The other day, I joined an excellent lunchtime session at work, entitled, “Let’s Talk About Race.” the point of this session was to address one of the last taboos in the workplace, to feel at ease about acknowledging that within any business, people come from many different backgrounds, ethnicities, countries and religions. In most cities, this is incredibly diverse – it’s the reason that many of us love living in London, with hundreds of different languages, cultures and cuisines to enrich our daily lives! But whether it’s to do with our Anglo-Saxon manners, or a fear of offending, or perhaps even excess political correctness, many of us fear referring to someone by their ethnicity or colour, instead procrastinating and stumbling around the topic.
We shared some embarrassing and amusing stories, where colleagues or acquaintances avoided using the “B” word (black), examples of confusion over parents and their kids from a mixed ethnic background where the kids are a different skin colour to the parents, and we discussed the difficulty we felt on approaching the subject of race in work. It felt great to be open and honest, and be reassured that transparency was the right thing to do!
And yet, for a big chunk of our population, the topic of race (like that of women’s issues, disability, LGBTQ and age) is not an issue. Children make a distinction between different people that they meet, but invariably when they meet with someone unfamiliar, their inquisitive natures mean that they simple ask a direct question in order to understand the difference. Gen Y & Gen Z seem to have little or no issues with embracing the uniqueness and diversity of society, rolling their eyes at their parents’ hesitation. So perhaps it’s more to do with a smaller sub-set – my generation. Whilst it may seem like a non-issue to fret over how to refer to someone of a different colour or ethnicity, there is a very serious impact to consider.
When reviewing the differences in performance at school, the unemployment rates or the household net worth, alarming and unfair disparities start to appear, often to the detriment of non-white ethnic groups. There are some worrying stats that suggest the gap between the number of white executives in businesses and black executives is increasing, with fewer non-white executives in senior positions than a decade ago. This is an unacceptable trend, and perhaps our own discomfort around talking about race is contributing towards this. By trying to make everyone the same, treat everyone equally, we may well be creating more of a divide. By not respecting culture, religious and ethnic difference, we could be disadvantaging black, Asian and minority ethic backgrounds. It’s time to step forward and overcome our discomfort!
For the majority of people, the inquisitive nature we had as children will always be with us. Growing up may stifle it, but it’s still there. rather than avoiding asking questions about race, we need to find ways to get comfortable and politely pose those questions. By making a connection, building bridges and celebrating the differences, we can enrich each others’ lives, create a greater sense of empathy and discover something new. If talking about race means that we can become a better boss, a better colleague or a better citizen, surely it’s worth overcoming the discomfort to be more open? During our session, all the colleagues who were asked agreed that rather than confused stares or mumbled avoidance, they’d all rather you just ask a question, and acknowledge their ethnicity.