“Unless you’re part of the solution, Adrian, you’re part of the problem”, said my Black female colleague. It was a statement that felt unfair and shook my sense of identity to the core. The year was 1999 and the government body I was working for was still digesting the MacPherson Inquiry Report into the death of Stephen Lawrence. It asserted that ‘institutional racism’ existed in our own organisation as well as the Police force at the focus of the Inquiry.
I found myself inwardly protesting: “But I’ve grown up in South London, I’ve got loads of Black friends, even my Best Man was Black! And – I’ve been facilitating ‘Equal Opportunities’ programmes for years!” Surely my colleague had me all wrong?
I tried to ‘eat humble pie’ and said to her: “Help me understand…” , but what she said to me next was even more discombobulating: “It’s not my job to teach you, Adrian, you’re going to have to learn for yourself”.
Over the years, I have come to realise that my colleague’s provocation had been a rare gift to me. She has been the catalyst to me learning some profound truths. They are truths that have shaped me as a person, and my work as a leadership developer and coach. Here’s my top three.
More than ticking boxes
Firstly, while I may be able to ‘tick some boxes’ in terms of multicultural credentials, they speak nothing of my actual understanding of the issues. My colleague’s comments began a journey for me through books, films and talks in Black History month on the history and impact of racism. I listened to Black colleagues about their experience of what it was like to be Black, working in my organisation and living in South London. The stories I heard brought me to tears. I had no idea. I began to realise that I had little understanding of the level of institutional privilege I have as a White, straight man. And I was too ready to rationalise away a Black person’s experiences of life in the UK. I also had little understanding of how much the wealth of London, and many other major UK cities, was built on the exploitation of my Black brothers and sisters over centuries – wealth that I still benefit from today.
Brother, sister, teacher?
Secondly, I learned that it’s not the job of my Black friends and colleagues to teach me about racism, exclusion and prejudice. It’s painful enough being on the receiving end of racism, day in, day out. They don’t need the added burden of having to educate White people, like me, who couldn’t be bothered to find out for themselves, or were too ready to dismiss or minimise their experiences. With White privilege comes a big responsibility to educate myself and fully face the rank inequality that persists across the world, let alone in my own back yard.
No safe space…
Thirdly, it’s not the job of my Black friends and colleagues to right these wrongs. As Sareta Puri writes: “The burden of racism and racial inequality does not lie on the shoulders of people of colour. It us up to white people to work to dismantle a system that they benefit from”. And as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” My colleague was right. If I wasn’t challenging it, I was colluding with it. I was part of the problem. I had to go beyond White guilt, which doesn’t help anyone unless it results in action. As Ibram X. Kendi puts it: “One either allows racial inequities to persevere….or confronts racial inequities…there is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.”
Silence is not golden
Too many people like me – the least likely demographic to suffer from discrimination and the most likely to gain from it - have been silent for too long. And it’s a silence that is deafening for so many Black people across the world. And we can’t just point at Presidents and Kings and depend on them for leadership. Even when, as with President Obama, they understand and care about the issues and do what they can, there is a limit to how much even a President can change the attitudes and behaviour of a population. Leadership is required of us all. Leadership is less about the position you hold and more about the choices you make.
It’s time for you and me to choose to lead where we are, to speak out and continue speaking out until something shifts – and then to speak out some more. It’s only when enough of us speak and act differently – about racism, about poverty, about other forms of inequality - that things will begin to change. We need to create what Meg Wheatley calls ‘Islands of Sanity’ within our spheres of influence.
So what will you do?
Can I provoke you into eating humble pie with me (socially distanced of course!) and owning your ignorance and need for learning? (There are some great resources below that will get you started). And then to go beyond mere understanding to make your voice heard.
Here in the UK, the Health Foundation’s report painted a stark picture of the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on our BAME brothers and sisters – so many of them serving their socks off to keep us healthy and safe. Their view was that: “Existing social inequalities and structural discrimination in British society are likely to be playing a significant role”. If you are a UK citizen, will you join me by writing to your MP and insisting this is taken seriously and that structural racism is faced and tackled?
Silence is not neutral. As Martin Luther-King said: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people”.
I can’t speak for Presidents and Kings, but this I can promise you: this leader will not be silent.