I was not surprised that in a recent survey, a third of those responding admitted to being racially prejudiced. I was surprised that they admitted it. When did it become OK to be racist?
‘They say sunlight is the best disinfectant, so let’s get these concerns out in the open and address them, expose the myths and challenge the negative stereotypes’
If this is how it is in wider society, it must be how some staff feel in hospitals, housing offices, social services departments, schools, police forces and the benefits agency.
In all the years I have worked in local government, it has been made absolutely clear that it is totally unacceptable to use racist language, to make racist “jokes” or to show a prejudice against someone because of the colour of their skin or their country of birth.
We couldn’t control what employees really thought so we focused on their behaviour. We made it so that people were very careful about the words and expressions they used when talking about people from black and minority ethnic groups. Often people were unsure of the right words to use so they avoided the topic altogether.
‘Only when people feel safe enough to say what they are really thinking can you expose myths, challenge stereotypes and counter ignorance’
People didn’t say what they were really thinking about the organisation’s attempts to recruit more black staff, the establishment of a black workers’ support group, the fast-track management development scheme for black employees or the setting up of services specifically for black and minority ethnic groups.
They felt this special treatment was unfair but knew it wasn’t acceptable to say so. As a result, their prejudices remained unspoken and therefore unchallenged. Their questions remained unanswered and their concerns unaddressed.
It just needed someone to give them permission to say what they were really thinking.
It might appear safer to steer clear of controversy, but only when people feel safe enough to say what they are really thinking can you expose myths, challenge stereotypes and counter ignorance.
Out in the open
Most people are not racists; they do not hate people because of the colour of their skin but they have concerns; they don’t feel comfortable and they don’t understand how we can claim to treat everyone the same and then give special treatment to one group because of the colour of their skin.
‘Do managers really believe in these polices and strategies or do they just mouth the words provided by HR?’
This is a good starting point for an open and frank discussion because equality does not mean treating everyone the same. That would be like saying to a vegetarian we offer everyone meat and two veg. At one time, senior managers in the NHS used to refer to a colour-blind approach – another example of treating everyone as if they were the same.
They say sunlight is the best disinfectant, so let’s get these concerns out in the open and address them, expose the myths and challenge the negative stereotypes, replacing ignorance with accurate information.
We may not yet be comfortable with our increasingly racially diverse society, but we won’t get more comfortable by not talking about it.
Senior managers need to lead this discussion by a willingness to answer questions about the thinking behind equal opportunity recruitment policies, fast-track training schemes, the development of culturally sensitive services, the rationale for targets and why monitoring involves recording an individual’s ethnicity.
This is where the problem that is so rarely acknowledged may have occurred. Can we be confident that managers can provide these answers? Do managers really believe in these polices and strategies or do they just mouth the words provided by HR? A recent example is the chief executive of the Premiership who was caught expressing how he really thought about women in a private email.
The recent survey revealed that within the proportion of people who admitted to being racially prejudiced there was a significant number of white, middle class men – the very people disproportionately represented in senior management.