Lets talk about race: Continuing the conversation and raising awareness

Whilst the first official celebration of Black History Month in the UK took place in 1987, this annual observance dates back almost 100 years.  In 1926, Carter G. Woodson introduced a week-long focus on encouraging the coordinated teaching of the history of American black people in the nation’s public schools.  Over the decades since, the awareness of Black History Month has grown and is observed, whether through official government recognition or not, in various countries across the globe including the USA, Canada, the Netherlands, Ireland and the UK.

To demonstrate our individuality and togetherness

Black History Month exists to battle a sense of historical amnesia and remind us all that black people were also a contributing part of our nation’s history.  It acts as a way to counteract the invisibility of black people and to challenge the negative stereotypes and imagery that have often been the only way in which black people are depicted in popular culture and in the media.  In the UK, it’s a way of recognising the celebrities of American history such as Dr Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks as well as an opportunity to recognise our own historical figures such as Mary Seacole, the Bristol Bus Boycotters and Stephen Lawrence.

However, Black History Month has not avoided criticism.  Arguably the criticism really began in 2005 when Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman proclaimed “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”  Much of the debate centres around the focus on black history being only one-month long.  More and more people agree that black history should be recognised all-year-round but is there really an appetite to re-write the history books used in mainstream education across Europe and North America to allow everyone’s history to be shared and celebrated together? 

 

Whilst there’s little doubt the debate around the appropriateness of Black History Month will continue, there is evidently a desire and a need to ensure that the benefits received by celebrating it continue to beyond that one month of the year.  By emphasising stories of black achievement and resilience, Black History Month is able to focus the nation’s attention on the positive aspects of black life that are rarely visible and shine a light on the ongoing existence of racism, particularly within the workplace.

 

There are some employers on LinkedIn showcasing great celebrations of Black History in the workplace but there are so many more examples where there seems to be no acknowledgement whatsoever in the workplace.  For Black Britons this may be a profoundly isolating feeling to not have your employer acknowledge the contributions of people from your background.  For many it may lead to feelings of being under-valued and can have a huge impact on feelings of belonging in the workplace.  Where an employer doesn’t have a particularly diverse workforce or isn’t able to activate any celebrations before the end of this Black History Month, there’s always an opportunity to celebrate which may be appreciated by customers, suppliers and potential candidates for future job openings.

 

So how do we continue the conversation and raise awareness beyond Black History Month? 

 

  • Consider your organisational values as these are the foundations for your strategy, goals and performance.  Ensure that diversity and inclusion are woven in these values and align to your policies in order to create a clear agenda which promotes a sense of belonging for all employees.
  • Ensure racial diversity is a priority by creating a Diversity and Inclusion policy and action plan and include it there.  This will help you to address the topic of race in the workplace in a tangible way.
  • Take the time to review your approach to the recruitment and retention of black candidates and employees in your workforce.  Be prepared to look at how you help black people advance within the workplace long term. Question why percentage of black people in the organisation is low and/or why there are no or so little black people in the C-Suite.
  • If you don’t have an Employee Resource Group (ERG) dedicated to Black (and perhaps Asian and Minority Ethnic) employees and accomplices (more active than an ally), put out a general call to your workforce to gauge interest in starting one. This is an opportunity to collaborate and build trust with marginalized groups in your organisation.  This allows your black employees to self-select into getting involved in your organisation’s efforts to become more inclusive and should be used as an opportunity to engage with and speak with black employees and try to understand the barriers they face and what can be done to overcome them. 
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