On leadership that leads to racial justice

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Every movement for social justice is contested; they always have been and always will be. The reasons for this are to do with power. Social justice questions, how power is held, by whom, and how power works. It’s therefore those who have the least power that lead these emancipatory movements, because they have the most to lose where discrimination continues. It is for these reasons that the conversation about leadership needs to change – thinking through what leadership is for, and how to determine what good looks like. This straight-talking blog is aimed at leaders who want to ‘get it’ on inclusion. It’s candid because its purpose is to provoke leaders to lead better for racial justice.

2020: a year of change

The call for leaders at all levels, is that they must now be brave enough to ask themselves whether their practices are making a difference to the lived experiences of those who they claim that their work will benefit.

In 2020 the world pivoted along the axes of racial justice, signalling time for the ethics that guide leadership practice to be scrutinised through this same lens. The call for leaders at all levels, is that they must now be brave enough to ask themselves whether their practices are making a difference to the lived experiences of those who they claim that their work will benefit, and concurrently to become more discerning about when motivations for change (as David Olusoga puts it in his book Black and British: A Forgotten History) are driven from self-interest as opposed to moral purpose. If we as leaders fail to subject ourselves to this kind of scrutiny, history tells us that we should already be planning for failure with regards to our equality, diversity, inclusion and racial justice intentions. 

Moving into a space where past performance is not a predictor of future performance on race, we must work to eradicate the well-described ‘twin pandemics’ of racism and Covid-19, balanced with leadership practice that is guided by measures that transform experiences for those on the receiving end of racial discrimination, and where our values as leaders become the drivers of value across the system to reach a goal of net zero on racism. Leadership practice should create virtuous cycles of learning and capability that morally spirals upwards.

Looking racism in the eye

Racism is an unpleasant reality of human interactions, but this is an unpleasantness of our own making, and one that we must look squarely in the eye if we are to have any hope of eradicating it. And as we gaze into the reflective eye of racism, we begin to see ourselves more clearly. Because as a first step toward racial justice, we must acknowledge how, and to what extent the continuation of racism is hurting, harming and damaging people; it is racism that ultimately determines whether people live or die in many situations, and this is a transnational truth. 

Our inability to face the ugliness and realities of racism, has amounted to an inability to hear and then to act upon the truths of the lived experiences of those people who are subjected to it, with devastating results.

In the context of Covid-19 and keeping ourselves mentally well, it’s predictably human to reach for encouraging stories in the midst of an emotional, immobilising and uncertain context. Good news stories have helped us all to feel better, bolstering personal and collective resilience through pain and loss. However, this in-built coping mechanism can also drive unhelpful approaches, when seeking to consider the racial justice implications of the disproportionate deaths of black and brown people in this pandemic. Our inability to face the ugliness and realities of racism, has amounted to an inability to hear and then to act upon the truths of the lived experiences of those people who are subjected to it, with devastating results. Without these insights into the ugliness of racism, our well-meaning and costly initiatives to tackle racial discrimination are ill-informed and will thus lead to disappointment. Any leader who is serious about progressing anti-racist practice must look into the reflective eye of racism; we cannot dismantle racism without first understanding how it works. 

The consequences for people of colour who openly oppose racism

Key to gaining insights about how racism works is an appreciation of what happens to people of colour who speak up in ways that reveal the undistorted truths about racism and how it currently operates. They are often side-lined, denigrated, criticised, unsupported and subjected to forceful and antagonistic mass mobilisations, bent on silencing or removing them by any means possible. History is littered with examples of the brutality of these kinds of repercussions, all manifestations of racist responses to anti-racist endeavours; pick any civil rights leader on which to test these assertions – patterns of resistance to anti-racist endeavours are well documented. Let’s begin to boldly ask ourselves questions about how, not whether, these same forms of opposition to anti-racism are showing up in the systems, institutions and teams that we lead and are part of.

Taking a critical look at leader-allyship

Leader-allyship is not a simple act that one can opt into with a word and a smile; the complex work of allyship can’t be achieved through thin, short-lived promises or the acquisition of new words. Declarations of anti-racism, allegiances to Black Lives Matter, or resolutions that amount to ‘Let's be nicer to black people and talk to a few more of them in the workplace’ fall massively short of racial justice goals; and of course, the same principles would apply for issues of disability, sexuality and gender. At this point, some white colleagues may become a little more than irritated by yet another black woman, challenging them by saying that they are not doing enough; when in fact you know that you are doing your best, so ‘why bother!’ At risk of irritating even further, I wish to invite some deeper scrutiny of this reflexive response, by asking what purpose does the ‘why bother!’ response and its accompanying behaviours serve? Is this likely to maintain the structures that uphold racism, or to dismantle them? If we are curious enough and committed enough to racial justice, we, and especially those of us who are white, must move in earnest beyond this all-too-familiar, progress-halting territory of white ‘why botherness!’.

I raise this, not in an attempt to denigrate people’s good intentions around racial justice and equity, but to support those who are in leadership positions at all levels to consider the following question. What kind of leader-allyship is required in order to combat, and then to transform, systems that distribute white advantages, while simultaneously delivering disadvantages for people of colour, and has positioned these as perfectly acceptable outcomes for centuries? 

Institutional activities that drive these unequal outcomes are embedded within our systems, policies, practices and our processes, because unfairness is firstly firmly entrenched within our mindsets. An example of this is that I’m often in conversations about race, where default thinking assumes that we are not talking about disability, women, LGBTQ people and so on, yet all these characteristics are present within minority racial groups. These mindsets of division hamper our justice efforts before work even begins. Yet there is no getting away from the fact, that with the addition of melanin, systemic outcomes in health care tend to worsen.

What does leadership for anti-racist practice need to look like in support of racial justice? I would suggest our black and brown colleagues require the following type of leadership.

  • Leadership that is bold, visible, present, vocal and doesn’t sit on the fence – anti-racist leadership is not silent assent (for how can leaders justify having nothing to say about injustice?); and neither does it wait for people of colour to do the heavy lifting before it shows up. Be bold. If you see or hear your colleagues making racist assumptions, whether intentional or not, call it out. If you see your black and brown colleagues being marginalised, treated poorly, or denigrated in front of you, use your presence and power to intervene – press the pause button in the conversation and ask the question ‘How is what is happening right now challenging racism or racist norms? What or who is this behaviour really opposing?’ Be a leader who is known for vocally standing up for racial justice and who is clear about what they will not stand for.

  • Leadership that addresses indifference to racial justice – indifference is another insidious form of racism. Leaders are also educators who enable others to gain an understanding about how racism works and is maintained. Great leadership in health care, is leadership that strongly advocates for racial justice, through purposeful efforts, to personally learn about and embody an appreciation of the links between racial justice and the wellbeing of individuals and society as a whole. Hold colleagues to account for their words and actions. Be the person who holds the mirror up to indifference related to racism and encourage others to do the same.

  • Leadership that challenges racism when black and brown people are not present – self identifications of allyship are meaningless without a commitment and practice that challenges colleagues, and names racism in all-white spaces. It’s a fact that some white people can respond poorly to conversations about racism by becoming overly defensive. These responses might manifest themselves by summoning up reliable stereotypes that continually position those with black and brown bodies as the aggressors. One way of doing this is by instantly claiming victimhood the moment that one’s racialised assumptions and practices are called out. Collective expressions of these behaviours collude with the unspoken suggestions that people of colour have been, unreasonable, unkind, vengeful, oversensitive, bullying, or somehow ungrateful by calling out racism. Help colleagues to see that these behaviours are unhelpful if racial justice is their ambition. Ask, ‘How is your current response supporting progress towards racial justice? Is there a better way for you/us to demonstrate support of our black and brown colleagues and that grows our anti-racist practice?’

  • Leadership that will not stand for racial segregation – I use the term segregation to describe forms of workplace separateness that disadvantage people of colour. Examples are all-white rooms making decisions that affect people of colour. White leaders not considering that those with black and brown bodies might have valuable contributions to make about matters that are not explicitly to do with race. White leaders failing to recognise that they might not be the best people to lead on, or to inform the progress of anti-racist practice, even with best intentions. Senior rooms that have normalised, and therefore don’t question, their all-whiteness. Decision-making spaces that are not rooted in racial justice thinking. Spaces that assume racial justice is being progressed because they include a few brown faces – a concept that can be a little daunting for those over-investing in numbers alone – however anti-racist practice is not an innate quality for people of colour, it must be learned by us all. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that including colour is all that is required; the essential inclusion factor is of those who are informed about what anti-racist practice looks like, and are willing to challenge and provoke leaders out of complacency and into the practice of racial justice. Ask ‘How can we introduce some voices that will provoke and challenge us to become more ambitious about racial justice? Are we ready for these kinds of challenges, and how can we ensure that we challenge one another to respond well when we are outside our comfort zones?’

  • Leadership that supports black and brown people who speak truth to power and challenge the status quo – don’t collude with attacks against black and brown colleagues and call out colleagues who do. None of us are perfect; have the courage to mainstream giving and receiving feedback as part of your everyday leadership practice, especially feedback to those who are most likely to be marginalised. Fears about not upsetting black and brown people are often fears that have been honed through the ideology of racism. Colleagues with more melanin have been incredibly tolerant, they know about and have experienced racism that racial majorities may not have been able to detect for some time, pause for a moment to imagine the impact of this as a daily experience.  

    Irrational fears about upsetting us are therefore unfounded, we already know that racism is causing concrete harm. Continue to question and to break these patterns of behaviour and remember to be open to exploring more deeply the assumptions on which your challenges are based. Ask yourself, ‘Am I colluding with practices that boomerang back on to black and brown bodies, re-wounding them when they speak up?’ Ensure that your leadership calls out forms of racism that negatively target those who speak up.

Growing and maturing cultures that are able to contain human emotions 

We must have a different conversation in the workplace about the racial ethics that must now guide leadership practice. Building leadership communities that have more robust capabilities, able to contain the emergence of more mature forms of racially-aware emotional resilience. I don’t use the word mature in a pejorative sense here, but in a way that suggests that there is a distinctive form of emotional maturity that is now required of us as leaders, in order to be able to embrace a subject matter that is profoundly emotive at its core. This move towards maturity forms part of our learning journey towards creating leadership cultures, in which these emotions can be contained and worked with, rather than retreated from. It’s in the retreat from the difficulty of dealing with our own emotions, that we reproduce the very systems of racial inequity that we are seeking to abolish. 

Let’s give ourselves the space that allows our leadership to conceptually and emotionally grow in depth and breadth, as we grow cultures that increasingly deliver racially and socially just outcomes.

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Comments

Ngozi Ogu

Position
GP trainee,
Comment date
27 May 2021

A very insightful thought provoking piece. I wonder how the interview process will look like in the of selection of senior leadership with competency in racial justice. How do we evidence competency in this broad diverse area? Who is involved in setting up the criteria and how will it be administered?

Fatou Mbow

Position
GP,
Comment date
14 May 2021

Thank you very much for sharing these thoughts with us. The issue I keep grappling with is ...what do we factually mean by "leadership"? Is there a space for authority, hierarchy...when questioning discrimination, racism? The "ladder" - professional, social - isn't that essentially based on discrimination? Can anyone thinking of him/her self as "leader" , "guide", "better" actually be egalitarian in his/her views of self and others? The energy, passion, drive and eventually possibly "burning" for equality as a "cause"...how do they fit with the corporate world...really?

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