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Emma Weber
  December 16, 2020

5 Lessons I’ve Learnt on my BLM Journey so far

Ok – this is a long read…

But I encourage you to stick with it and really breathe and dig deep to understand.

I’m not going to get across everything in this blog post, so please do further research on the topic and reflect for yourself.

You might like to read my earlier article before beginning. This article isn’t the end of my journey by any means – it’s still just the beginning. BUT it’s a good point to share some significant learning.

Throughout the article, I’ve used the term POC to describe Black and minority ethnic people, or those who are non-white (borrowing from Marsha Ramroop of ‘Unheard Voice’ – thanks Marsha for your guidance).

And so, on a personal account… this is what I’ve learnt:

  1. Our desire to avoid being ‘uncomfortable’ is our biggest barrier to change

Conversations about race are not comfortable. I’ve read of facilitators being asked to create diversity and inclusion training that ensures the learners feel safe. They won’t. Being challenged with the way our combined histories have created a systematically racist culture isn’t safe. It’s ugly, it’s challenging and it’s natural that we will feel triggered as we investigate. Without seeing the subtleties and how each of us usually inadvertently acts in a way that leads a person of POC to feel ‘less than’, ignored, humiliated or de-valued then we can’t change.

The easiest racism to change is the overt, brutal acts. But the racism that needs to change to truly make a difference in #BLM is the kind where we as a reasonable, educated person are unintentionally racist. Where the veil is lifted on what we had thought or were taught to be the way to behave.

To do that we have to be open to feedback – whether that’s from skilled facilitators on a diversity program or from black friends and colleagues and part of that feedback is that it will feel uncomfortable.

One of the tragedies of the situation on an individual level, outside of larger travesties like the death of George Floyd, is that POC are so used to feedback not being received well or people not being open to hearing that they have said or done something that is racist, that they have given up pointing it out. That means we will never learn. And why have they stopped this? Because then the POC person is labelled as a troublemaker or oversensitive. They are helping educate us and we have turned it into a problem, they have because we have been made to feel uncomfortable.

As learning professionals, we know that psychological safety* is so key to learning – if people don’t feel safe, they won’t open up and be vulnerable, and we know vulnerability helps learning. Conversely learning about race is uncomfortable – we need to find a way to enable both (comfort and discomfort) to coexists in the learning space to further our learning about race.  I’ve used this video to help reframe my own definition of race and increase my ability to sit with the discomfort. https://youtu.be/kzLT54QjclA

*This is an aside, but I’ve been learning a lot about psychological safety at the moment, particularly the way people open up to Coach M (our chatbot) because they feel safe doing so. If anyone in my network is developing diversity and inclusion training and would like to brainstorm how a chatbot could increase the psychological safety or power of reflecting in a safe way, let me know and I’d be keen to collaborate to make a difference in the area.

  1. The Why doesn’t matter – intention over impact

It is all too easy to say, “Well, it wasn’t my intention to upset or offend so I’m not in the ‘wrong’ and they (the POC) are the one triggered, so it’s their issue to deal with, not mine.”

We have to get over that we are a bad person if someone points out that something we have said or done feels racist to them. We have to find a way to go beyond defensiveness, whether that’s for ourselves or for others. I saw in my own company that people leapt to my defence and felt sorry for me when I was called out for a behaviour that left a POC on my team feeling ignored and not heard. And yes, it was unintentional but that’s not the point. Even to say it was unintentional lessens it and my responsibility in some way. It was a chance to learn and grow.

In a way, I’m glad I did it (if I could turn the clock back and not have displayed this behaviour, of course, I would, as I would never want to be the cause of pain or suffering to anyone), but without this experience, I may not have looked so deeply at the root causes and at the assumptions about racism in our society AND that I held. It would have been easy to say I tried my best, it wasn’t my fault, they were oversensitive, but none of that is an excuse for not being aware, and at the time I wasn’t aware.

They expected so much of me and I say thank you for holding me to a higher standard, above the inherent racism in our society, because through doing that we can all raise up.

  1. Notice what you’re thinking and get practical

When George Floyd’s death came into the news early this year and the BLM movement was gathering momentum, my assumptions and excuses – some voiced, some hidden – were:

  • It’s not really about me and my part of the world
  • It’s too big a problem to tackle
  • I know I’m not racist so why should I get involved?
  • I’ve got so many other things on my plate right now, I just don’t have the bandwidth

Spectacular fail on my part for all these points. And I agonised as to whether to share them as it speaks to my ignorance and may trigger anger in my POC colleagues, friends and readers. Unfortunately, even as a frequently praised leader and (most people would agree) a good person, these thoughts were in my mind.

It doesn’t make me a bad person, just an ignorant one at an early stage in the journey.

Once a cherished friend made a very gentle remark that as a team, they were surprised that Lever was ignoring the issue (BLM). I thought that any step needed to be big and significant. I got busy thinking what that might be.

What I completely missed was that something as simple as picking up the phone to colleagues and friends of colour to check in as to how they were coping with this in the news would have made a significant difference. Steps don’t need to be overly grand. Looking back, I’m not sure I know why I didn’t just make a start.

Initially, I think I was guilty of choosing not to see the problem, and then it became a combination of thinking that a small step wouldn’t contribute to such a large. But I think more fundamentally than that, I genuinely had never seen my Black friends or colleagues as Black. I had naively thought that gorgeous, talented, heart-based people would have never experienced racism because they were so lovely.

A ridiculous statement on reflection, but I had thought so little about race in the past it just never occurred to me that they could have been disadvantaged. Now I know differently.

Move past your assumptions and start to get practical – even if it’s not grand gestures. How can you start to learn? What awareness can you bring? What steps can you take?

  1. “Not seeing colour” isn’t a good thing 

As I write this on the eve of the US election, I’d say I’m not really a political person but had put racism and white supremacy in a far-right ‘bucket’, that made it very easy to ignore.  But until we uncouple our perception of racism in society being about the far-right, it will be hard to affect change.

Actively not seeing colour (or disability or gender diversity) is in fact because somewhere deep down I’d say I’ve been taught it’s not polite to “notice”. This is a form of racism.

It’s often said that our strengths can be our biggest weakness and my desire to make people feel so comfortable when they are learning, whatever their mindset, has shaped the TLA methodology and made it accessible to the most resistant of learners – but it also doesn’t help when it means you avoid hard conversations.

Not noticing had become such an ingrained habit that I didn’t realise that I wasn’t noticing. Marsha Ramroop reached out to me as she had read my first BLM blog and offered to discuss it with me. I was grateful for any help on the journey. Marsha and I had collaborated on a proposal together the previous year when her company ‘Unheard Voice’ was contributing a diversity perspective to a sales initiative. Although we were in different countries, we had met and had numerous Zoom calls together. Looking back, it had never crossed my mind that Marsha wasn’t white. I had just literally not noticed.

What I now realise is that’s a huge insult to Marsha – firstly it means I’m not seeing Marsha for all she is and of course not able to acknowledge any struggles she may have experienced or the richness that her different experience to mine can bring to the table.

Secondly, if I really think why deep down would I, in my upbringing, have picked up the message that it’s not polite to notice differences? I would wager that not even my mum would know why she had brought me up in that way – because societally that’s just not what you do. But why? At some level it can only be because pointing out differences can lead to awkwardness, and possibly something to be ashamed of. But that does us, as a society and especially the POC within it, a huge disservice and is part of systematic programming that is causing the issue of racism.

It took some thinking to realise that, and while intellectually I know that’s not true, my behaviours are pointing to that.

As another example, if I was interviewing someone for my team and I did a day of interviews at the end of it I wouldn’t be able to tell you how many POC were being interviewed. I thought I was being progressive – taking people at face value for skills and right fit for the role, but by not acknowledging colour, I was failing to see the advantage of being white that is inherent in our society.

(As I have read often recently, it’s wise to acknowledge here that it doesn’t mean white people haven’t had it tough, experienced hardship or had life challenges, but it does mean that we haven’t experienced these due to the colour of our skin.)

You might be wondering, how does this “not noticing” mean you are being racist? You can’t be racist if you’re not noticing. That in itself is racism. The system will never change if it’s hidden or not seen. That is what makes it racist.

  1. I am racist, doing my best to be anti-racist

One of the barriers and biggest “Ah ha” moments of all my research was that as long as a society we have a polarised view of racism, it will be very hard for systems to change.

It’s widely held that being racist is bad, being not-racist is good.

In fact, even when I was unpacking this article, a friend said to me ‘Don’t say you’re racist, say you are aware of your privilege.’ It’s all in the language – if we need softer language to be able to make it more palatable to address then I get that but the bottom line of acknowledgement and ‘calling it’ is likely to be what will help us move forward in a clearer way.

I’ve learnt and continue to learn about anti-racism, being an ally, supporting Black Lives Matter, being aware of privilege. Inherently as a society, the systems we have created are racist systems – we can see that because…

In the US, Black workers are less likely than white workers to be employed in a job that is consistent with their level of education.[1]

In Australia, in early 2013 the Australian Government surveyed nearly 2,400 young people aged between 13 and 17 and found that nearly nine out of ten young people surveyed had experienced some kind of racism or seen it happen to someone else. 43% said they had experienced or witnessed racism at school and 33% said they had experienced or witnessed it on the internet.[2]

In the UK, White British people have higher than average home ownership rates ⁠- nearly double that of black Caribbean people and more than treble that of black African people.[3]

Hiring discrimination against Black Americans hasn’t declined in 25 years.[4]

… and I could go on.

For most, the intention is not to be racist. The intention to be racist is in the very minority of cases – in my peer group, I’d go as far as to say it’s probably zero. But that leads to an easy deduction that if we, the people in society in the main aren’t racist, then our society isn’t racist – whereas most* POC of colour would disagree.

Even being an anti-racist doesn’t mean we won’t stuff up on occasion – and that is the only way we will learn. What it does mean is that we are doing our best, being open to learning, open to seeing and open to supporting.

*I use the term “most” here on purpose – just as not all white people think one way, not all POC will associate with living in a racist society. Everyone is in a different place in the journey and it’s a deeper article that will explore why.

An Invitation to you, my readers –

POC – If I can support you at all please let me know. I’m happy to as a friend, learning mentor, or colleague. I recognise my privilege and am open to reversing the imbalance. Please get in touch.

White colleagues – if you’ve been on your own journey, please share your learnings and insights – if we all learn together the impacts might be realised sooner. If what I have said causes offence or triggers you, sit with it, ask yourself why, don’t judge yourself or shoot the messenger – consider what it is that is making you uncomfortable and when you feel able to investigate internally. If you like, join me in activity 4 below.

The actions I’ve taken to get this far:

In my reading, I see that one of the most commonly asked questions by white people to POC once the veil is lifted is ‘What can I do?’. My realisation is that it will be an individual journey and it’s not the role of POC to tell us what to do. We need to work it out for ourselves.

Where to next for me?

With Turning Learning into Action being my “thing”, I can’t just leave it there of course and I wouldn’t want to. In true TLA fashion I’ve created an action plan, my key initial areas for change are:

  • Notice / Talk about race more – calling out racism when I see it and start to notice and maybe it won’t be so rare especially if POC are not in the room
  • Overtly invite in criticism – let POC and other friends and colleagues from diverse backgrounds know I’m open to learning and feedback
  • Acknowledgement of country to be added to meetings and webinars, and emails
  • Continue the learning and bridge into next year – starting in February I’m going to be running a book circle on ‘Me and White Supremacy’ by Layla F Saad which has reflective workbook questions. If you’d like to join me on that journey, just drop me an email and we can coordinate

The article above may seem a bit reflective, as to why I have found myself where I was and what I’ve learnt. To my POC friends and readers, please know this isn’t an excuse or justification. I know that self-flagellation won’t help you or me move forward but I do offer a heartfelt apology for ways in the past that I contributed to racism.

For my white readers – who may be horrified that I’m calling out your colour – I do this to share thoughts that you may relate to. I understand that not everyone will agree with my post and that’s OK. I committed to sharing what I learnt on the journey when I wrote my first blog post 5 months ago and this is the summary. Thanks for reading.

1. Economic Policy Institute. “Black Workers Endure Persistent Racial Disparities In Employment Outcomes.” https://www.epi.org/publication/labor-day-2019-racial-disparities-in-employment/. Accessed Feb. 5, 2020. ↩
2. https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/no-place-racism
3. English Housing Survey 2017 to 2018
4. https://hbr.org/2017/10/hiring-discrimination-against-black-americans-hasnt-declined-in-25-years

For more stats and facts about Racism these articles are useful:

In the USA – https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-racial-discrimination

In the UK – https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/racism-uk-inequality-black-lives-matter-wealth-economic-health-a9567461.html

In Australia – and specifically for racism within organisations, this is helpful – https://hbr.org/2020/06/confronting-racism-at-work-a-reading-list

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

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