Musa P M Chunge reflects on his experiences as an engineer in an industry where he's a visible minority, and some ideas for what organisations can do to support staff like him.
Over the past few years, the prevalence of racism in the UK has become a major talking point. It’s still an awkward subject to negotiate though, isn’t it? If you’ve been through an experience of racism it can often feel embarrassing and painful to tell someone else, or to have to explain why it was or felt racist.
If you’re looking in and trying to empathise or understand, you might worry about being judged for saying the wrong thing (“don’t all lives matter?”), and it feels like there can be little grace if you do, regardless of your intentions. Difficulties aside, it’s fair to say that racism is a problem that won’t go away without an active effort.
On paper I tick the mixed black African/white European box. I came to the UK as an adult, having grown up in a black-majority culture in Kenya, a country that was a former British Colony until the 60s. Racism in the UK was a distant concept to me. I had heard about it, but it wasn’t my experience.
My view on it has had to change, not because of things I’ve been through, but instead through the stories of friends who’ve have lived here much longer.
The trouble with microaggressions
Racism is demeaning and disempowering to individuals and entire people groups. But despite its potency, it somehow manages to lurk in remarkable subtlety where it can be difficult to correctly classify and challenge it.
For example, it’s easy (and right) to condemn online abuse launched at a Black football player who misses a penalty, or the verbal abuse and physical assault of Asians being targeted as the group to blame for Covid-19.
It is much, much harder to correctly classify, and accurately challenge what psychologists call “microaggressions”, like a colleague coming up to me and asking why I haven’t grown an afro or dreadlocks yet. It could be completely innocent, it could be malicious, or perhaps revealing of their perception of me as a person of colour. How should I feel?
The difficulties of addressing these subtleties can sow seeds of self-doubt, distrust, and lead to pent-up frustration, anger or even social exhaustion. These experiences are subjective, and always intertwined with complex feelings and past experiences. That also means it can be easy for a listener to dismiss or explain away a concern, rather than sympathise.
I find these subtleties also make it difficult to gauge how to feel about positive actions that are coming out of our heightened awareness of racism.
Distinguishing between gesture politics and genuine concern
Last year, when the world watched George Floyd’s brutal killing, I received corporate emails in the wake of all the protests and wondered whether they were a form of gesture politics (being seen to be doing the right thing) or genuine care and concern for my emotional state and wellbeing.
I remember watching as social media platforms erupted with signs of solidarity, with blacked out profile pictures appearing everywhere. Again, I wondered whether this was really mass morality, peer pressure, virtue signalling, or a fear of being ‘cancelled’ for making the wrong move or not making any moves. All of the above will apply, but how could I know what each individual action was coming from?
I remember, walking in one morning to the atria of an office building I worked in. I was greeted by a multi-racial palette of warm smiles on larger-than-life posters put up in a recent rebranding campaign. It was simultaneously pleasing and uncomfortable. The former, an appreciation of the effort being put into messages like this, the latter because it made me ask whether there really is more to it than the optics.
In our industry it’s great to see a mixture of ethnicities more actively selected as role models in media campaigns and the effort to celebrate the successes of people of colour is excellent. I take hope in that, especially where there is a sense of continuity and momentum.
Have I been used as a token?
However, I do admit that I sometimes wonder if my selection for a role or campaign had something, or everything, to do with the colour of my skin.
Has that been the definition of my worth? Have I been used as a token? Do other people see me as one? Am I an achieved objective in the diversity (or marketing) strategy? A checkbox on someone’s list – colour in the picture - tick. Am I being singled out as a member of a group (my race) and therefore being treated a certain way because of that?
If I’m treated differently because of the colour of my skin, I feel uncomfortable, even if that treatment is positive. But how would I ever be able to find out the motives and beliefs of everyone behind the scenes in order to judge a right response? And how much should it matter – if a person or an organisation does something good for a less honourable motive, how much does that negate the good?
Say a business runs a publicity campaign highlighting the diversity in their people, but the driving agenda is to avoid a social media backlash. If that campaign encourages a student to think that that they too can be a top engineer despite their race, it still seems better than no action.
How should organisations respond?
What should an organisation do if positive actions like visible representation can still make staff feel conflicted? One alternative is to do nothing but as we’ve established, we need positive action to drive change..
Continuity over time is key. Trust is earned over time. Though I still sometimes doubt the motivation behind marketing campaigns, consistent messaging over time will help and will encourage my generation to give the benefit of the doubt over positive visible efforts for greater inclusion.
These visible messages importantly need to be coupled with tangible actions.
Tangible actions organisations can take to support their minority ethnic employees
Here are a few things I have found really helpful as person of colour in the workplace.
- I’ve had access to good guidance and mentorship from senior leaders at work. This insight into what leadership entails quickly creates a feeling of worth, a sense that you’re being invested in, which is a great driver for growth and can really help to motivate staff. Leaders and managers should look to create channels for mentorship that cut across organisation charts. In the context of race, this will make the routes to growth and leadership more accessible and clearer, even where visible representation may not yet reflect the wider cultural picture.
- I’ve benefited from a strong culture of affirmation and challenge. I’ve had wonderful leaders who have spoken into my talent and potential instead of my differences. Encouragement helps suppress self-doubt. People have given me opportunities to grow, supported me where I have failed, challenged me to seek and take on responsibility, and guided me to opportunities to do that. I have been backed with trust consistently, which has helped me when wrestling with the idea of being a token. Keep telling people why you think they’re good at what they do, and give constructive feedback and support, which will help foster a culture that will be believed when the next company brochure goes out.
- Model from the top down. You can’t expect your staff to initiate this. One common mistake is to put the onus on the minority groups to solve their own problems and come up with all the ideas for the things that need to change and the energy to enact them.
Finally, three other spaces that have been crucial in grounding my identity and helping bolster my self-worth and confidence as I live in a culture where I am a visible minority:
- Home: I was always encouraged to find and try things. My parents never gave me the impression that my heritage or race was a limitation on what I could be. Anyone with children in their family life should help embed the messages about equality and future potential strongly in them as well.
- School: schools and teachers have a key role to play in engaging and inspiring students and helping to challenge societal barriers. School was a multicultural experience for me and one where talents were celebrated and encouraged. I was given opportunities to search for the things I was good at and told to do my best in what I found. That message helped instil a self-confidence in me independent of my race.
- Church: as a member of an inner-city church in London, I belong to a racially diverse community which tries to live in unity with a shared identity in God. Practising faith in my age group is another minority position that can come with its labels and barriers, but that’s probably worth another blog.
Share what your organisation has done to help you
I recognise that I’ve been very fortunate and have no painful work experiences of discrimination.
I want to hear the experiences of other readers from minority backgrounds and learn how their colleagues and their organisations have supported them through experiences of racism at work. What have you seen that works well that other organisations can learn from and adopt?
Let’s create a collection of good practices that organisations and teams can look at when thinking about how to build healthy cultures for racial minorities.