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Becoming an actively anti-racist workplace needs more than just allyship 

Following the murder of George Floyd over two years ago and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests that shaped movements around the world, society is waking up to the systemic and institutional racism that exists in the UK, including in our places of work.

Earlier in September, 24-year-old Chris Kaba, an unarmed black man, was shot dead by the police in south London sparking protests across the country and allegations of police racism. This case is currently under investigation with the IOPC (Independent Office for Police Conduct).

On Monday 26 September, Ofcom announced Sky News was under investigation for their reporting of the protest march, another example of racial bias in the British media which received 598 complaints in their failure to meet accuracy standards as required by the broadcasting code.

Tackling racism in the workplace:

Institutional racism still rife in the workplace, says TUC

How do we normalise standing up against racism and bias at work?

Majority of women of colour in the UK have faced racism at work

We all need to tackle racist bullying at work

Events like this continue to happen in society and it’s important to remember that no workplace is immune to systemic racism.

In fact, new research from the TUC recently found that more than 120,000 workers from minority ethnic backgrounds have quit their jobs because of the racism they experienced – and over one in four say they have faced racist jokes at work in the last five years, damaging their confidence at work.

Many employers have stepped up their efforts to ensure anti-racist policies and practices are put in place, but the TUC research shows that in many cases this clearly isn’t enough.

Consistency is key. Instead, often we see a more tokenistic response to activism, where organisations frequently use words like 'ally' to reward themselves without taking any real action or creating purposeful change.

Being an ally is important, but language is ever evolving, and the nuance of language is so important when it comes to diversity and inclusion, especially through a mental health lens.

Allyship can show support, compassion and care for a cause, but it can also be a very passive term that enables people to show their support for a cause, without really taking any action. What we really need is for more people, including employers and colleagues at work, to move to being ‘co-disruptors’ who are actively anti-racist in their efforts to change workplace culture, practices and wider society.

This nuance in language can help move the needle from a passive to an active place.

This active place would see everyone owning a depth of knowledge about the intersectionality of different experiences, the removal of barriers so people could be their full selves, and a shift towards both true racial equality and racial equity.

Although both promote fairness, equality achieves this through treating everyone the same regardless of need, while equity achieves this through treating people differently dependent on need.

In order for an organisation to be actively anti-racist, transformation needs to start at the top.

Employers and senior leaders must lead on taking action, creating inclusive safe spaces for these conversations to take place, reviewing policies through an anti-racist lens and making sure their workplaces are built for diverse teams whether these people already exist in these spaces yet or not.

The pandemic has shown how proactive and adaptable organisations can be, with senior leaders and HR teams taking action to enable new working arrangements and contracts that encompassed flexibility at their core.

So this energy and drive for quick change should also be applied to diversity and inclusion policies. Ultimately, people of colour and black colleagues should always feel confident that proactive steps are being taken to improve the workplace culture and environment.

It’s also important to create safe spaces where the psychological safety of people of colour and black people is protected, where it won’t be compromised, and to signpost to appropriate support wherever possible. Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAiders) in the workplace can play an important role in this.

The updated MHFA course from MHFA England has been designed to put diversity and inclusion at the forefront, with updated research on the experiences of black people and people of colour and more information on understanding an individual’s frame of reference.

This is where our upbringing, past experiences, education and culture are all unique and, as such, shape our perceptions. When providing mental health first aid to someone, a good sense of self-awareness enhances our ability to truly listen non-judgementally, and to not be hindered by our frame of reference or bias.

Making meaningful change in your organisation to become actively anti-racist isn’t a static process. While we must all be allies to the movement, we must remain open to challenge and continued learning as our workplaces and businesses continue to evolve.

We need to ensure we are constantly evaluating, adapting and ultimately disrupting workplace culture, including updating policies and practices where we need to as part of building a truly inclusive wider workplace wellbeing approach.

In September, MHFA England launched its new MHFA course, which is the only licensed, internationally accredited, evidence based MHFA course in England.

It has been re-developed through an inclusive lens–promoting equity and understanding around mental health. To find out more about training MHFAiders for your organisation, click here.

Chloe Davies is head of social impact for Lucky Generals and an ambassador for Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England

This article is one of a series of articles HR magazine will be publishing throughout October in celebration of Black History Month in the UK. Check out all the articles, when published here.