Laboni Paul, Data and performance lead, DfE Digital
I am a British woman born to Bangladeshi students in Birmingham. It is easy for me to empathise with the struggle of being a minority. I’m familiar with racist slurs and I’ve missed opportunities simply because my name was too difficult to pronounce.
However, I am not at the bottom of the economic ladder. I’m not Black, nor do I share the Black experience. But I have a responsibility as a colleague, a friend, and as a representative of the south-Asian community, to hold the mic up to Black people.
In the weeks following George Floyd's death I asked my Black friends how they felt, and how their employers had reacted. I also looked across DfE Digital and Transformation to see what work had been kick-started to address the issue of racism.
Black people are exhausted
I asked my Black peers how long-standing violence against Black people, coupled with recent tragic events, had affected them. Here’s what some of them said.
“It is draining. People are so de-sensitised to the issue.”
“We’re losing our lives but change seems near impossible.”
“I have cried so much, my tear ducts are dry.”
“I have decided to take a break. Anything and everything makes me cry.”
Black people in the UK are overwhelmed with the news of Black people’s deaths and the resulting protests. They are mentally drained by having to absorb the news while simultaneously explaining to their peers why change is so important.
There is a life-long strain too
This level of exhaustion is not new. It comes on top of challenges, indignities and injustices experienced from a young age. Here are just some of the common experiences that a Black person faces in the UK:
- being stop-searched as a child
- being unable to find products or services for their skin, body and hair
- needing to check how racist a country is before booking a holiday
- being dismissed by some politicians
- being asked to pay before you eat at a restaurant
- needing to put more effort into a job application which is likely to be discriminated against
- being wrongfully arrested and possibly killed for looking like society’s portrait of a criminal
The list goes on, and it is a burden.
Organisations differed in how they responded
As the world’s two biggest media stories - coronavirus and the protests that followed George Floyd’s death - coincided, I checked with Black friends (who work outside DfE), if this had been recognised in their workplaces.
“Maybe three people reached out, and there was a company-wide message - but I don’t feel the support.”
“Contacting the leadership team was awkward. I know I could damage my career and sound problematic, just by speaking up. Jobs are being cut, as it is. I have to choose between my career and representing my own people - that’s an impossible task, it’s a lose-lose.”
“I asked my Chief Executive Officer if they’d write a message to address Black people in the company, but they said they want to be ‘politically neutral’”
“When managers hire us, they also take on our struggles and baggage. They want the benefits of a diverse workforce, but are not prepared to do the work.”
“I emailed my boss to ask what kind of support the company would give me. Their reply was just a copy-paste answer from their diversity policy.”
People who have experienced a lifetime of discrimination have learned to live with their anger. It often gets buried. And when a video of a Black man being killed was beamed across the world, yet again people were deeply hurt.
The protests allowed people to express their anger but in the aftermath they need time to recover and encouragement from leadership to do so.
Black people need organisations to make genuine change
There are so many ways organisations can show their support for their Black staff and the wider Black community. This could range from offering mental health support and funding initiatives that support ethnic communities, to a higher level, co-ordinated approach to addressing systemic racism.
What DfE Digital is doing
Since I started drafting this post in response to the protests, a lot has happened in DfE Digital. Colleagues immediately made the time and space to acknowledge and hear how their Black colleagues felt, what they’d experienced and what they needed from everyone else.
Here are some of the things going on right now. Some are small scale, some more strategic. It’s early days but it’s an authentic start to getting to grips with the problem of racism and making deep-rooted change.
Listening closely and learning
All of us have listened to Black colleagues share their personal stories of the impact of racism on them and their families, and how coronavirus has impacted their lives.
Everyone took part in a session to explore ‘whiteness’ to help recognise the advantages that come with being white. Black people and people of colour have been leading on most awareness sessions but we’re aiming for White colleagues to take on more of this type of work.
Teams are revisiting the issue of bias and unconscious bias, particularly within the context of race.
There are awaydays planned for everyone to discuss race and how to combat racism in depth. The difficult conversions we need to have in order to move forward are taking place.
To keep the conversations going our Community team share topical and useful links to podcasts, articles, TV programmes and YouTube videos in our digital notes and newsletters.
Using our social media channels, we’re asking our audiences to give us their thoughts and views.
Improving our recruitment process
In the DfE Digital Recruitment team we now have an acute focus on race.
We're exploring how to better support Black colleagues to get promotions in DfE.
Black and BAME interview panellists often have to give up disproportionate amounts of their time to make panels more diverse. We’ve set up focus groups to explore the impact of this on those individuals and to think about how we can do this differently.
We want to hear from Black and BAME colleagues what it was like recruiting people to their teams in the past. Focus groups are taking place to gather insight to help improve the process.
We now use Textio to help us compose jargon-free interview questions and job adverts. (Civil Service words and phrases can easily put people off applying for roles.)
In interviews we’re asking questions that evoke a more natural response and offer people the opportunity to talk authentically and in a less rehearsed way about their motivations.
Planning ahead and taking action
In DfE Digital and Transformation we’ve set up a race working group.
We’re strengthening the links we’ve already made with Black and BAME digital and tech groups. We do not want these relationships to be tokenistic. We want a genuinely effective pipeline through which Black people can successfully apply for positions in DfE Digital.
These initiatives are just a start. Collectively we still have a lot to learn about how best to address race, minorities and majorities.
If you’d like to hear more about any of the things we’re doing in DfE Digital to address racism, please get in touch