In September 2016 nine people from Black Lives Matter UK chained themselves together on the runway at London City airport to protest against racial injustice. Seven of them were arrested after passengers complained about inconvenience, and the nation failed to see what the fuss was all about.
It’s hard to believe that just four years later the world appears to have made an about turn. Today there’s not a corner of our globe that has not heard of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Statues that symbolised the permanence of systems in which racial injustice was the necessary fuel for their operation (slavery, apartheid, colonialism) have been toppled; and personal/collective pledges to be part of this movement for change have been made by people of every hue and in every tongue.
In the wake of this seismic global shift, those who have committed their lives to bringing about social justice are asking, is this the moment that will herald transformation? And as eloquently stated by Martin Luther King Jr, is this the moment when the ‘arc of the universe bends toward justice’?
The impact of racism on those from the African and Asian diaspora
The horrific murder of George Floyd still haunts me. I have not watched the videos, I cannot. It was more than enough to see a news bulletin containing a still image of a white police officer, with his hand casually in his pocket, nonchalantly committing murder in front of the cameras, despite pleas from the crowd to stop. He did not care that he was causing harm and appeared to be assured of his right to oppress another in such a cruel and barbaric fashion. This story, however chilling, is not new.
It was my partner’s work colleague, a kind and thoughtful white woman who said to him when discussing the lived experiences of racism, as told by people from the African and Asian diaspora in the UK, ‘But I don’t want to believe that these things are true, and that we live in a world that treats people in such inhumane ways.’
‘Conversations [are taking place across the system] about the different perceptions about race and racism, and how racism manifests itself. These conversations in parallel lines are, more often than not, colour coded along the lines of race.’
This statement captures the essence of something significant, a difference that shows up in many conversations that are taking place across the system right now, often in unwavering parallel lines. Conversations about the different perceptions about race and racism, and how racism manifests itself. These conversations in parallel lines are, more often than not, colour coded along the lines of race.
Having raised one’s awareness and understanding about race, one cannot fail to have noticed both the consistent pattern of discrimination revealed year on year by the Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) scores and the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on staff from ethnic minorities, with many trusts failing to undertake risk assessments with the urgency required to save lives.
The BLM movement is again starkly underlining what it really means to be a person from the African and Asian diaspora within the NHS. The discomforting feelings this statement may evoke cannot simply be pushed to one side. If Black lives really do matter, we – all of us who work in or with the NHS – need to bravely go where the NHS has not been before, taking a long look into the racialised mirror that begins with the statement, ‘We are not all equal’.
The contours of inequity
I am not inclined to sanitise the word racism at this juncture with inclusion. Racism is as harsh as the word suggests, and being on the receiving end of it is alarming, devastating and brutal. Like other forms of injustice it’s an act of cruelty, it dehumanises and demeans and suggests the following truth.
Some racial groups thrive because others do not.
‘If Black lives really do matter, we – all of us who work in or with the NHS – need to bravely go where the NHS has not been before, taking a long look into the racialised mirror that begins with the statement, ‘We are not all equal’.’
This is a difficult correlation to come to terms with. But it is precisely how racism was designed to work, and continues to work very effectively, reproducing unethical power relationships across racial differences.
Racism is enacted daily in a number of ways, and in order to eliminate racism we must first of all see race. In its most subtle forms, race does not even need to be evoked for the behaviours that marginalise to hit their ethnic minority targets. I have observed racism conveyed by:
- evoking lazy negative racial stereotypes to label people from ethnic minorities, knowing that these familiar tags are likely to stick
- targeting those who speak out about racism and consistently refusing to support their work; then claiming that the person from an ethnic minority has failed to deliver
- expecting impossible standards of perfection from leaders from ethnic minorities while white leaders who exhibit moral inconsistencies and poor behaviours are not held to similar exacting standards
- isolating leaders from ethnic minorities by not including them in social gatherings
- continually asking leaders from ethnic minorities to prove themselves and to justify their actions
- singling out leaders from ethnic minorities for targeted and sustained criticism
- not recognising the innovation, contributions and talents of leaders from ethnic minorities, at times attributing their hard work to others who happen to be white
- generally treating leaders from ethnic minorities less favourably than their white counterparts
- not calling out colleagues when they denigrate leaders from ethnic minorities in the ways described above.
The viral video of Amy Cooper calling the police on a Black man, who was committing no crime, with the added effects of her contrived trembling voice, spoke about the fact that beneath the politeness and adherence to social taboos, we all know how racism works and which racialised weapons are able to inflict maximum damage. We need to talk more about how racism works, so that good people can see more clearly the contours of the processes that exclude. Choices can then be made not to support these reprehensible processes.
We can be better but we can only move forward if we work together
I say all of this because I believe the NHS – and wider society – can all be much better, if we embrace the truths that we must now grapple with, and we work together to progress racial justice. We are truly on the precipice of moving forward, progressing racial justice and learning what it is to make decisions that decisively reject racism and its operations, in order to embrace antiracist practice and justice.
‘We need to talk more about how racism works, so that good people can see more clearly the contours of the processes that exclude. Choices can then be made not to support these reprehensible processes.’
The above is an invitation for us all to take a closer look at what is happening around us. I have watched as the NHS Chief People Officer – a woman of Asian descent – has been subjected to the above behaviours on multiple occasions. This is unacceptable, but I’m also noticing an absence of voices that are speaking out about this.
In a system that claims to recognise that racial disparities, and therefore structural racial discrimination, are embedded into cultures, policies and practices – and has the WRES evidence to prove this – there is a perceptible disconnect between this professed recognition and the system’s willingness to call out the very racism it says that it seeks to root out.
I have enjoyed and welcomed the hope-filled conversations of past weeks, but we need to do more. We need to stop tolerating the intolerable, speak truth and call out racism where we see it. In systems where structural racism is the bedrock, leaders from ethnic minorities will be subjected to the kinds of treatment described above. And yes, I’m calling this out.
No human beings are infallible and our leaders from ethnic minorities are as human as the next person, they will fail at things. In those instances, if we embrace justice and offer the gift of honest and thoughtful feedback, we can help these leaders to succeed. On the contrary, if we believe that we can support the BLM movement, racial justice and embrace antiracist practice, without fully supporting the very people that we claim we are seeking to positively impact, we are simply deluding ourselves. Can we really practise a version of racial justice that does not deliver on racial justice? This concept is simply absurd.
‘…there is a perceptible disconnect between this professed recognition [of recognising racial disparities]… and the system’s willingness to call out the very racism it says that it seeks to root out.’
Our antiracist practice should be positively felt by people from ethnic minorities, and if one is determined not to support the work of leaders from ethnic minorities, this is a stance that requires deeper examination as we should no longer accept the naivety of claims not to see colour. There is no racially neutral fence to sit on, the existence of such a fence is a myth.
Stand against all forms of oppression
Many white leaders have asked me over the past few weeks what they can do to support this global demand for racial justice. This is not a new demand, as those who have been colonised and enslaved, denied freedom, education, jobs, progression and opportunity have been calling out for racial justice for generations before our births. In many ways, the fact that this demand is not new shines a light on some of the much needed actions.
- The first step is to decide that you are going to support leaders from ethnic minorities. Get behind them, racism is real and we need our colleagues from ethnic minorities, white, LGBT+, those with disabilities and those without, old, young and from all backgrounds to step in with their support. There is also a reciprocity here, we must stand against all forms of oppression, racism is no exception to this.
- Grow your awareness, educate yourselves, read, scour the internet and learn about the histories that have created our present realities. I am so encouraged by the honesty and integrity of some white colleagues. When you support this agenda I have personally felt your support. Keep going.
- Notice the racialised macro- and micro-aggressions. Decide not to collude and instead invite your colleagues to examine their behaviours more deeply.
- Let’s adopt the practice of critical self-reflection, asking ourselves continually, to what extent our behaviours are aligning with our values. Advancing racial justice depends on us all making moment-by-moment decisions that support progress. Each time we support progress we create the conditions in which others find it easier to do the same.
Let’s speak up and challenge the individuals and cultures in which people feel that they have the right to racially oppress others.
Written by Tracie Jolliff
who is national Head of Inclusive Leadership and System Development at NHS England and Improvement. She strategically leads the inclusion portfolio of work for Leadership and Life-long Learning.
Tracie facilitates the design and development of effective and ethical leadership strategies, which have at their heart justice, inclusion and sustainability. She’s an experienced executive coach and has spoken and lectured on leadership and inclusion nationally, working with government representatives and other bodies to address these themes across the public sector.
The King’s Fund
King’s Fund is an independent charitable organisation working to improve health and care in England