As the whole world stood still during the Covid-19 pandemic, it woke up to another fatal, ferocious and destructive pandemic, racism.
Following the murder of George Floyd, social media erupted as people shared the traumatic video of his death, names of other forgotten victims and oppressive discriminative regimes, past and present. People want to understand why and how people of colour struggle and tend to live in impoverished areas, why there is a lack of Black representation in leadership roles, and more. This prejudice and violence is not new or suddenly increasing; there is just more visibility this time. Our experiences are different to our white counterparts because we’re victimised by the social construct of our supposed inferiority and subsequently, aren’t given the same opportunities. We are racially profiled as aggressive which costs us our freedom and sometimes, our lives. Our history is seldom told, and our culture appropriated. Some of our white counterparts are perplexed by the level of discrimination we face, but we’re almost numbed by the pain.
America is a country rooted in racism and we in Britain created that system, so are as much to blame. The British Empire is the villain in Black people’s memory and the devilish mastermind of a disastrous cultural trauma. People talk about the ‘great relationship’ across the Atlantic with the USA, but what about the Atlantic Middle Passage? The mass graveyard of Africans ripped from their land for a life of servitude - our ancestors who were lost to the depths, sometimes choosing death over shackles or through being drowned by men seeking compensation. People wonder why during a time of anger and pain they tore Edward Colston’s statue down. We’re tired of how Britain educates citizens about its colonial past, that a third of the population believe the British Empire left its former colonies “better off” and how we’re still treated as inferior. It’s time to change, but more importantly, it’s our responsibility.
Growing up as one of the only Black people in my class, I was, of course, aware of racism as a child; I remember one time my Dad’s colleague from North Carolina invited my parents to visit but then quickly withdrew the invitation once realising that Mum was Black. But I never really understood how it would affect me, or what I would experience growing up. I do, however, remember agonising in front of the mirror hating my frizzy hair and body, wishing I could have the silky hair and skinny legs my friends had. I never received a Valentine’s day card and remember thinking it was because I didn’t look like the girls in my class, despairingly feeling I’d never be their ‘type’. Obviously now I realise it’s because I was intimidating (music geek). At the time, I wouldn’t have recognised this as a race issue. But now I see a Black girl who internalised Eurocentric ideals around beauty, affecting her confidence and self-worth because of a severe lack of Black representation. She rarely saw people who looked like her in magazines or as the lead in movies; unconsciously, she saw that to mean she wasn’t beautiful.
I acknowledge that as a light-skinned, middle-class Black person, my experiences are not reminiscent of my brothers and sisters who experience worse prejudice, more frequently. This is just my personal experience, but the feeling of being unworthy and imperfect because of our skin is the experience of countless other Black people, and we’re tired. Tired that the features people mock us for are appropriated as ‘hip’ trends by white people when they’re intimidating and unattractive on us. In secondary school people made Black jokes at my expense, watching me decide whether to laugh or argue, and micro-aggressive comments on everything from my hair to my food. At the time I laughed along from fear of saying what I actually thought. But then I went to University to study African American history and literature and began to better understand my place in the world. Then, in 2016 amidst the era of Trump’s election, I studied in Massachusetts and experienced a different, more obvious and cruel racism. I still find it hard to put into words the mix of anger and pain I experienced.
The Black struggle for freedom and equality is continuous, and we’re not going to sit idly by. My experiences are different from my mother's - who can’t talk about them because they’re too painful - and my children’s experience will be different from mine. How can we not be angry about that? How can we not try to make a change? Because the world will never see us as equals until we’re given the same opportunities and respect as our white counterparts. As an organisation, we’ve taken the time to think about what we can do in light of the Black Lives Matter Movement. A movement which aims to improve Black people’s lives by combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centring Black joy. How can we not get on board?
We now bring you to Blackout Tuesday, 2nd June, when people, businesses and organisations posted black squares on social media, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
In our morning huddle, facilitated by our CEO Nigel Lambe, we began discussing what we should be doing as an organisation. As a team, we felt that we wanted to take the time to work on a unique and calculated response, to use this moment as a catalyst to have the biggest impact we could. We’ve seen plenty of businesses and brands practicing advocacy on social media and rushing out a statement without any real action to back it up and decided that we don’t want to do the same. We’re now over a month past Blackout Tuesday and it’s evident that people aren’t as vocal, but they might be working behind the scenes like us. We want to keep the conversation going and not let it dwindle, to hold people accountable when they say they want to help and make a difference.
If you choose to stay silent, you are choosing the side of the oppressor. For too long people have chosen to travel through life blissfully ignorant of the experience of Black people because it doesn’t directly affect them – and our organisation is just as much a culprit of this. It’s not Black people’s responsibility to make you understand, it’s your responsibility to want to understand and change. We’re now ready to change by embracing a more diverse community and actively encouraging important conversations. This could be the catalyst for people to educate themselves and their children properly and we want to harness that in our organisation.
We all recognised that - although we’ve been moving in the right direction in recent years - we have a lot to work on within the business, and for the community we support.
Built on the principle of 'actions before words', our newly created Diversity Action Group has decided to build a more substantial programme of initiatives that we’ll be launching throughout the rest of the year. We hope our new measures will continue the discourse around racism and keep promoting Black voices. We want to harness this hope and work on diversity and inclusion with people of colour in our community (myself included).
So what action are we taking?
We've started by agreeing 5 key principles that we commit to following as an organisation, as of now:
- Diversifying our talent pool in future recruitment to improve diversity in our organisation. For any future roles that become available, we will strategically advertise across different job boards and publications for Black professionals. We further recognise that it’s not just about hiring a diverse team but creating an environment where they feel supported, which we will do by increasing our focus on team wellbeing and happiness; establishing any patterns to we can recognise specific problems or challenges our Black employees face.
- Organising unconscious bias training for the whole team, to shape and reform our attitude and awareness of internalised prejudices. As a business support organisation, we constantly meet new people, and it’s important in light of the Black Lives Matter movement to be conscious of the prejudices and barriers people of colour face.
- Launching a new video and podcast series titled ‘100 Stories’. Our intention is to share stories from people of colour about their experiences of prejudice and journeys to success, in work and life. This was inspired by the hundreds of brave people of colour who have felt the Black Lives Matter has given them an opportunity to share their stories and experiences. This series coincides with the increasing demand and interest from allies who want to better understand the forms of prejudice and micro-aggressions that take place every day. We want our ‘100 Stories’ to be an accessible platform for Black people in and around our community to share their stories either anonymously or openly. We do this in a bid to keep the conversation alive and continue to help people understand what it’s like when you don’t have a seat at the table.
- Recognising and celebrating Black History Month. This October, we will take the time to recognise Black excellence and promote further conversations. Black History Month invites everyone to celebrate, promote and inspire Black British achievements that can sometimes pass under the radar. We will, therefore, be hosting an event in October, showcasing some of our 100 Stories and welcoming Black entrepreneurs to give talks on their experiences, entrepreneurial journey and successes. We hope to foster a space for Black imagination and innovation, inviting diverse societies from the University of Sussex to spark complex and valuable discussions.
- Support more Black-owned businesses. We are currently building on our business support programmes in a bid to improve inclusivity and help more Black business owners feel welcome in our community. Over the next six months, we plan to launch new mentoring, coaching and consultancy offerings that help businesses capitalise on the value of their diverse founding teams, collaborate with likeminded networks, and feel more confidence pitching for investment and funding. We know from the conversations we have had over the past month that these are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities Black business owners face.
These initiatives are only a steppingstone for our organisation, and we will be developing our plans as the year progresses. We have far to go and hope that we can begin to both diversify our community and keep important, necessary conversations alive.
I remember my very first day at Sussex Innovation, joining the Catalyst Team in August 2018. I had two stickers on my backpack; ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Don’t touch my hair’. I decided to take these off before my first day because I thought people wouldn’t understand, that they’d think I was too ‘radical’, and I’d have to explain myself. This was my perception of the workplace and I didn’t understand the levels to which your organisation can try to make a difference. I’m excited that I finally feel comfortable talking about this with my team, that I and other Black colleagues can share what we truly think.
If you'd like to get in touch with us to discuss our new initiatives, or would like to know more about how to take part in our 100 stories series, please get in touch here.
We will be launching our new initiatives with a ‘Survive and Thrive’ webinar this Wednesday lunchtime on the topic of Diversity and Inclusion – find out more about our panel and register to join us here.
If you would like some further resources to deepen your understanding of racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, please take a look at this resource from Grace Robinson that features important articles, podcasts, films, documentaries, organisations to follow and more. If you're keen to diversify your recruitment policies, there are numerous job sites Black professionals use to find opportunities, such as Creative Access, BYP network and Diversity jobsite.