Decolonising the workplace – 14 ideas on how to get started
Tiwonge Cohn is a Diversity and Inclusion consultant for EW Group, who has worked across all sectors in four continents in building rapport with diverse cultures.
It’s hard to appreciate our present without having knowledge of our past. Understanding our history is crucial to understanding injustice and the racism that persists in our societies today. Decolonisation does not take away from other stories but enriches our knowledge of the world.
So what is decolonisation?
German economist Moritz Julius Bonn, who is said to have coined the term, described it as the process by which former colonies achieved self-governance.
But much of today’s debate on decolonisation has a broader canvas and is interwoven with the political landscape of the entire world. Initiatives such as ‘decolonising the curriculum’ and ‘decolonising our minds’ have taken place for years in educational spaces. At the EW Group, we believe that injustices should be addressed widely, beginning at a systemic level, and that the most effective place to start work on complex or contentious issues such as decolonisation, is for organisations to begin by looking internally. In a similar way, individuals can also begin by examining their own lives.
How to start thinking about decolonisation
Through the lens of my own experience this blog is an attempt at navigating decolonisation, both personally and how this plays out in the workplace.
I have lived abroad and immersed myself in various cultures, but I recognise that I still know so little about the world; less still about how to approach this – but what better time to start than now. If not now when?
I have long been taught about marvellous histories that have shaped my upbringing and my world-views. These stories have undoubtedly enthralled me; as a history buff I loved learning about the Romans, the Tudors, the Etruscans, Shakespeare and so on. As a child I truly believed that that was all there was to the world, or at least the most important bits to learn. But living in Europe, Asia, Africa and the US has meant that I know there is so much more and that my history is not just one of collective trauma.
To this day, my cousins who live abroad in some of the least developed countries, learnt about the same things as I did – and formed an extremely western world view having little to no knowledge of their cultural heritage – as if it simply did not exist.
Not knowing about your own identity
This reality dawned on me again recently when I attended a Black History Walk in Leeds with my sister. I love education, and thought I was erudite but was embarrassed when I struggled to answer some of the questions that our exceptional tour guide Joe posed to his audience. Yes, I got one or two correct, as I like to read around the subject, but oh my goodness how little did I know – and how little everyone else knew. There is a wide gap of knowledge. I understand that no educational system can perfectly cover every subject but it’s important to better reflect the complexity of humans, the good and the bad from all facets of the world.
So, I wonder what that gap does to a people? Now I’m black and I won’t begin to say that I am like other black people as we are all individual, but we are often treated as a homogenised group.
So what does not knowing about your identity do to a person, to their psyche, to their sense of belonging?
I think the results can be devastating, right? When all that is lauded is a history of people that do not look like you, or that did unspeakable things to people that looked like you, maybe even your ancestors? That is a heavy burden and pain to carry. In race discussions we often talk about intergenerational trauma because colonisation is not just physical, it’s psychological, it creates long lasting legacies of mental pain and structural disadvantage and advantage, it’s pervasive.
However, decolonising cannot be about blame either – this will never move things forward positively. For me colonialism is messy and complex as it has enabled me to have a lot of privilege in the world as well.
Addressing decolonising the workplace
How do we begin to address decolonisation in our lives and in the workplace, overcome it and work better together?
- Read – I do this by reading books about subjects I know nothing about. Check out our recent book suggestion blog.
- Listen – Watch TV shows, listen to podcasts, and speak to colleagues. Historian David Olusoga has some great BBC shows out on iplayer.
- Learn – I do this by attending local cultural and history group events. Don’t make colonisation an elective subject make it part of our mainstream history courses as it benefits and involves us all.
- Reflect – ultimately this work will involve a mindset shift, reflecting deeply on your own advantages and disadvantages.
- Train – anti-racist workshops, inclusive culture workshops; don’t expect staff to know how to start; they will need guidance and support for their efforts. My colleague Sharla says “ Institutions should support and even require their staff to take classes on the British Empire, colonisation, and how assimilation still lingers today… AND from an afro-centric lens”.
- Acknowledge – don’t just leave it to those with colonised histories to do the work, it affects us all. Adequately resource this work – it can’t be done for free.
- Travel – I know there’s COVID and also finances to consider when it comes to this tip, but travel doesn’t have to be far and wide there is so much local history at your doorstep. Libraries are a great resource to find out more.
- Partner – to ensure the atrocities of the past do not happen again. Join forces with other organisations and networks that share your values and challenges – such as the Slave Free Alliance.
- Allyship – stand by your colleagues and customers against any form of discrimination. Develop the tools to challenge assertively and constructively. Empower and enhance your staff by offering promotion, development and mentoring opportunities.
- Research – conduct a thorough audit of your company to understand which structures are still disadvantageous to groups and seek EW’s help in remedying this. Challenge the status quo. Start your internal self-reflection here by using this University College London’s (UCL) database to explore the history of your company, its founders, partners and predecessors.
- Improve – there is no silver bullet- this is going to be hard, uncomfortable work – but start regardless and don’t be performative just because everyone else is; it’s important in creating a fairer world for us and for future generations.
- Act – be public about what you are doing and ask for help if you need this. Society depends on this change to take place. Leaders play an important role in decolonising by demonstrating inclusive leadership.
- Be environmentally conscious – colonialism was based on extracting and taking from the land and using humans viewed as subhuman to do this work. There is no time like the present to start changing our relationship with our climate, our earth and other living creatures when we look to decolonise our futures.
- Heal – the world is in pain- and no one is inferior or superior
For help in your journey in making decolonisation a part of your business’s success, please get in touch with us. We’d love to help.