Racism in the office and in the staff room

We don’t have a problem with racism here. I am not a racist nor are my colleagues. I don’t believe our staff are racist and I don’t believe our managers deliberately discriminate against people. Just because we don’t have any Black senior managers doesn’t make us racist. And just because some staff occasionally use inappropriate language well I don’t think they mean any offence by it.

As a senior manager in a large organisation I was surprised at the prevalence of this type of thinking at all levels in the organisation. The consensus amongst the senior management team was that staff were not racist, that inappropriate language and insensitive comments were due to ignorance, we should challenge it wherever and whenever it occurred and we should focus on awareness training for all .

Two problems with this thinking one it appears to deny black staff’s own experience within the organisation. You cannot have experience racism in the office or staffroom because we don’t have that problem here. There must be another reason why you didn’t get that promotion or why your colleagues don’t include you in their out of work activities and what makes you so sure people are talking about you behind your back? There are a number of explanations as to why the statistics show that black staff make up 3% of the workforce but 25 % of those subject to disciplinary action.

The other problem is that this kind of thinking assumes that racism is restricted to overt discrimination, racially abusive language and acts of violence against black people. Racism today is more subtle because racial discrimination is illegal and because people in the work place know they will be in trouble if they are found to be racist. People may be more careful in their language but their actions may still be informed by the negative stereotypes, myths and ignorance they are caring around in their head. Stereotypes that are constantly reinforce by stories in the media rather than people’s own experience of black people.

It was these negative stereotypes leading to discrimination intentional or otherwise that were identified in the Macpherson enquiry into allegations of racial discrimination by the police. It was found that within the police force it was a commonly accepted view that African/Caribbean youths were members of violent gangs, involved in drug dealing or using drugs. This was their rational for stopping and searching ten times as many black youths as white. And of course they considered their actions justified every time they or a colleague found a knife or drugs as a result. This was a very dramatic example of how institutional racism could be experience by a black person. The police officers involved genuinely believed that they were not racist, their colleagues supported them in this claim and the chief constable stated that the force was not racist. In much the same way senior managers in many organisations today claimed that racism isn’t a problem.

Blair McPherson author of An Elephant in the Room-an Equality and Diversity training manual published by www.russellhouse.co.uk

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