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Fighting the need to be right in conversations about race

It’s been 28 months. You know what I’m talking about. All the black squares and declarations of anti-racism action. All the corporate downcast eyes and solemn faces and promises to do better. 

Very few businesses have sustained this commitment and taken practical action.

In her book The Anti-Racist Organisation Shereen Daniels describes the four levels of her Racial Equity Maturity Model, and expresses justified frustration at the attitude of: ‘oh we’ll be very happy just to get to level three.’ 

Why not level four, the holy grail of racial equity? Because, as Shereen explains, the “public and private accountability [it requires] means there’s nowhere to hide”.

I’d guess that for many, it’s just too uncomfortable to really understand the impact of racism. Framing it as a business activity rather than a personal mission helps to dissociate from it.

This is partly down to the human need to be right.

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From an early age, we’re taught that being right is good and being wrong is, well, wrong. Our self-esteem is bound up in it. We’re taught to be ashamed of being wrong and urged to strive to be right. And yes, many conversations are nuanced, so if we can’t be totally right, we can be more right than others. Or at least a bit right. Right?

I spend a lot of time on LinkedIn. The opinions I see there suggest to me that most white Western people believe they understand racism and its impact.

Having started (and continued) to do the work for myself back in 2020 to really understand it, I would confidently assert that 99.9% of those people are wrong in that belief.

Not even a bit right. White people can’t begin to understand racism until we’ve deeply reflected on it in relation to ourselves and our lives, and how we’ve unconsciously perpetuated it.

This makes conversations about racism very difficult. We can’t cope with having our self-worth questioned. In her article about the human need to be right, Anne-Laure Le Cunff says: “Holding onto our opinions gives us the illusion of knowledge.”

We mistake anti-racism conversations for intellectual debate. They aren’t. We want and need those who have experienced racism to agree that others also have it tough. This is not-so-affectionately known as ‘whataboutery’.

Ah, we say wisely, but what about this group of people? What about that community? They have it tough too, you know. 

We continue to seek rightness in some small way to maintain our feeling of self-worth, and not allow ourselves to acknowledge the unfathomably deep wrong of systemic racism and the part we play in it every day.

We need to feel a bit right to comfort ourselves that we haven’t been getting this wrong our whole lives.

Some of us even seek comfort from those who have been impacted by racism. We’re horrified when we get it wrong, and ask them to reassure us that we’re still a good person.

If you want to demonstrate action instead of words this Black History Month, let go of the need to be right and educate yourself. Really educate yourself.

Don’t just read a few articles or watch a few videos and think you’re done. The start of my education was the book Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad, and there are many others.

Take action, learn, and be prepared to live with being wrong.


Rebecca Berry is an independent inclusion coach and consultant 


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.