There are basic rights we feel entitled to expect, such as the right to be treated equally and the right to a fair slice of the pie. We expect our achievements at school and at work to be rightfully recognised, and we expect others to notice when one of our rights is ignored. We take pride in standing up for our rights – which is a key part of self-respect, a critical value that we at Working Voices help clients pursue and develop. So, when Black people ask why inaction and silence are allowed to prevail when equal rights are trampled on, knelt on, what should be the response?
An honest answer begins by admitting the failing that exists. To allow inaction and silence is a failing. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African anti-apartheid campaigner, said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Whether we live in St Albans, Hertfordshire; Aspen, Colorado; or Minneapolis, Minnesota, there is no escaping the fact that when it comes to injustice, inaction and silence are part of the problem. They are not ‘absence’, a gap to be filled when white folks get round to it. They are participation in an ongoing problem.
Looking beyond Minneapolis
The problem reaches beyond racist police officers. Would the Black Lives Matter protests in 2,000 cities around the world regard reform of the police department in Minneapolis as the last word in civil rights? Something bigger is happening, and it’s up to all of us to hear it. In our polarised Western countries, in America and Britain, in France, Italy and others, voices have long been drowned out. They continue to be shouted down by suggestions that all lives matter, or worse that white lives matter. There aren’t banners on buildings, or slogans on streets, saying ‘Black lives matter more’. The bigger point here addresses the damage that occurs wherever inaction and silence prolong inequality, which is more places than the Minneapolis police department.
The death of George Floyd wasn’t an isolated incident, the subsequent reaction isn’t an island in time. It is the resurgence of an ongoing movement, with roots reaching back to the 19th century. Voices of protest have echoed through the ages and will continue to be heard until racist attitudes are brought to an end. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman paved the way. Later, others followed including Rosa Parks, James Meredith, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X and Angela Davis. Now, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag adopted in 2013 has expanded into a movement supported around the world. The continuing protests expose the entrenched inequality on both sides of the Atlantic that some white people still regard as a fact of life they can rely on, among them Amy Cooper.
Just hours before Floyd’s death, Cooper told police in New York that “there’s an African-American man threatening me and my dog”. The man in question, Christian Cooper (no relation), filmed her call – in a recording that shows he was in fact standing still, largely in silence. The film, which has received more than 44 million views on Twitter, has provoked a huge response. Amy Cooper has been described as ‘weaponizing the police’, exploiting the perceived prejudice of the police against people of colour. The protests are part of a wider movement. They speak out against the deaths of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor and of Rayshard Brooks, deaths that according to President Obama “have left our nation anguished and outraged.” The protests speak out at a pervasive prejudice so baked-in it is readily exploited by an executive taking a walk in the park.
To break the silence, it is necessary to join the debate. It’s been said online that ‘if you’re white, pass the mic’, which to us at Working Voices misses the point. Excluding one community or another isn’t part of the solution. Exclusion is a defining part of the problem. We all of us have a duty to join the debate, including business. Silence has been part of the problem for too long, which is why business is stepping up to the plate.
Companies are taking proactive steps in hiring more people of colour, looking at who makes it to the board and who doesn’t, and clarifying their position on cross-cultural values. Those companies that are genuinely interested in making progress accept the need for an increase in conscious awareness. It’s not about box-ticking and lip-service, nor about hijacking a slogan. It’s about amplifying the message. Anything less than this risks becoming part of the problem.
At Working Voices, we help employers and employees better communicate cross-culturally. In accepting that business has its part to play in the debate, companies engage consultants like us to help expand their work on diversity and inclusion. Of course, diversity is championed by many groups, among them the LGBTQ community. Due to Covid-19, this year’s Pride parades in New York, London and elsewhere are being replaced by Global Pride an international online event. Under the banner ‘Exist. Persist. Resist.’, Global Pride put Black Lives Matter at the centre of their event. Co-Chair of the Global Pride organising committee, Natalie Thompson, said: “As a Black woman in the LGBTQIA+ community, I feel we must confront the systemic racism and violence facing my Black brothers, sisters and non-binary siblings…. I could not think of a larger platform than Global Pride to do this.”
Tackling unconscious bias
The way forward is not exclusion, but inclusion. And business is part of the debate, as Amy Cooper discovered. When her employer reviewed the video, she was fired the day after the incident. Indeed business has a powerful voice, a voice that consistently catches the attention of government.
A central feature of the debate is the call for change. As individuals, we all have our part to play here too. We each have our past and our prejudices, but we are capable of change. Staying woke is the responsibility of us all. Sub-conscious beliefs, including unconscious biases, can be brought into the light and changed for the better. To find out how, take a look here.
UK journalist Joseph Harker makes the point that “probably the three most powerful words in the history of institutional racism” are ‘it’s just that’ – as in ‘I’d love to recruit a Black person it’s just that they’re not quite the right fit for this role.’ Harker says: “They’re the words people say in private – or don’t say – when they’re making the decisions that really matter. They are the words that determine whether someone gets that job, or that business contract, or that university place, or that rented room.” This is unconscious bias in action.
Policies on diversity go some way in addressing the effects of racism. But in tackling underlying causes, the debate calls for widespread change to systems of oppression that preserve old-time attitudes and fuel unconscious bias. With this in mind, companies and organisations will be looking at making sure structures and strategies are anti-oppressive across the board, and that equitable practices are encouraged to prevail.
Change requires us as individuals to do something. In the words of Joseph Harker: “Black Lives Matter is a catchy slogan. But right now, action is what really matters.” For Barack Obama, action means mobilizing to raise awareness but at the same time “casting our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.”
The West is at a crossroads. As we grapple with a global pandemic, we have a rare chance to rewrite normal. If the new normal turns out to be no fairer than the old, our political leaders will find themselves on the wrong side of history. Politics in the US and the UK are polarised, fragmented by opinion on Brexit, migrants, fake news and the populist leaders who will sort it all out. Until they do, the rest of us can keep up the pressure. And we can only do that by joining the debate, and taking the action it demands of us.