Are we now at tipping point on race and what can our sector do?

By Umar Zamman, Director of Human Resources & Organisational Development, Sheffield Hallam University
25 June 2020

“Let’s get comfortable, being uncomfortable”  

The graphic video of George Floyd’s death has opened numerous wounds, causing anger, disbelief and despair. The subsequent Parliament Square demonstration banners gave a succinct message, ‘Racism has always been a pandemic’. Seeing what has been happening in the US over the last two weeks has made me feel sick, worried, and scared that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities really are at risk. I am not naive, I know there are inequalities, you only need to look at the disproportionate impact on BAME communities from the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet the wave of support around the world from people of all colours has given me the strength to talk about the experiences I have had in my life and career.

I have never really talked about my own experiences of racism in an open forum, namely because I have worried about the impact it could have on future employers’ perceptions of me. It has been an incredibly hard decision, but I felt I needed to. It is also important to note that working for Sheffield Hallam University has made me feel able to do this without fear, which is a credit to the institution and its leadership.

I was born in an inner-city area in Nottingham and remember the times going to school and college where I was subjected to racist abuse, either from the public or fellow students. As a young person, I just did not understand why people behaved in that way. I can’t remember the number of times I encountered both overt and covert racism - you almost feel it is part of your existence and you accept it. Sadly, 30 years on, my daughter experienced the same racist behaviour at her school on numerous occasions being called the P word and the school management did nothing about this.  Sadly, this led me to sell our house and move to another area in 2019!

Being discriminated against overtly is, in a strange way, easier to take as I know where these people are coming from. The challenge really begins when you start to face the micro-aggressive racism from the actions of people that you study, play sport or work with. That really causes more internal hurt, worry and stress. This for me caused a huge amount of confusion. For many years I tried to understand why I was being treated differently. This is when I started to put the pieces of the puzzle together – yet it’s been a very complex and difficult puzzle to complete. 

Inclusive Leadership and Micro Aggressions 

So, what needs to change in the sector? As someone of colour I have always looked for leaders who make me feel part of the team, included and safe. As a senior HR leader, myself, in a large and complex organisation, I talk about inclusive leadership a lot and I have spoken at many conferences on this. The reason this is so important is because we will never get rid of racial injustice until we create more of these leaders. 

Whilst there are some organisational leaders who are genuinely proactive in showing support, some organisations create tokenistic measures without taking into consideration their own internal treatment and behaviours; namely where BAME colleagues do not feel valued and included. To this day, I still hear of BAME colleagues being asked in interviews, “Where are you from? No, I mean, where are you really from?” The constant drip of micro-aggressions accumulates to have a resounding impact on maintaining institutional racism and creates internalised stress and anxiety for staff. 

It is generally recognised that we identify and categorise others within a few seconds, particularly on the basis of skin colour, but also on the basis of gender and disability. This impulsive categorisation can manifest itself in treating others differently and create a distorted reality. How far are colleagues subjected to increased scrutiny and excessive monitoring? Are organisations able to explain or justify why white colleagues are not treated in the same way? 

Some quick tips for being an Inclusive leader

  1. Openness and awareness: A leader’s ability to adapt their behaviour to work with other individuals and cultures is the foundation of inclusive leadership.
  2. Effective advocacy for race equality: Inclusive leaders fully embrace and champion initiatives on race that make inclusion a priority. Supporting the Race agenda does not mean that you are against white people or any of the other diversity agendas - don’t feel guilty!
  3. Don’t just rely on putting out organisational statements that sound good, back these up with authentic action and results.
  4. Trusting, open teams: Inclusive leaders lean into difference and create environments of psychological safety where differences can be explored productively.
  5. They promote talent, regardless of background: They see that not everyone has had the same opportunities, so they try to level the playing field. 
  6. Driving results: Inclusive leaders make things happen and are not afraid to make bold decisions, such as setting targets on race or taking a zero-tolerance approach against perpetrators of racial discrimination. 

Our approach at Sheffield Hallam University

The need for change is more important now than ever. Inclusion should not be an abstract concept. It should define the value, depth and ethos of an organisation which has the attitude, aspiration and authority to do the right thing. 

I am proud to say that working at Sheffield Hallam has given me a sense of belonging in the organisation and I feel valued. There is genuine will to drive the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda and it is great to be working with a leadership team who look to empower people to not just drive the agenda, but to challenge the status quo. I have worked in a number of organisations and that’s not always the case. I don’t think I would have been comfortable writing such an open and honest account of my own experiences in all other organisations where I’ve worked. There is some really good work happening in pockets, however, we still have got a long way to go as a sector on this topic.  

So, here are my requests for what we need to do now as a sector to tackle racial inequality:
  1. Let’s not paper over the cracks on race equality, we have a considerable way to go when it comes to the representation of BAME staff, in both academic and professional services roles. This must change at pace, as seeing role models in these positions allows BAME people to believe it is possible and adds another perspective. 
  2. Let’s talk about and act on the ethnicity pay gap, as openly and enthusiastically as we rightly do about the gender pay gap. 
  3. Take an authentic stance against racial discrimination, investing in BAME talent and programmes, opening up the honest and authentic debate on race, and increasing the pace of change on reducing the degree awarding gap between black and white students, progress is just too slow!
  4. Challenge our own assumptions and experiences and really try to understand the hurt and challenge that a lot of BAME people have been through and go through, as employees, students or from suffering racism in all forms of everyday life.
  5. Don’t be afraid to hear the lived experiences of people who have suffered this discrimination, yes, I use the word suffered as that is exactly what it is. The impact on mental health of people affected by daily overt and covert discrimination, cannot be underestimated. 
  6. Human Resources departments have a large role to play in tackling and driving the race equality agenda by ensuring policies and practices are inclusive and really understand the complexity of microaggressions that staff face, coupled with poor management practices. It is important that we really analyse HR data and take action to deal with disproportionate actions that are leading to BAME staff being affected in areas such as recruitment, disciplinary, sickness and performance management. 

This is not an exhaustive list, and this is not to say that other protected groups are not important, as they are and we must not forget intersectionality – UCEA’s own ‘Caught at the Crossroads’ report was well received in our sector.   However, we must all do more to tackle the issue of racial inequality. I think the time and momentum is with us to drive this forward at an increased speed, and I hope by discussing my experiences for the first time, it may make a small difference. 

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