Why bringing Black History Month to the workplace has never been more important.
Every October, we mark Black History Month as a way of educating ourselves and recognising the contributions that Black people have made to the UK over the generations. In the past, Black History Month has been reserved as the only time of year that the UK specifically recognises and celebrates the achievements of Black people in Britain. As our society develops, we now understand that Black history should be acknowledged 365 days a year as a part of all British history, however the month of October still offers us a special opportunity to learn more about our Black communities, celebrate Black accomplishments, and look at how we can inspire future change.
There’s no shame in admitting ‘I don’t know’, however, a natural reaction to not knowing or understanding a problem can manifest itself in defensiveness or embarrassment. At HappyMaven, we want to peel away the reasons why people might feel guarded or ill-informed when it comes to learning about Black history and why it’s important to have a Black history month as part of our schedule of learning. In Robin DiAngelo’s book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” she explains how it is critical for white people to have these uncomfortable conversations about race so that they can recognise their privilege and understand how they benefit from “a society that is deeply separate and unequal.” Black History Month serves as more than a celebration of a diverse Black community; it should be utilised as a tool to educate, raise awareness and enrich people’s understanding of the fabric of our society. This month, as a diverse but non-Black team, we set ourselves the mission of immersing ourselves in Black History Month to not only learn, but to also consider what it means for diversity and inclusion within the workplace.
Why does Black History Month Exist?
Black History Month was first proposed in the US in 1915, marking 50 years since the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. Celebrated in February, the event was created to improve the public’s study of African American history. Akyaaba Addai Sebo founded Black History Month in the UK in 1987, moving the event to October to mark the traditional month when African chiefs and leaders gather to settle their differences.
33 years since Black History Month in the UK was launched, we still witness many of the same issues that existed in then. However 2020 has sparked a different type of change that many campaigners believe to be a turning point for confronting these issues. Guest editor of Black History Month 2020, Catherine Ross, explained
"2020 has held a mirror up to the world and forced many to see the reality of racism...Black Lives Matter protests around the world sparked a commitment among many individuals and organisations to educate themselves about Black history, heritage and culture - as part of understanding racism and standing in solidarity against it." - Catherine Ross
Why should Business Engage with Black History Month?
In modern workplaces, racism is widespread, yet subtle, and is often ignored or not understood by team leaders. One survey by Pearn Kandola found that a shocking 60% of Black people, 42% of Asian people and 14% of white people have experienced racism in the workplace in the UK. Of these individuals, 20% had experienced verbal or physical racial abuse. These statistics are shocking, but with less than half of surveyed professionals able to detect subtle racism or microaggressions, it’s no surprise that racism in the workplace is flying under the radar. There is a common misconception that racism is limited to acts of verbal and physical abuse, and when these acts are not seen, the majority wrongly assume that all people within their workplace are treated equally.
The survey also found that the most common response when seeing racism in the workplace was to ignore it and take no action. Additionally, the most common reason for not taking action was fear of the consequences, which was most prevalent for individuals who were themselves part of an ethnic minority. Shockingly, even when employees reported a racist incident to the organisation, 40% were ignored. We can only chalk this lapse in duty of care down to poor policies and toolkits for management to put into action, the alternative reasons are appalling to consider.
Many companies have taken steps to address and tackle racism in the workplace, but the lack of diversity in influential UK based firms is still an undeniable reality, with more FTSE 100 CEOs called Steve than CEOs from ethnic minorities. And although more Black students are completing further education, there is still a disparity among high-achieving Black male graduates and achieving employment after leaving university. It’s clear that organisations need to address their policies to go beyond hollow statements but provide robust action plans, and review their employee composition, beginning at the board level.
Actively engaging in Black History Month will bring this issue to the attention of the entire team, helping to identify racist behaviours, understand the protocol around it, and ultimately prevent racial issues from arising. Celebrating Black History Month and addressing the issues that impact Black individuals and communities will help to reshape workplace culture to embrace multiculturalism and diversity, and can open up a team’s dialogue around ethnicity, racism, diversity, and inclusion, demonstrating to staff that all of their identities are valued and respected.
However, Black History Month has faced opposition during the years, and therefore has to be approached senitively. Some argue that teaching Black history during one month of the year is simply not enough, and it should be incorporated into mainstream education. Actor Morgan Freeman has criticised Black History Month in the past, stating
"I don't want a Black history month...Black history is American history." - Morgan Freeman
It’s therefore vital that these inclusive discussions are embedded all year round and that businesses are committing to long-term equitability, continually transforming and re-evaluating the way they work.
So, what have we learned about Black History Month for the workplace?
Our research has found that on top of the gender pay gap we currently have in the UK, there is also an ethnicity pay gap. Most minority ethnic groups aged 30 and over earn less than their white British counterparts.Whilst employers are becoming aware of the social and psychological issues that limit ethnic minorities from applying to jobs that they qualify for, there is a perceived grey area that ranges from employers aiding diverse applicants through to hiring people simply because of their race to satisfy a quota. However, Nancy Roberts, Founder of Umbrella Analytics maintains that hiring quotas force businesses into a diversity mindset, which accelerates positive cultural progression. That being said, the perception of ‘Positive discrimination’ existing within a workplace can expose employees up to other microaggressions and forms of workplace racism, undermining their experience and abilities.
There have been anecdotes where employers recruit their Black employees to organise and educate others during Black History Month. Putting the onus back onto the Black community to teach others is damaging, traumatic and exhausting for those whose life experience is being exploited. It should not be assumed or implied that Black employees should help with planning, fundraising, or educating wider teams just because of their ethnicity; team leaders should take the initiative to educate themselves to become true allies to their Black employees and beyond to establish a truly inclusive environment.
How to include Black History Month into the Workplace
Trust & Openness
Create a safe, honest environment for discussions of racial inequality, prioritising the voices of those who have experienced it first-hand ensuring that their experience is told in a medium they feel comfortable with; whether anonymously or in public. Work towards building an inclusive community at work, in which employees are comfortable challenging each other on racism.
Define and Label Behaviours
Develop an agreed understanding of what workplace racism means and include both subtle and obvious forms of racism in the employee code of conduct.
Signs that Organisations have Committed to Black History Month:
They have allocated the same amount of budget for Black History Month as they have for other holidays and special occasions.
They’ve had Black History Month on their radar for months, with long-term plans in place rather than rushing activities as a response to recent social unrest.
They use this month as a vehicle to have larger conversations about the Black community and its significance to their company and industry.
The entire leadership team is actively engaged in their company’s activities.
This year, businesses raising awareness for Black History Month include Vogue’s #ShareTheMic, where famous non-Black women relinquished control of their Instagram accounts to inspiring Black women, and dating app Bumble’s #MyLoveIsBlackLove, which aimed to document Black love in Britain. These campaign’s illustrate that educating people and raising awareness for Black History Month can be fun and playful, as well as inspiring serious thought and change. It’s vital that we celebrate ‘Black joy’ and achievements, just as much as we take the time to reflect on the historical racism that Black communities still suffer today.
At HappyMaven, we believe in creating inclusive people strategies to empower and support employees and people managers alike to enable them to bring their whole, authentic self to the workplace to do their best work and feel happy and secure within their teams. To find out more about how HappyMaven can help organisations improve the health and wellbeing of their people and transform the way they do business get in touch with us here.