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Racial equity: What to do when you fear saying the wrong thing

You want to support your black colleagues and build a more just, equitable workplace. But you’re concerned that an inappropriate word will upset or alienate your black colleagues, expose you and your organisation to reputational risk, possible criticism from friends and even adverse media coverage.

You fear being mistaken and condemned as racist so instead choose to play safe and stay silent.

Therefore, any action you do take becomes tokenistic and perpetuates more harm than good.

Creating a sense of belonging for Black colleagues in the workplace:

Succeeding as a black woman in business

How to get Black History Month right

Are performative allies blocking your progress towards race equity?


Doing what’s comfortable rather than what’s right

To pick and choose the aspects of racism your organisation will engage with based on your own comfort levels is to be complicit in the racial structures you feel inspired to change.

It’s an act of complacency. One steeped in privilege as, from where you stand, dismantling racism isn’t a necessity.

So rather than act on what’s right you do what is comfortable, picking at the hem of the issue hoping you painlessly unravel the 400 years of systemic racism that are insidiously interwoven within your organisation’s systems and policies. Because you haven’t got the confidence to chance ‘getting it wrong’ – in essence you think racial equity isn’t worth the risk.

Doing what’s comfortable means jumping into what you perceive to be the easier aspects of racism.

This means at most you’ll look to organise unconscious bias training and allyship seminars, skimming over any explicit racism content justifying your organisational direction through platitudes such as, ‘Racism is all over the media so we all know about it’ without insight into your workforce’s understanding of racism.

You hurdle towards solutions without knowing if you and your colleagues recognise the problem in the first place. Your fear-driven action is nothing more than performative and nothing intrinsic changes.


Put yourself under the microscope

This work is about gaining insights into personal experience. It is not a platform for white fragility and self-sensitivity surrounding how you treat black colleagues.

You are putting your experiences under a microscope and challenging yourself as to how those experiences came about.

You ask the questions and at the back of your mind always keep thinking about your current workplace culture.

What your workplace culture represents, and forever ask yourself why does your culture works so well for people who look like you.


How do you respond when you say or do the wrong thing

Such moments require you to step back and listen with grace and humility. Recognise that advancing racial equity requires you to acknowledge that you will make space for when other people call you out. That no matter how much you care about issues affecting black colleagues, it doesn't absolve you from taking accountability and responsibility for your own transgressions.

In this space centre the person/people impacted by your wrong step. Listen and learn from them rather than attempt to excuse yourself with an explanation of your intent apologise for the impact caused.

Stop the instance of reminding yourself that you are not the injured party. And stop the pattern so this instance doesn’t happen again.

Remember you may not know the perfect thing to say and do, but you know all the things not to say. Start there because whatever your fear-based intentions are they are a hindrance to dismantling racism within your organisation.

Ask yourself why this fear exists for you. Analyse it. Take it apart. Find your solution.

Only then will your input into advancing racial equity for your black colleagues move from tokenism to transformative change.


Shereen Daniels is managing director at HR Rewired


October is Black History Month in the UK and every Friday throughout HR magazine will be posting a series of expert perspectives on how HR can provide better support for Black employees in the workplace.

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