White leaders must double down on promises to end racism
One look around public sector boardrooms is enough to see the persistent and enduring lack of Black, Asian and other minoritized groups. It is time for white leaders to be on the pitch not watching from a distance.
Leading in Colour: The Fierce Urgency of NOW published today by The Staff College is aimed particularly at white CEO’s, leaders and politicians across the public sector. One look around public sector boardrooms is enough to see the persistent and enduring lack of Black, Asian and other minoritized groups.
These boards rarely represent the volume of Black staff within their organisation or the communities they serve. If they are there, they are likely to be the only one which brings additional burdens. Staff and communities expect them to end the racism they have faced for years, always being expected to lead on racism, diversity and inclusion.
They also experience racism sometimes overt but often intelligently done, “oh didn’t you get the email”, or “sorry the meeting date was changed”, white colleagues often re-framing positive attributes into negative ones – passionate becomes aggressive, enthusiastic becomes pushy. Their reputations won or lost by the mere utterance of “bright” or “not bright” when their name is mentioned.
Following the murder of George Floyd in the USA in 2020, the spotlight fell on racial inequality in the UK and the fact that Covid-19 led to British Black African men being 3.4 times more likely to die than their British white peers is shocking. This isn’t, as some would like to focus on, about statues. This is about the evidence of the cumulative impact of inequalities on Black communities.
There were many public sector organisations who openly supported the need to tackle and reduce racial inequalities. A year on, following a debate about whether structural racism existed - what progress has been made?
Some promise to tackle racism, then appoint someone white who they have worked with before, citing they need someone “trustworthy”
Some Black staff believe they will not see change in their lifetime. We have had many previous moments to tackle racism, riots, murders including that of Stephen Lawrence and the watershed moment when Sir William McPherson defined institutional racism. There are many talented aspiring Black leaders and as research demonstrates, diversity of thinking and cultural competence leads to higher performing teams and better outcomes. It is time for white leaders to be on the pitch not watching from a distance.
It does, however, feel like déjà vu. Those who hold positions of power in those mainly white board rooms appear to be still appointing in their own image. Perhaps just as Black aspiring leaders have a lack of social capital especially networks, it is white social capital and networks that lead to the promotion of mainly white individuals in their board room. If the recruiter calls, white leaders with white networks are likely to suggest white names – and so it goes on.
Some promise to tackle racism, then appoint someone white who they have worked with before, citing they need someone “trustworthy”. My view is that perhaps one of the reason initiatives have not taken hold is that it may have been seen by white leaders as a task to be done and not a way of life in and out of work. Change requires professional and personal learning, acknowledging that Black colleagues and communities can never leave the impact of racism behind.
Many white leaders want to tackle the issues but are uncomfortable they may say the wrong thing. We get that and hope they also realise Black staff do not have the luxury of being comfortable when they experience daily racism.
There are nearly 1,000 race hate crimes a week in England alone. We are asking white leaders to read, reflect and act, we provide the challenge but also the tools and resources to help them tackle racism now.
Meera Spillett is the former Director of Children's Services, Associate of The Staff College, and Advisory Group member for DHSC Social Care WRES.
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