Diversity is more than just a buzzword: conversations with our Black colleagues
2020 has been a tumultuous year, riddled with unexpected events, one after another. But the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and Jacob Blake caused an uproar in the public and on social media, citing a problem that is far from being new to this year. It has been a time of extreme pain, sorrow, and anger for many, as racism continues to cast a shadow on the lives of our Black colleagues, friends, and families—an ominous and tragic reminder that there is much more work to be done.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased visibility and amplified the conversations and mobilization efforts around anti-Black racism that were already taking place online. With the sudden shift to remote working for many, momentum has grown as the ongoing discourse continues to make its mark on digital platforms. Within the Government of Canada (GC), departments are leveraging digital to mobilize, educate, and engage public servants on anti-Black racism with the emergence of more virtual events, online panels, and social media movements on the subject, recognizing that there is much to learn and to understand.
“An openness to understanding the people you work with on a human level is the first place to start.”
Firstly, I want to take a moment to acknowledge something that is crucial in this conversation—that privilege comes in many forms. As a non-Black woman of colour, I understand that I still have privilege with regards to anti-Black racism. Many around me are wondering how our various forms of privilege can be used to help create change in our world, beginning at a micro level, like in our workplaces. Over the past months, I’ve had many conversations with Black colleagues across the GC because to truly understand, we must listen, and then we must amplify the Black voices around us so that everyone can listen. These conversations are an important place to start.
A heavy weight to carry
We know that these tragedies have occurred, but can we recognize the gross impact these tragedies have on our Black colleagues? Everyone grieves differently, but every Black colleague I spoke with started our conversation by sharing with me how they were, and continue to be, deeply affected by these blatant acts of racism: how they struggle to show up to work and be present as they try to suppress a range of emotions and feelings as to not affect their productivity, and how they face an underlying fear of being perceived negatively should they speak up. This is a heavy weight many have had to carry their whole lives, and it should not fall on to the shoulders of one group over another. Living in the age of information means we have the power to learn and unlearn biases that have been (at times unknowingly) instilled in us through systems and institutions that at best, are ill-equipped to address racism and often view the presence of the relatively few racialized individuals in positions of power as indicative of successful progressive policies that combat racism.
Only through empathy can we meet understanding
“There are two different conversations about this, there are the ones for people who live the realities of racism, and the ones for people who are learning about it and trying to unpack their own biases; both are very important conversations, but very distinct.”
Hearing these sentiments from my fellow public servants only heightens the fact that this is an issue close to home. So, how can we be better colleagues and better leaders?
A common thread in the meaningful conversations I shared was that one of the most important things a workplace can do is to create a safe space for their Black employees. “An openness to understanding the people you work with on a human level is the first place to start,” says Atong Ater, member of the core team of the Federal Black Employee Caucus. She specifies that having a space safe enough where employees feel like they can talk and have themselves heard without judgement, and without it coming back to negatively affect their career, is imperative. At the same time, Atong notes that there needs to be recognition that some people may not want to talk about it as it may be too painful for them, “a safe space benefits those individuals too, it allows them a place to just be around others who understand what they are feeling.”
As defined by Jacquelyn Ogorchukwu Iyamah, author of ‘the geometry of being Black’, “gaslighting is when someone manipulates information to make a victim question their own experience, memory or reality.”
Some examples of racial gaslighting she gives, includes:
- “Are you sure that’s what happened?”
- “Racism doesn’t exist anymore”
- “In my opinion, I don’t think that they were being racist, I think…”
Nadia Cetoute, a manager in staffing at the Department of National Defence, believes that education must come from the top levels of the workplace. “Senior executives have a responsibility to educate their directors, managers, and team leaders to do better for their racialized employees,” she tells me. Not listening and not understanding often leads to racial gaslighting, which diminishes someone’s personal experiences and reinforces the fear to speak up on incidents of racism. Nadia believes mandatory training is key, “as a manager we’ve had to take a mandatory COVID-19 course, and this should be mandatory too. What is diversity, inclusion, and what is anti-Black racism?” Jeanne-Andrée Mazile, a social media officer at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, makes an important distinction, “there are two different conversations about this, there are the ones for people who live the realities of racism, and the ones for people who are learning about it and trying to unpack their own biases; both are very important conversations, but very distinct.”
The GC values diversity and inclusion, and a crucial component of that is recognizing racism is very much real, it exists all around us, and people have to live with it daily. We can’t tackle the beast without acknowledging its presence.
Welcome to the ‘un-comfort’ zone
Everyone I spoke with recognized that these conversations are uncomfortable, for themselves, and for their colleagues. In these situations, the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing can easily take over and people might opt to do nothing instead, but this further compounds the problem.
“Me talking about it makes it seem like it is a Black issue—but you don’t have to be Black to care about these issues.”
Nana Bafi-Yeboa, a manager at Health Canada tells me, “me talking about it makes it seem like it is a Black issue—but you don’t have to be Black to care about these issues.” He’s 100% right, this is a humanity issue, and the thing is, the onus shouldn’t be on Black people to raise their voices on these issues; the onus is on us, their friends, colleagues, and supporters, to stand up, speak up, and show our active support. Nadia was grateful when one of her White colleagues was the one to bring up the George Floyd tragedy at their management meeting, “I thanked her for bringing it to the table. My White colleagues ask me what they can do, and I tell them, educate yourself, understand your privilege, and use it for good.”
“I’m not speaking out against this because I am the Black spokesperson. I’m speaking out because I have brothers and a son who are no different from me; I’m speaking out because there are other Black people who may not have the privilege that I do to bring light to these issues, and because these issues go beyond affecting just myself.”
In the same breath, if/when our Black colleagues do choose to speak up, it is crucial that we be active listeners. Nana, who is vocal on this issue within his workplace and his social circles adds, “I’m not speaking out against this because I am the Black spokesperson. I’m speaking out because I have brothers and a son who are no different from me; I’m speaking out because there are other Black people who may not have the privilege that I do to bring light to these issues, and because these issues go beyond affecting just myself.”
It’s important for us all to open our eyes, see the elephant in the room, and recognize it is wreaking havoc. It is damaging and it is hurting our valued colleagues. The fear of being uncomfortable in a conversation then seems silly when held up against the fact that people are being killed because of their skin colour. It is long overdue, but if we want our future to change, it is time to look systemic racism in the eye, and never look away again.
Hope is a dear friend
Some shared with me that following these tragic incidents, they have seen a willingness from their leaders and their colleagues to engage in difficult conversations. “It proves that progress is possible,” Atong tells me. But as I mentioned earlier, the weight is too much for a few to bear, so the progress has to be across the board if we want to facilitate real change that lasts.
“I hope that one day our children will understand that they don’t need to be silent in our society, that they have just as much of a voice as anyone else.”
Having grown up being told that she has to work twice as hard to prove herself because of her skin colour, Nadia tells me, “I hope that one day our children will understand that they don’t need to be silent in our society, that they have just as much of a voice as anyone else.”
“You have to have hope,” Nana says. The question he poses to me next is, “now, how will you use this hope to engage or bring about a change you want to see?” Jeanne emphasizes, “we have to apply an anti-racism lens to our everyday lives, as well as the work that we do as public servants.”
I want to thank each of the Black employees who agreed to take the time to open up a painful door and share their insights with me. Many were unnamed as they asked to remain anonymous, but their powerful words and insights are no less the backbone to this article, and an important piece of the catalyst of change we, as public servants, have the ability to create within our workplaces. We must keep pushing not only systemic boundaries, but our own too. To our Black colleagues, we hear you, we see you, and we stand by you.
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