Was it racism? I think so now
Reflecting on past bias in my workplace
I was thinking back to a workplace experience I had in England. I'd been working in journalism for a while and I interviewed for and got a job as editor for a charitable organisation (I worked for more than one of those during my career). What I didn't know until much later was that there'd been an internal candidate for the job, a middle aged white guy (MAWG).
Unlike many other workplaces there were a few melanated people working in the organisation, though none in my department. In fact, until I helped hire a woman subeditor I wasn't just the only Black person in my section; I was the only woman.
I got the sense of undercurrents from the very first day. My actual boss was pally with the white guy who hadn't been promoted, and with his boss there was a sense of all lads together. The design guys were great, though.
From day 1, the MAWG set out to undermine me. He was condescending, sometimes appearing to assume I wasn't qualified for my role as editor (ironic, when you consider that by then I’d been working in the field for more than a decade). He was obstructive, doing what he could to prevent the smooth flow of operations. For example, he would never deliver his work on time, making it harder to meet our print deadline. (I soon fixed that, though, by giving him deadlines three days earlier than everyone else. So when he delivered late in his eyes he was still a day earlier than I needed it. Job done! )
Just as problematic was that my boss refused to see MAWG’s actions as a problem. In fact, he often made it seem like I was the one with the problem and not as if this was an issue for the whole department. No support there at all. But given that he was the type to come in and glower all day, with people walking on eggshells, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. Every time they were both out of the office everyone was happier and work still got done efficiently.
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The irony is that all this was happening in an organisation that aimed to be inclusive and ran successful projects among deliberately disadvantaged communities. I do believe that other departments worked better, but the one I was in was old-school male-dominated with the culture that goes along with that.
If asked, I’m pretty sure most people in the organisation “didn’t see colour” and thought of that as a good thing. That also made it impossible for them to spot the bias that underpinned how I was treated as a Black woman.
Of course, I never reported it either. It was subtle, and therefore hard to prove. Being “the only” can be lonely, and sometimes you just want to make it to the end of the day without too much trauma. Plus, I already knew from past interactions that the most likely outcome if I DID say anything was gaslighting and a total lack of support. In fact, I almost gaslit myself about what was going on, and focused more on the undermining and emotional bullying than the racism. Ironic, isn’t it, especially as it seems so clear to me now.
In the end, I did what many Global Majority people did and voted with my feet. I was so fed up that I jumped at the chance to do something new, and started teaching journalism at Coventry University.
So, what can you do as a would-be ally? Be aware and alert. See where there are unexplained disparities in treatment of Black and Global Majority people in your circles. Find out what support is required and offer it at the point of need (not after they have already been left to suffer). And examine your policies and processes for built-in bias. As Chris Armstrong said to us in a recent training course, policies are written by people, which means bias can be codified. If that’s the case where you are, find it and fix it.
Thanks for reading,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2022. All Rights Reserved.
I am an anti-racism writer, educator and activist, Co-Founder of Diverse Leaders Group, the author of “I’m Tired of Racism”, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. If you value my perspective, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.