Of the various barriers to a genuinely collective approach to business based around a worthwhile and sustainable purpose, racism looms high. Diversity across all dimensions might be the aspiration but if there’s racism we won’t get there. Broadcast media coverage tends to be unhelpful and clearly very news driven so here are some thoughts. 

Racism is the idea that you can group people according to race or ethnicity and expect certain characteristics – behavior or intelligence for example – to be apparent*. But that’s not how we use the term – when we say “racist” we usually mean a negative view of someone where that view essentially derives from our perception of their race or ethnicity. Not always – it is racist to suggest that all Black Africans are good dancers, or are cooler than white people**. But those who make such apparently positive statements will be aggrieved to be accused of racism. My Granny who in the late 50’s knitted a golliwog for me would not think herself racist – she held no negative views about other races. This is important I think. We need to re assert that the primary definition of racism as not about aversion. So if we address the failings of views based on race we will address aggressive, critical racism or race hate as well as the more insidious sometimes benevolent racism. Similarly with xenophobia where we are averse to the “other”. ****This can also be applied to nation based aversion – and often is. Xenophilia, where we have a blanket positive view of for example, another country, wouldn’t be considered offensive but nevertheless the simplistic overall positive touristic affection for say Italy can be at odds with an insider view which will be much more nuanced, balanced and informed. 

The base idea of racism as a shorthand way of grouping human characteristics is offensive to the individual even if the characteristics identified are positive. Offensive and puzzling because the differences and slight nuances you can easily discern between you and the rest of the people in your race are apparently invisible to the outsider. We tend to look in a lazy manner – if the most obvious distinguishing factor is skin colour then that’s what we use. This lazy grouping applies also to other types of grouping – we may have a view on nurses, or teachers or policemen or politicians. Our views may be based on the way we consume and reflect on our own experience partly determined by hearsay or media messaging. The view from within such groups is of course much more granular and based on an appreciation of difference. A nurse will know which of their colleagues are competent, wonderful or hopeless. Blanket, group views are inaccurate and disconcerting to individuals in those groups. If you are Chinese the variations between your fellow Chinese are way more obvious than the common features***. So if I go on holiday and note that people from Russia seem reluctant to queue I may be making a fair point compared to people from other places but the Russian perspective may be that non-queuing is a Moscovian trait and Moscovians may know that the trait is particular to a district within the city. Take meanness – in the UK that’s ascribed to people from Yorkshire or from Scotland. In Scotland it’s ascribed to Aberdonians. I’ve never seen any evidence to support the meanness gene myth. I am from Yorkshire – it has mean and generous people. I lived in Scotland and met generous and mean people. And by the way, when I did live in Scotland I was always puzzled and a little offended by the description of someone as “very English”. From an English perspective that’s meaningless. Apparently it’s used to denote a Home Counties type – pompous BBC accent etc. Now I live in the Home Counties what strikes me is the wide variation amongst those who share that location.

So back to race. Ascribing positive characteristics to a race is offensive to the individual and dehumanizing – if we relate to someone we must do so on the basis of their individual characteristics. That way if we decide to take a view of an individual it’s not because of their race or ethnicity. Nor their country, or religious grouping, or hair colour, or lack of hair or any other broad group-like characteristic. Is it natural to be cautious about different looking people? ****Yes probably it is inevitable that we develop norms and then if we see deviation we feel unnerved. Is natural good? Of course not.

Why racist views are held:- 

  • A difference is a threat – might a different group take something from us? Particularly if an area changes its character to reflect the arrival of groups from a difference race/culture. The only answer for all concerned is for all individuals to be open to change and to respect all other individuals as individuals. 
  • Perception of different characteristics that we find offensive – might be appearance, smell, manners or behaviour. Again, the only answer is to respond to individuals and that way the differences between individuals will be greater and more significant than group characteristics. 
  • Experience of conflict where we experience the conflict as emanating from this other group – of course you might be right but more likely conflict will be from individuals so best respond solely on that basis.
  • Apparent evidence that people from this other group are associated with actions we find unacceptable. An example here where in the UK, brothels or exploitation with underage girls tend to be Asian run with reported cases in Rochdale, for example *****. Clearly the only issue is that such places are unacceptable and illegal. Yet the race lens first looks who is running these places and that becomes the focus. 
  • The discriminating racist – those who argue that there are individuals they like or are friendly with or who are deemed OK because of their occupation. Or those who say – as they did when I was growing up in West Yorkshire- that “West Indians” are “better” than Pakistanis because they mix with whites more easily and don’t tend to live all in the same area. Such generalisations might be more or less accurate but the issue as we are saying lies in the arbitrary grouping.

There is no doubt that race is a significant determinant of household income and this study shows the variation by ethnicity in the UK. ****** We have to say that this variation is both unfair and suggests that if talent is identified and nurtured partly on the basis of race then business will be missing out on the right people.

A genuinely mindful, collective approach has to include thinking about all people as individuals and engaging with them on those terms. That way your business will appear approachable and welcoming to all, and that way you will open your doors to the best talent. You will also in so doing make the business more appealing to the community as a whole. 

BLM – Ten elements of good practice for companies 

  • Discussion – make BLM an immediate agenda item of all meets at all levels
  • Consider the difficult questions – are there racists in your company? 
  • Ask BAME team members how they feel, what’s their experience? Do they feel included, do they feel they have to work to fit in, what would help?
  • Is BAME a helpful grouping – do all have the same experience? 
  • Review recruitment and development practice and audit current levels and seniority / success of BAME at all levels 
  • Consider next hires – how will they contribute to diversity?
  • Consider your company network – customers, partners, suppliers etc. – how does diversity look there
  • Look at your purpose – is it inclusive, might it include some goals around diversity? 
  • Embrace all aspects of diversity – age, gender, background, religion, etc. Ensure that addressing one element of unfairness doesn’t shift the problem elsewhere
  • Develop an immediate term action plan and a 1,3,5 year plan


Article by Brendan Llewellyn


*First defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition, 1989) as “[t]he theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race”