Black Lives Matter: Six ways construction can combat racism
Dean Jones, FCIOB
After the shocking death of George Floyd in the USA and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests around the world, Dean Jones shares his own experience of racism and examines how UK construction can tackle it.
The death of George Floyd left me tearful. Since the video depicting a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 Seconds went viral, it has been near impossible for anyone to escape.
George Floyd was heard crying out ‘I can’t breathe’ before he died. I found the video particularly gruesome to watch and it brought about deep feelings of indescribable sorrow, outrage, disgust and worry because this man could have been me. George Floyd’s life mattered. All our lives matter. Black lives matter.
Rodney King was also a victim of police brutality much like George Floyd. Both instances demonstrate the extra use of force for non-violent crimes against unarmed black men. The difference here is, Floyd died and Black Lives Matter protests appear to have a high proportion of supporters who are non-black.
Systemic racism isn’t getting worse. It’s just getting filmed. That’s thanks, in part, to the widespread use of camera phones. In the case of Floyd, he has people around the world calling for change. It was as if that video was the evidence some people needed to really understand that there is an issue.
Many construction firms and other large corporations immediately released carefully crafted messages affirming that they are committed to diversity and inclusion and stand in solidarity with their black employees on social media, and for good reason.
The same is true in the UK which is also slowly waking up to the fact that racism exists. The UK has just as much of a race problem as the one so blatantly associated with the United States’ past and present. However, construction firms and other organisations that profess to support racial justice without a single black board member aren’t presently helping the cause.
I was born and raised in the UK and have first-hand experience of the glass ceilings placed above black workers in the workplace. I could write books about it. My schooling and career have been blighted by both overt and subtle racism at all levels. But I have felt somewhat constrained in the past because I didn’t want to be stereotyped and labelled the angry black person.
One of my first episodes of being made to feel different in a negative way took place when I was a child and is something I still regularly experience as an adult. It’s the question: “Where are you from?” When I state that I’m British born and I grew up in Angel, a locality on the northern fringes of central London within the London Borough of Islington, that question is usually followed up with: “No, where are you really from?” I’ve been asked this so many times that I now sometimes ponder on the question, am I really British?
I also remember as a seven-year-old boy in school being asked by my friend who was white if I wished I were white. He recognised something that I didn’t until that very moment that sank deep into my sub-consciousness. He recognised the fact that I was the last to be picked in any games or recognised by any of the girls in a predominately white school where I was pretty much left to my own devices.
I’ve also lost count of the times as an adult I’ve been ignored throughout my career where I inevitably find myself as one of the few, if not the only, black senior managers present. I have had to work extra hard to be included and listened to which has been exhausting.
Subtle workplace racism
There has long been the perceived threat of black masculinity to white people’s safety. This regularly manifests itself in the workplace environment. For example, assertiveness is classed as a good thing, but when a black person is assertive (especially at a senior level) it is often perceived as arrogant or even worse as intimidation. It has been my experience that those covert racists who know how to operate under the radar will employ micro aggressive tactics such as spreading negative comments about black colleagues to wreak havoc on their reputation, by feeding the preconceived views about black people in order to create the perfect storm that can eventually result in the exit of a black employee from an organisation.
Six ways construction companies can tackle racism in the workplace
There’s a disturbing paradox in the workplace. As organizations now look to reap the benefits of a diverse, multicultural and inclusive workforce, the countervailing force of racism will try to undermine that effort. However, here are some ways employers can take meaningful action to tackle racism in the workplace.
- Own up to systemic racism in the workplace. Don’t make a neutral statement just to make a statement. It needs to be meaningful as change begins with admission. Employers may be reticent to bring up racial inequity in the workplace because it requires the other party to acknowledge its very existence which is uncomfortable, but necessary. Some of the greatest places to work are still racist. Do not live in denial as silence is deadly. There is no neutral. CEOs and COOs need to be specific about the problems and deliberate in their actions. Research has shown that the way an organisation responds to diversity-related events that receive widespread media coverage — like George Floyd’s death — either help employees feel safe or contribute towards even more feelings of racial discrimination and mistrust of the senior leadership within those organisations. While working for the House of Commons as a senior manager in 2018, a review into workplace bullying was commissioned, which was welcome and enabled all members of staff to feedback anonymously.
- Keep talking. 2020 has proven to be a historical year surrounding the pandemic, and now, the uprising against racial injustice. This is a turning point and it’s critical that organisations actions back up their words or else they’ll remain empty promises. Initiate productive and respectful discussions, forming employee resource groups. Bear in mind that company workers may be reticent to talk about racial inequality in the workplace because they fear the repercussions. It is therefore vital to create a safe space where they can share their experiences and support each other without fear of retribution. A good start might be to use an external organisation to conduct and lead on group discussions to ensure impartiality.
- Hold yourself accountable. An anti-racist organisation will acknowledge systemic racism within the workplace, as well as the ways wealth inequality in society may impact their bottom line through their consumer base. Part of an organisation’s accountability is having these uncomfortable conversations. Leaders can then take this critical assessment to examine the work experience lifecycle — from hiring to performance recognition to promotions — and actively make existing systems of oppression more equitable by opening up paths of opportunity to workers who previously didn’t have access to them.
- Embed anti-racism into your values, training and actions. Building a stronger, healthier and better workplace culture is dependent on having a solid set of core values that are integrated into every policy, decision and process. It’s time to denounce any weak policies, behaviours, partnerships and client relationships that contradict these values.
- Spread awareness. Employers can spread awareness by providing resources to educate individuals about the culture of racism and the history of different races and help change conscious or unconscious racially biased stereotypical thinking of black people through investing in regular staff training. This would help workers to see each other as equals.
- Think beyond diversity, to inclusivity. Most organisations already know some of the things they have to do, so just do it. Strategies to dismantle inequity in the workplace already exist, for example, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s resignation from the company’s board to make way for a black candidate. The hiring process is just one of many ways’ employers can combat racial discrimination. Be more targeted and focused. Applicants should also be prepared to have a conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion by the time they get to an interview. Consider asking the question, “Without using the word ‘different,’ what’s your definition of diversity?”
There are plenty of brilliant people now resisting the blatant racism (both black and white) present in society. These are the voices that need to come forward. Those agitators who recognise empathy, love and kindness for others, not hate, those who recognise that skin colour and any other difference of language, religion, background or sex is completely irrelevant by comparison to what we all share – which is our humanity.
Dean Jones FCIOB is director, strategic projects at Cranfield University