June 1, 2021The Never-Ending Waves of Racism, Part 2: Actions

By Merertu Mogga Frissa, Program Manager of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

In the first installment of this blog, I highlighted some areas that need special consideration when it comes to addressing and removing racism. With this piece, I am sharing five actions individuals can take to address deeply entrenched racist attitudes at work and to elicit the needed change to remove racism from every organization.

Show determination. Tackling racism requires solutions that leave no stone unturned. Every organization must tirelessly assess their workplace and evaluate if there is room to grow. Organizations should invest in developing practices that truly cultivate anti-racism by digging deeper and taking an audit of the workplace culture for racism. To do so, individuals at the decision-making level should assess situations by asking themselves some difficult questions. Does our workplace structure enforce racism? Do practices in the organization embed racism? As a person and as an organization, why do I/we avoid hiring someone from a different race? Are the structures and processes in the organization, the HR practices, its leadership style, and culture chronically favouring a certain race reinforcing racial inequity? Are the things I consider for promotion based on racial bias?

Make efforts relevant. Commitments to address and end racism are meaningful only if there is recognition that racial disparity exists in the workplace. While questioning the lack of diverse employees in an organization is the best place to start, continuously investigating patterns is important. Noticing which department and types of roles Black employees are concentrated in helps get to the bottom of recruitment, development, and advancement disparity. Evaluating practices with a racism lens could help reveal discriminatory procedures of the workplace. Every effort an organization is making needs to have enough substance and should engage employees with lived experiences. That way, an organization will be able to uncover obstacles or barriers that might result from good-intentioned efforts.

Let go of your fear. It is a long-standing dilemma of white employees whether to discuss the issue of race and racism with their non-white colleagues. One common reason for this, which I often hear, is the fear of saying the wrong things about racism. I am certain when I write this—people with lived experiences often welcome opportunities to educate on the matter of racism when approached with non-judgmental and non-dismissive attitudes. There are however three possible reasons for non-white colleagues to not want to engage on the topic of racism with you:

Reason 1. Your intentions might not seem genuine. It is very easy for anyone who experiences racism to recognize the difference between questions with good intent (e.g., out of curiosity to learn and understand) and those that are meant to demean and minimize the experience (e.g., How certain are you? We are never like that! Are you sure that is what the person was doing?).  Often, how you ask questions or state “facts” is telling about what your intentions are.

Reason 2. You do not have an established relationship with the person. When you have not established a relationship, people will not feel comfortable discussing racism or their experience with you. The experience of racism is not the only issue. People who stood up against racism have had an incredibly difficult experience. It costs some their jobs, results in unhealthy workplace relationships, affects their mental well-being, or challenges their career development opportunities. So, if your colleagues are not open to discussing racism with you, it could be because of the negative consequences they might face after the conversation. Since our society is still progressing slowly towards having an open discussion about racism, one must be aware of the value of establishing a relationship before engaging in a conversation about racism. This brings me to my 3rd reason.

Reason 3. Racism is a personal and often a traumatic experience. Trauma is part of what is commonly referred to as a “lived experience”. People will not engage in a casual conversation about racism with everyone they come across. Often, the preference is to talk to someone with a vision to make practical change or with the capacity to support in a meaningful way. That person might not be you, especially if you have exhibited some of the behaviours mentioned earlier or if you do not have an established relationship. It could also be that the timing of that conversation might not be when you want it to happen.

Suspend self-interest: While Indigenous and racialized people have been talking about racism for generations, they continue to have legitimate concerns that have not been addressed successfully to date. They speak up against racism because it is harmful and damaging. The end goal of addressing racism is to bring the ever-needed change: to remove it completely. It is not to seek approval or collect allyship. The goal is also not to humiliate, blame others or create division—all arguments we continue to hear.

Therefore, when it comes to discussing racism with people with lived experiences, the objective should be to listen by suspending self-interest. Forms of self-interest that suddenly turn the focus of the conversation to the self such as interjecting remarks about you not being racist or how good a person you are should be avoided.

Take personal responsibility. Recognize that the racism that exists in our systems will take time to remove. As such, focus on what you can do as an individual by making a personal commitment to actively address and call-out racist stereotypes, biases, and behaviours. Parallel to building relationships, expanding your circle to include people with different backgrounds will help you adopt acceptable behaviours and attitudes. The fear of talking about racism also subsides the more you surround yourself with diverse people.

The complete lack of Indigenous and Black representation in decision making positions is an indication that race-based barriers are unique and complex. To better understand the nuances of the racism experience, take the time to educate yourself.  Tune in to the way this country was founded. Our country’s past influences racism today. Many Canada-made resources on racism, racial discrimination, anti-racism, anti-Black racism, etc. are available. Use them.

I will conclude by noting that, we are not yet ready to celebrate how much progress we have made—the damage caused by racism is still very deep. We have a long way to go to fully address the challenges that various communities face in Canada. While all white people are not racists, it is important to recognize that many benefit from a system that secures their privilege: the privilege of an immediate trust in employment and accessing services, the privilege of not being second-guessed, the privilege of not having to worry about the daily hassle, the privilege of not worrying about stepping into the wrong space, the privilege of being favoured by every system in the country are but a few to list. What people can and must do, therefore, is to encourage everyone and address racism from this standpoint and be prepared to handle the complexity of the issue.