Beyond ‘race washing’ - how to make sure your business is a race ally

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Research in social psychology suggests that, at a very primal level, the human default position is to congregate into groups that afford us safety. Our natural reaction is to reject the unfamiliar, in a ‘flight or fight’ unconscious response.

What’s more, academic literature explains that humans identify with groups of their own kind and will make attempts to fit into these groups to secure their social status. So it makes sense that we surround ourselves mostly by people like us.

One of the ways in which our in-groups tend to be most similar is around race. A poll conducted by Reuters showed that 40% of white people in the US don’t have a single non-white friend (for other racial groups, 25% don’t have friends of other races).

Even when looking more broadly at our acquaintances – including coworkers, friends, and extended family – the study showed that still 30% of white people don’t mix with other racial groups, and 80% have fewer than five non-white friends.

Why does this matter?

It has become increasingly easy to build a homogenous bubble for ourselves thanks to new technologies like machine learning and AI. For the most part we are able to choose who we interact with, and we’re also able to intensely curate – consciously or subconsciously – the content we receive online.

Again, this is natural – that curation happens because that content is what we’re most likely to engage with. The truth is, we like – on a very primal level – that homogeneity.

The trouble is, if we aren’t surrounded by difference, our ideas become increasingly reinforced by similar people around us. We might not be willing to even entertain the idea that those with different opinions might have a point or that their point of view could be valid.

What’s worse, we begin to attribute our hatred for those ideas to the people who espouse them, and so we don’t just dismiss the ideas, but the people themselves. And we are completely unaware that we’re doing this to ourselves. So, whilst segregation may be a natural phenomenon, it can be compounded and accelerated by unchecked human actions.

This is how biases form, at both individual, organisational and societal levels. When we’ve never seen black leaders in our company, that becomes the norm and it becomes increasingly difficult to break from that norm subconsciously.

Change is possible

The extrajudicial police killings of unarmed black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others are making the news and inspiring mass protests for Black Lives around the world. There’s a new awareness and many companies across the globe have been making public statements in support of racial equality.

But it can be hard to get this right and often there’s a backlash to this with many pointing out these companies’ hypocrisy: they issue public statements, but they don’t take any real action to better the situation.

Starbucks famously closed down all their stores for implicit bias training for a day after a racist incident in Philadelphia, but now they have banned their staff from wearing anything in support of Black Lives Matter (although staff are encouraged to wear clothing/accessories in support of Pride).

L’Oreal tweeted their support for Black Lives Matter, but as one of their model’s pointed out they have fired people in the past for vocally supporting that same movement.

Companies need to do more than just issue statements. They need to act. Here are three things organisations can do to really go beyond empty words:

1. Salary and bonus. Audit your ethnicity pay gap, publish it, own up to it, and state clear steps on what you’re going to do about it. Honesty and transparency are critical to gaining trust.

2. Bias check. Analyse the diversity of your company at all levels and use proportionality as a check to see if bias might be coming into play. If the ethnic proportions are not the same at each level, take a step back and look at how your promotion or performance management processes may be imbued with bias.

3. Audit experience. Measure inclusion in your firm and disaggregate the data by demographic groups, including intersectional groups. Go beyond just counting people who are different, and actually look at how they experience the organisation differently. This can help give a voice to the people who have been previously ignored or drowned out.

Inclusion is a process built on behaviours. If we don’t act inclusively, we won’t build a culture that reflects the values so many companies espouse in public. If we truly want to mend the racial rifts of our past, we need to take action and work on it.

Raafi-Karim Alidina is a consultant with global diversity and inclusion consultancy Frost Included.

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