Time for Change: Holding Anti-racist Perspectives in White Organisations

Suzanne Lyn-Cook, Words of Colour’s Director of Creative Wellbeing and People, puts the question of becoming an anti-racist organisation under scrutiny and highlights what can be achieved when an organisation is ready to take collective responsibility for the unequal power balance.

Over the last 50 years people of colour and their allies have been exposing and challenging how racism operates at the individual and structural levels. 

There have been many headline-grabbing national tragedies that have brought attention to the urgent need to address the manifestation of racism. The list is long with Cherry Groce, Stephen Lawrence and Mark Duggan among them.

As a society, we have produced laws, value statements, policies, initiatives and reports for public institutions and corporations in all sectors to support and show anti-racist and anti-discriminatory intent. 

During the pandemic, there has been a greater awareness of the lived experience of racial inequalities, discrimination and their threat to the wellbeing of black people and people of colour. Yet authentic equal access to justice and opportunity still eludes us.

As the world paused in response to the Covid pandemic, the murder of George Floyd was witnessed through the internet and social media. We saw the rawness and brutality of systemic racism. Many of us couldn’t look away or continue to deny this lived reality. This was a lightning rod for us all.

For black and brown people, it was an affirmation of our truth. For many white people it was a wake-up call to really see and accept responsibility for not challenging this historical and systemic abuse of power and privilege.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) activism galvanised scores of black, brown and white people’s energy for change, and demanded that we all meet the challenge anew. To examine more deeply the way racial bias and discrimination is unconsciously embedded in each of us, and deep within the structures of our institutions and organisation. 

This led to a more personal questioning of how we hold racial stereotypes and biases, and how we act on them – or not. As organisations are made up of people, this enquiry rose again, in dialogue and debate, and in relation to their values, purpose and practice.

One impact of the BLM movement is the range of organisations in the arts and public sector who recognised that they needed to review and affirm their anti-racist commitment and practice while others either realised its absence in their spaces – or were forced to.

Over the last two and half years, Words of Colour has engaged with a few white leaders of organisations already on a proactive journey of refocusing their understanding of anti-racist practice in their organisations.

These leaders listened to their black staff and staff of colour. They responded to BLM activism by owning their role and responsibilities as white leaders. By seeing that they had collective responsibility for how their organisations held power, shaped by a traumatic history that is still active in the present. And having to see how racial and other discriminations manifest in their organisations.

Dr Becca Levey, author of the acclaimed book Breaking the Age Code, explains that the power of unconscious and implicit bias is deep within us – and within organisations. She says: “Implicit basis is hard to mitigate or even just accept, because it so often goes against what we consciously believe. A further complication is that implicit bias often reflects structural bias.”

The organisations we have worked with in creative and collaborative ways have been those who are open and willing to undertake a long term commitment to uncover implicit and structural bias by engaging their boards, trustees, staff, service users, customers, partners and communities in an exposing process. 

These leaders are the ones willing to work with the inevitable tension of what we consciously believe, what implicit bias is in operation, how that impacts staff, clients and the work of the organisation. 

Our role is to facilitate a process of critical review and interrogation, to encourage dialogue and debate, to support black people and people of colour involved in the process, and to help focus everyone squarely on action for change. The end result is in their hands.