Within the workplace we are all fully aware of the importance of embracing those of differing races, religions, cultures, ages and sexes to ensure innovation and creativity are brought to the workforce at large, from the differing marginalised groups which make up our society. A diverse workforce can bring an array of ideas and individual perspectives, adding scope and insight to an organisation. Diversity and inclusion is not solely geared towards drafting in a recommended quota or percentage of employee’s who fall into the ethnic minority, disabled, gender equality, LGBTQ, and other protected characteristics categories you see on monitoring forms at the end of a application; it encompasses so much more.
Diversity is inviting all manner of societal members to come and sit at the desk alongside those society deems as belonging to majority groups. Inclusion is remembering how to pronounce their names properly once they take their rightful place at the desk alongside their colleagues. Inclusion recognises people are different from us on subtle levels which are not always on display, such as – lifestyle, culture, environment, ethnic traditions / rituals, social background. Having the curiosity to explore the differences of those who hail from differing backgrounds to us and having an open mind to try and understand those variances are beneficial to all, but unfortunately rare to find across the board in most organisations.
I had worked at the civil service for 13 years in various departments and teams, before I decided to jump ship in an effort to save my sanity for pastures new, which luckily I have now found…albeit I have not landed on perfect pastures by any means, but they are pastures which ignite my passions working alongside people who are willing to listen and hear the plights of people different to themselves. During my time at the Civil Service, it was startling to see the nuances of differing grades, class, cultures, race and backgrounds impact upon workplace relations and general interactions, often in the most subtle of ways.
The aforementioned presented itself in stereotyping and racial profiling in my experience; for example I was once told, “I didn’t think someone like you would have an interest in renaissance art” or “How did you know the name of the David Bowie album that single came from? I thought you would only listen to artists’ like Bob Marley and Tupac.” It presents itself in preconceived notions, I was once told by a former colleague in a senior position that they concluded I would be “difficult” based on the fact a friend had told him this would be the case, which led him to believe this was a forgone conclusion for our working relationship. It later transpired after he admitted, he was wrong and that his belief played into the extremely common, ‘Angry black woman’ stereotype, which acted as his default judgement of all black women. It presents itself in cultural ignorance; I was once told by a bewildered ex colleague “I can’t believe that is your boyfriend, I thought you’d go for a gold chain wearing gangster type.”, the same person also asked if I was going to take my then boyfriend on a tour of Moss side to show him “The bullet hole riddled streets.” It can also present itself in misinterpreting a person’s tone of voice, pitch and volume, leading to them being unfairly labelled ‘aggressive’ and ‘confrontational’, alluding to the fact that the accepted norm in someone’s culture (which can be influenced by parental upbringing if their parents were not born in the UK much like mine, who were born in Jamaica.) may be deemed as offensive or rude in another culture. The latter has caused years of frustrations in the workplace for me, and many other black women, as we can be repeatedly misconstrued, misinterpreted and misunderstood, leading to burn out and exhaustion trying to prove otherwise.
It begs the questions – How can we make sure we don’t unfairly judge someone and make hasty assumptions regarding a person’s character (which may be intrinsically entwined with their culture) without reverting to bias, stereotyping or ignorance? How can those within one of the marginalised groups mentioned at the beginning of this piece, feel comfortable being who we are whilst maintaining professionalism and adhering to the values of the organisation we inhabit, without fear of repercussions. How do we create an environment where a person who is within a minority group within the workforce, can feel comfortable having a voice and showcasing their persona without being silenced, or being made to feel we must shrink ourselves down, in order to avoid being ostracised by the team or the department?
A good start is, we can all have patience in seeking to understand, that although others may be from a different class, culture, ethnicity or religion to you, they may have been brought up in a differing environment to yourself, even if someone is a different grade to you, it does not and should not make their input or contributions any less valuable. Our differences should be embraced, to enable us to achieve our workplace objectives, united as one team. Progressing with an open mind when we don’t understand someone or something, being unafraid to broach taboo subjects when we seek to gain clarity, will hopefully discourage barriers from forming amongst team members, which may hinder the progression of team remits and goals. I have learned that listening to understand and learn, goes a long way and when we listen to people, they feel understood, respected and included.
We should all be permitted to express who we are, as we are all unique in personalities, lifestyles and backgrounds. There should not be caveats to expressing who we are which are dependent on Grade, class, culture or race; which is unfortunately what I experienced intermittently during my 13-year stint as a civil servant. Going forward the emphasis should not be put on conformity but rather acceptance of individuality. If you find yourself stereotyping someone, which we as human beings have all been guilty of doing at one time or another, stop to talk to the person to discover an aspect of that person you may not have been aware of before, you may be pleasantly surprised, as they could completely prove your preconceived notions are based in fiction, not fact.
In the wake of George Floyd, many black people across the globe have been stirred by resonation, as we have relived our own versions of inequalities, prejudices, hostility and mistreatment over the years. Memories we had supressed and pain we had numbed for so long in our repeated attempts to assimilate and humanise our being to those who continue to look upon us with contempt, fear and hatred, have resurfaced. Old wounds have burst open to weep, as we frantically attempt to heal as a collective, as we are forced to face the hidden truths and traumas which have bubbled up to the surface since May.
As human beings, we all watched in abject horror as the life was slowly drained from George Floyd. Black people did not just look on as horrified spectators, we watched with complete knowing, understanding and a warped kinsman ship, in the dawning realisation that at least once in our lifetimes, we have been in work environments or situations in our lives, where our voices have been drained away by people who view us as unworthy of having a voice, our spark snuffed out by those intent on dehumanising us, and our freedom of expression scrutinised and restricted, as though we are subhuman, until…it feels that we can’t breathe. We cannot BE. The difference is – The silencing of George Floyd’s voice was visceral, literal, brutal and permanent. The ebbing away of marginalised voices, especially black voices, across the globe, for decades is – figurative, insidious, draconian and corrosive. Both are an affront on humanity.
My hope is, if organisations, corporations and institutions like the Civil Service, NHS, Her Majesty’s Court Service, MET Police, GMP, the conservative party, but most important of all YOU, reading this, as an individual, realise that they often contribute to the structural prejudices and barriers, which in turn go on to infect society, we can raise awareness within these organisations and society as a whole. People who fall within minority groups in the workforce and their surrounding communities, and those existing within the majority blissfully unware of what has been going on in front of you, hidden in plain sight – the time is now to unify and have the conversations we’ve avoided for far too long, to foster an inclusive environment where people can express themselves and what makes them uniquely individual without fear of judgements, social persecution, stigmatisation or simply as was the case for me; feeling forced to mute our voices in a society which tolerates us; but does not yet fully accept us.
The workplace is a microcosm of society, therefore when we are prepared to embrace, stereotypes can and will be erased!