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Diversity Dilemma – Assumed Focus is on racism December 13, 2011

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.
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Is there such a concept as perceived racism? Or does this fall under the heading of ‘making assumptions’?

After a recent training session on Diversity and Inclusion, like most trainers, I immediately honed in on the single piece of negative feedback out of the 23 positive and / or rave reviews. The participant in question indicated that she felt uncomfortable as she considered that I had placed too much emphasis on race and racism. The Human Resources Manager, who was present at the session, was surprised with this comment, as her view was that I had included a much wider perspective than race alone and had covered the 9 protected characteristics of Diversity well.

Recently, an Asian lawyer representing a black man at an employment law tribunal told me that he was taken aback when the independent barrister representing the Employer indicated that ‘the allegation of racism was unnecessary and unwarranted’. The Asian lawyer was surprised that the Employer’s barrister had raised the question of racism, when the complaint was based upon disability discrimination grounds. This raises not only the issue of how well the independent barrister had read the brief – but also whether then barrister had made assumptions about the nature of the case based upon the visible ethnicity of the defendant?

Having reflected on these scenarios, I wonder if some employees perceive that colleagues from a black and minority ethnic background will, at some time, inevitably focus on their experiences of racism. In doing so, the same employees are filtering and categorising facts and events into a perceived racism arena. This filtering process is essentially a failure to consider an objective, neutral (and realistic) point of view; at its most basic, considering and magnifying only negative details whilst ignoring the positive.

During this skewed perception, evidence to support the bias is selected (and even favoured) unconsciously, with evidence to the contrary discounted. During the training session, in addition to examples of racism in the workplace, I provided examples / situations of sexism, ageism etc. The participant giving negative feedback seemingly focussed only on examples of racism, and felt uncomfortable in the process (perhaps taking the content as a personal affront / implied criticism). Similarly, with the employment tribunal scenario, the white barrister (subconsciously) noted two visibly minority ethnic representatives making a complaint and assumed that they were going to claim racism when this was not the case.

Although individuals claim they are ‘non-judgemental’ in everyday interactions with others, it is a normal human response to prejudge others on the basis of limited knowledge, especially if they are ‘different’ from us. To some extent, we are all prejudiced. Despite living in a so-called multicultural society, some individuals still have prevailing norms of segregation and separation; limitations in perception are formed as a result of the lack of meaningful and positive interaction between people from different racial / ethnic groups.

In turn, this perpetuates ‘ignorance’ which gives rise to attitude of ‘Why do ‘they’need to focus on race so much and make an issue about racism?’ It has been said that ‘The mark of a mature mind is the ability to suspend judgement until all the evidence is in.’ Is the relevant evidence limited due to the lack of experience some individuals have of interacting with others from different backgrounds positively?

In detail, prejudgement is on three levels. Firstly, what we think / see when a person or situation is encountered. Secondly, what we feel in response to these thoughts and thirdly and finally, how we behave as a result.

Firstly (what we believe / think about others) is, in other words, stereotyping. Stereotypes are defined as exaggerated and inaccurate generalisations about individuals, groups and communities. Whether negative or positive, stereotypes are maintained by an individual’s internal reference system – for example internalising the experiences of others (especially those close to us), to the point that they become our own experiences.

Secondly, the feeling that the (unfamiliar) concept of difference may arouse. Whilst thoughts can be rationalised, emotions need to be processed, which can take time.

Thirdly, Behaviour / Attitude. Whilst emotions are being processed, a reactive response can arise due to tension between thoughts and actions. There can be an uncomfortable contradiction between ‘what I feel’ as opposed to ‘how I should behave’. Some individuals develop a coping mechanism by behaving in a way that supports their thoughts (and beliefs), with individuals revising reality to justify and maintain their actions. When exposed to differences individuals can feel vulnerable and wonder such things as ‘Am I going to be attacked?’, ‘Will I be held accountable?’, ‘Do I have to justify/explain?’ This defensive reaction due to these feelings can easily be interpreted as either attacking or undermining.

This philosophy is based upon how a person is (unconsciously) defined and therefore perceived. Can there be a cycle of change through the art of conscious reasoning and reflection – despite the immediate reactions / justification of behaviour towards someone’s ‘difference’? The source of change needs to be based on our true emotions and feelings towards each other, rather than superficial words or pretence. The ‘inside out’ change is about an individual taking responsibility for an internal transformation within oneself. In effect, ‘Being the change you want to see in the world’.

Unless individuals take responsibility for transforming themselves, through conscious reasoning and reflection to immediate reactions towards others’ ‘differences’, the cycle of discrimination continues and is reinforced….

We don’t live in the world of reality; we live in the world of how we perceive reality.
Bryan Singer, director of “The Usual Suspects”

Sneha is the Director of Blue Tulip Training estalished in 2002. Blue Tulip Training specialises in supporting organisations on dealing with issues of Diversity, Inclusion, Bullying and Harassment. www.bluetuliptraining.co.uk

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