On February 20th the Society held a second of its fishbowl format events at the Facebook offices in London - the topic; Being Braver around Race. Gemma Greaves, the Society's Chief Executive, determinedly said while opening the evening, ‘race is something we don’t talk about, but we should’.
Given the waiting list and the full audience for the event, there are lots of us who agree.
The inspirational Karen Blackett and Adrian Walcott set the stage as opening speakers.
In an incredibly powerful discussion, full of humour, positivity and resilience, here is some of what I learnt:
The time for change is now
A number of participants bravely shared their experiences; from facing and witnessing the ugliest of physical and verbal racist attacks, to institutional racism, unconscious bias and routine micro-aggressions in the workplace.
However, above all there was a sense of impatience and urgency in the room, and the message was clear. As a participant put it succinctly, ‘it’s unacceptable…and it’s just not going to fly anymore’.
Don’t be afraid to have difficult or awkward conversations
A Society Fellow spoke about how terrifying change can be, given you lose confidence quickly and tend to insulate yourself when faced with racism and bias in the workplace - but iterated how we could not allow these behaviours to become normalised.
A first step was talking about it.
Whilst another member urged an honest conversation can often be the best driver of change, and it was ok to get it wrong.
The ‘BAME’ construct can be restrictive
‘Do you ever introduce yourself or think of yourself as a BAME person’ was a question put to the room, with most people largely agreeing they did not identify as BAME.
A guest challenged if we were thinking big or inclusively enough ‘if one person is not free, then none of us is free’, while many participants spoke of identity as fluid, ever changing and multi-faceted; a participant mentioned he was Anglo-Nigerian, mixed-race and has featured an afro one day and dreadlocks the next - simply being identified as Black was not good enough.
Other participants spoke of the importance of the construct as a tool to drive change.
Allies are crucial support
‘It can be lonely walking into a room as the only minority representing the entire Black community’, a humorous but poignant reminder from Karen that we all need cheerleaders, allies and mentors in the workplace. Often this can take the form of simply having someone to talk to.
Storytelling is important as ever to counter stereotypes
We discussed stereotypes of the Muslim woman in a hijab routinely perceived as ‘disempowered and submissive’, the ‘angry Black woman’, the sports ads featuring Black people but not Asian and the perfunctory Christmas ads rolled out each year featuring the Black family.
One speaker spoke about the power of storytelling - as marketers we have the opportunity to create and curate rich, human stories which capture complexities beyond a single story and provide a counter narrative to these stereotypes.
A final thought
Apart from simply being the right thing to do, studies have demonstrated over again that diversity makes good business sense - with businesses now beginning to commit to the agenda.
However, I have come to better appreciate that while ‘diversity is a reality, inclusion is a choice’.
So here’s to many more brave conversations, to driving change and sharing learnings – so ALL of us feel included and can bring our true, authentic selves to work.
By Mehrene Shah-Fraser, Propositions Capability & Training Lead, Aviva