• Claudia Iton

Help! How do I talk to my BAME colleagues at work about race?

Updated: Jan 6, 2020

Several people have approached us with a request along the lines of

”Help! I can’t talk to my BAME colleagues at work about race. Can you help us have this conversation?”

Why does it have to be so awkward? If you think about the people with whom you do feel free to discuss almost anything, chances are you’ll notice high levels of trust and comfort between you, that allow you to talk about anything!

But that’s a bit chicken and egg – how do you build high levels of trust, confidence and comfort between yourself and your BAME colleagues, if you can’t have a conversation with them in the first place?

How did we get here? How do we avoid the trip-wires of conversations between people who are different from each other? Perhaps we could learn a bit about what not to do, from the recent examples at Facebook in the US, where one year after the high profile expose of the treatment of black and Latinx people at Facebook, another report emerges, claiming:

“Racism, discrimination, bias, and aggression do not come from the big moments,” they write. “It’s in the small actions that mount up over time and build into a culture where we are only meant to be seen as quotas, but never heard, never acknowledged, never recognized, and never accepted.”

What do your small interactions and actions look like? Is it possible they could be described as ‘micro-aggressions’?

Micro-aggressions are sadly, not unique to Facebook. Many, if not most people from under-represented groups, will have experienced them in their daily and more damagingly, in their working lives. Researchers surmise that given that most organisations are not run by ‘alt-right’ figures practicing overt and outright hate crimes, it may well be instead the cumulative effect of subtle and minor discriminations that are having the effect of keeping people from under-represented groups, under-represented. Think of it as ‘death by a thousand cuts’.

A few examples:

a) “You speak English so well!

usually conveyed with real enthusiasm and a suggestion that the recipient should be proud of their ‘achievement’. Never mind that the recipient may have English as a first language and may have spoken nothing else, from birth. The comment is effectively a reminder that, English speaking is not meant to be the preserve of someone from an under-represented group. Their expected standards are different. They are 'other’.

b) “Where’re you from? No, where’re you really from?

This one is bordering on classic status, as practically all BAME people have been treated to it. The second, follow up question comes about when the answer to the first is offered as “Guildford” at which point the questioner, gazing at the different looking/sounding person in front of them, presses on with the follow up. At that stage, it isn’t simply a getting to know you “where do you live?” question; it’s about establishing heritage and background and confirming difference. Again, the inescapable implied message is: you do not belong.

c) “I’ll have mine with milk, no sugar please…..” said to the only woman OR non

white person in a meeting room, where the assumption is that that person is only there as support staff and is not part of the professional staff / team or the people there to do the ‘important’ work

d) “But you don’t look gay at all!” said to a non-heterosexual person, with

real enthusiasm – as if to reassure them that they haven’t failed in some way. The inference of course is that sounding, looking and by extension being gay is an undesirable thing and they should be proud to not show signs of it.

Do any of these sound familiar to you? If not – so far so good.

If they do sound famiiar, maybe you’re wondering – how do I stop putting my foot in it? Some people think - what’s the big deal? None of those situations sound like the end of the world! Do they really matter?

It's great that you think they matter - there's in depth research that tells us that mental health, wellbeing and overall performance can be seriously impacted by these types of exchanges.

In our next blog, we’ll look in more depth at how this comes about in the first place, and give some tips and approaches for how to 'get it right'.

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