Black History Month at work – important or tokenistic?

Black History Month at work – important or tokenistic?

Jane Farrell is Co-Founder of EW Group. She is a specialist in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, organisational change and cultural adaptability.

Black History Month at work graphic - what it should be

Illustration thanks to @clnpsych.ind

This October, organisations across the United Kingdom are celebrating Black History Month, recognising and celebrating the achievements of Black people and ensuring the key messages behind it are understood. Many organisations understandably debate the question of how to approach BHM each year, grappling with the tensions within the very concept. Do we celebrate it, and, or, critique its existence? Or do we refuse to engage with it at all?

How the best organisations engage with Black History Month

The best organisations understand the critical role of history in the current ways that systemic racism plays out in the pay, terms and conditions, opportunities for advancement, and representation of Black people. They have stretching targets and action plans to address, for example, the ethnicity pay gap. They have educated their workforce about the reasons why these patterns exist, the historical and current factors, and take responsibility to make changes to the policies and processes, the structures and the organisational culture to address them.

They also ensure that individuals understand bias (conscious or unconscious) and know what not to say and do to tackle them. They ensure that they have the metrics to be in a position to answer the basic but powerful question of ‘who gets what?’. Then, they build the capacity of their leaders to understand what racism is and what, precisely, they are required to do to address it in their day-to-day work.

They may well have targets that relate to the pay and bonuses of senior people, and ensure that all their stakeholders understand the business case, as well as the social justice case, for taking such action so that some kind of ‘deficit model’ is not part of the narrative.

The best organisations also know that the narratives about people seeking asylum, refugees and immigration (both historically and now), can create a hostile environment for Black colleagues. They counter the racist stereotypes by making sure the standards are clear on equality and diversity throughout an employee’s journey (and before it starts in the information that is sent to prospective employees). They also provide good quality learning and development, ensuring managers know what to say and do when racist comments are made.

The challenges that arise from Black History Month

Many educational experiences in Britain offer a very narrow and ‘white’ version of history. The history we learn often misses out the contributions and achievements and experiences of Black people. If the second world war was covered, the role of Black soldiers was not acknowledged, nor the fact that the Windrush Generation was invited by a Conservative government after WW2 as vital labour to help rebuild Britain. Many of us were not taught about colonialism and slavery, and even today, there is still so much to do to de-colonise the curriculum in schools and universities.

Some people believe that Britain’s Black History Month (and equivalent events that celebrate the achievements of marginalised communities across the globe) is a powerful and necessary celebration that recognises the experiences and achievements of Black communities and individuals – a history that is too often overlooked, ignored, distorted or minimised.

They also see Black History Month as an opportunity to highlight the legacy of a colonial past, evidenced in the patterns of discrimination and prejudice that Black people experience today, underpinned by structural racism. It is argued that BHM can contribute to the understanding and honouring the too often unheralded accomplishments of Black Britons in every aspect of life. Some see it as part of an important counter to a history education that focuses on white people, and mostly, white men in powerful positions.

In contrast, others argue that BHM is a tokenistic and patronising gesture that highlights how much work is yet to be done. Why is Black history recognised, understood and celebrated for just one month of the year?

If there has to be a month that celebrates Black history, does that not suggest that ‘mainstream’ history is still seen as white, and implies that Black history is therefore peripheral? Thirty-one days out of 365 is not enough, some point out, and trivialises the historical human cost of Black history. Having a few posters or highlighting a handful of Black people who have achieved fantastic things does not truly educate, and can be experienced as a patronising and trivialising.

Four actions to consider at work during Black History Month

The most important voices in these debates are Black people’s voices of course. As a white woman, it is my responsibility to listen, reflect, read, and educate myself about Black history and its impact on today’s patterns of ‘who gets what’ in education, housing, employment and the criminal justice system, for example.

Our institutions and businesses too need to listen, reflect, and educate, and understand why there are such different views on Black History Month, and acknowledge and respect those views. And then, decisions need to be made on how to practically proceed. Four things to consider are:

1. Consult with Black staff and listen very carefully. What is said will make some people uncomfortable. Keep listening.

2. Have the conversations about how the company is going to respond to Black History Month as a concept and make sure that Black colleagues are part of this decision-making process. The decision might be to celebrate Black communities and individual achievements and to recommend brilliant books like Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera and Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch. It could involve ensuring that every event or statement about Black History Month makes clear that an acknowledgement of BHM will translate into practical actions to address the underrepresentation of Black people in leadership positions, for example, or to strengthen the anti-harassment work, or to ensure those who recruit and select are well trained in how to avoid ‘cloning’ themselves.

3. Do things to tackle racism in the other 11 months of the year. Create a culture where everyone knows what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, and why. Weave the learning from Black History Month into leadership and management programmes, approaches to customer care and how staff are recruited and selected. Think about supply chains – are you working with businesses that share your values and are also doing the work to address the underrepresentation of Black people at senior levels, for example. If it’s in the contract that that is what is required, supply chains will sit up and take notice.

4. Ensure your board and leadership team are as confident in providing professional leadership on all aspects of anti-racism and inclusion as they are about anything else in their remit.

When celebrated well, Black History Month can be a powerful way of educating, celebrating, and acknowledging. It is a month where we can collectively think about what having a Black History Month means, how white people can be real allies, and consider how we can work towards a time when Black History Month isn’t necessary, nor the days and weeks that recognise other marginalised groups.

Jane Farrell is the Co-Founder of EW Group, after being the Chief Executive from 1992 to 2021. She is a specialist in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, organisational change and cultural adaptability. Jane has vast experience in diversity consulting and training, specialising in working with senior management teams to improve individual, team and organisational performance. She has delivered large-scale diversity programmes for our high-profile client base, including London Underground which at the time was the UK's largest diversity management programme of its kind.

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