“If you turn off the background noise of Westminster, of the tabloids, and instead listen to what's happening within organisations, what you realise is that this is an enormous moment of change – a shift of consciousness – that is being led from the bottom up by the private sector, rather than politicians who are seeking to exploit this moment for electoral gain. They are not able to offer leadership at the moment and organisations and individuals are taking the lead themselves."
David Olusoga, historian and broadcaster
The theme of the IWFM Conference 2021 was ‘Emerging stronger’, with speakers tackling the megatrends affecting the world of work. Broadcaster and historian David Olusoga used his session to address racism in the workplace.
Silence or inaction in the face of racism is complicity, said Olusoga.
Most people want an equal society but do not do enough work to manifest it. Attitudinal surveys taken over the past 50 to 70 years show repeatedly that Britain is a less racist country. One of the most recent surveys carried out by the Runnymede Trust show that three quarters of the population (74 per cent) describe themselves as “not at all prejudiced”.
Only 1 per cent of citizens were willing to openly state that they were “very prejudiced against people of other races”. Yet despite the fact that so many people in society repudiate racism, Britain in 2021 is a nation in which black people and other minorities remain profoundly disadvantaged and excluded from multiple aspects of life and the pandemic has made that far more apparent. More work needs to be done to make these aspirational attitudes realities within institutions and structures.
"This generation's attitude to race and discrimination, and diversity is profoundly different from that of earlier ones. They don't just oppose racism, they are actively repelled by it, disgusted by it - that is young people in this country, black and white, simply do not want to live in a society disfigured by racial inequality. And they are willing to force the rest of us to have difficult conversations that the generations above our generations have chosen to avoid.”
Many in society have accepted the abnormal as normal. Most of the workforces who are in roles such as cleaning, catering, security are non-white people who work in buildings during night hours. While these very same buildings are filled with mostly white people from different socio-economic backgrounds during the daytime.
Structural racism is one of the most powerful, toxic ideas ever created, now hundreds of years old, and it exists deep within the fabric of society in ways that are difficult to recognise. Racism is concealed within cultures and practices and can unintentionally or unwittingly discriminate or damage people of colour. It exists in peoples’ subconscious and that is true of everyone, irrespective of race.
"If you're looking for history to make you feel good, I think you're looking in the wrong place. History should challenge us. It should make us uncomfortable, as well as making us proud. If you only want history to make you feel positive, then you need to take out history, everything that's challenging."
He urged delegates to ask themselves tough questions because only through reflection, will a fair and equitable society emerge. Ask questions like: how is racism embedded in the structures we interact with on a daily basis? How can I challenge myself in ways that encourage my own growth rather than see this as an endeavour that takes away something from me?
- How can FM become more educated on racial realities from the bottom up as well as top-down?
- How can those in the profession be taught to self-reflect deeply enough to learn the empathy required to stop making ignorant remarks and offensive comments? Possibly through education such as reading the works of black authors around their experiences of racism, which can then be applied to a company’s policies.