Let's talk about race in the workplace

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The actor Benedict Cumberbatch has come under fire for his use of the word ‘coloured’ in an interview – ironically, when talking about the lack of roles for Black British actors in the UK.

It’s disappointing how much coverage has been dominated by his use of the word coloured, rather than the valid point he was making about Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation in the arts.

I’d like to thank Mr Cumberbatch for being brave enough to talk about this important issue full stop. And I absolutely get why British actor David Oyelowo was swift to stand up for him.

What we don’t want is others who are asked about issues of racial diversity – not just for actors, but across all sectors – to be too afraid to answer the question for fear of using the ‘wrong’ word and being lambasted online.

There is never going to be perfect language and terminology on this on which we all agree. We must expect that it will differ from person to person, in different countries and across different cultures.

Race for Opportunity uses BAME, but we know that not everyone is a fan of the phrase.
Meanwhile, ‘coloured’ may seem outdated; some people now use ‘People of Colour’ and may feel that it is more comfortable to use than saying someone is ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’. It also depends on where you are in the world or who is using the term – after all, the USA’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hasn’t changed its name since 1909. (Incidentally, Cumberbatch was in America talking on US television to a US audience.)

What matters is that the issues get the media spotlight, not the ‘politically correct’ terminology one may or may not use.

We don’t want race to be the elephant in the room, the area everyone knows needs action but is too afraid to start the conversation about. We need businesses and leaders to talk about these issues if we are going to address the lack of BAME representation in the workplace and across industries.

Those that have been brave enough to talk about race have reaped the benefits. Last summer, a wave of technology companies published their diversity data and openly talked about lack of ethnic minority and female talent in their workforces. This transparency produced a positive response rather than a negative one – because they had acknowledged the inequality gaps upfront.

In a digital age where one post or quote can create an online outcry and wreak havoc on reputations, not knowing the ‘right’ way to say something can feel strangely paralysing. But what we need to remember is that there will never be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ phrase to use when talking about race.

Rather, instead of attacking people for unintentionally using the ‘wrong’ term, we should be applauding them for bringing the topic into the spotlight. Now we need more employers and leaders to be courageous enough to have those conversations.

Sandra Kerr is director of Race for Opportunity, part of Business in the Community

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