contributing to the dismantling of white supremacy is complete. Your workplace needs black people in decision-making positions. As the McGregor-Smith review outlines, those employees “need to have confidence that they have access to the same opportunities, and feel able to speak up if they find themselves subject to direct or indirect discrimination or bias”.

I am free to speak out about racism and other forms of discrimination on social media because the company I work for is supportive of me. Many other black people do not feel the same way at work because they are often the only black people in the office and have little or no support. 

One way to avoid this scenario is to implement mandatory diversity quotas focussed specifically at employing more people of colour. The problem is, according to the McGregor-Smith review, attempting to implement workplace diversity quotas in some instances leads to “resentment and, in some cases, [can] lead to unintended consequences” from white employees. However, if the facts show us that people of colour are more likely to be overqualified than their white counterparts, the truth that many will find hard to comprehend is that white people benefit more, not less, from exclusionary hiring practices and diversity quotas.

Often white people, especially well-meaning liberal white people, choose to be ignorant about the racism they perpetuate. Too much of the work dismantling racism has been built around making white people feel comfortable, affording too much latitude for them to disown the ways in which racism works in their advantage. 

The McGregor-Smith review is not a perfect document in this way, choosing to focus more on “aspirational targets” instead of mandatory diversity quotas. But I recognise it is the first step in holding up a mirror to the ways workplaces can be better environments for their black employees.

When you mistake your black colleague for the other black person in the office when they look nothing alike, or touch your colleague’s hair without consent, or dismiss your black colleague’s discomfort at a racist remark, you are upholding white supremacy and racism. Systems of oppression, like racism, white supremacy and misogynoir are not autonomous. They are upheld by people and those people are more often than not white. The only way to dismantle these systems is to choose to put the wellbeing of black people above the discomfort you might feel because you have been challenged on the ways you have been racist.

Do your black colleagues know that you support them and their fight for dignity, equality and protection against state violence? Do they know you want to do better and be better colleagues? You can start to make a difference in the fight against racism by reading the McGregor Review and implementing these challenging but vital cultural changes in your company today. 

The time for talk is over. Now is the time to act. 

Images: Getty

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