• Ben Brooks-Dutton

Is race & ethnicity the place to begin the D&I journey within organisations?

Our team is often contacted to comment on the many news stories that drive fierce political and cultural debate across our society. Just today there’s a story doing the rounds about Microsoft’s ‘woke’ spell checker. Sometimes we can imagine radio hosts asking their producers to call “those wokies at The Unmistakables” for a view that they assume will be entirely liberal, steadfast and without nuance. We, however, make it clear to everyone we work and collaborate with that a lack of contrasting perspectives in any debate is the enemy of inclusion. In fact, it’s not even a debate. It’s a monologue. The world we live in is far too polarised already to house a diversity and inclusion consultancy that cannot nurture a balance of opinions and differing points of view.


In order to hone these skills, we host fortnightly structured debates to encourage a more considered take on inclusion. Two sides speak alternately for and against a particular contention usually based on a topical issue. The subject of these disputes are prearranged so, we as D&I professionals, may find ourselves having to support opinions with which we might not normally agree. This forces us out of inevitable bias bubbles and ensures that we are thinking, at least sometimes, like people right across society (and not just within a D&I consultancy). We are forced to argue against our most natural points of view, and, as a result, better understand that arguments, like coins, always have at least two sides.


This week, we brought this contention to the debate: When companies focus heavily on anti-racism, does its focus come at the expense of other protected characteristics? While these debates are kept amongst the team and are labelled ‘internal’, there were some interesting points of view that might connect with those trying to navigate the D&I landscape and perhaps not knowing quite where to begin. For this post we went back to the team and posed a slightly different question to assist with this common challenge.


Here, a number of us answer the question: Is race & ethnicity the place to begin the D&I journey within organisations?


Mercy: ‘As sad as it may sound, I do believe it is important to use windows of time in which race and ethnicity conversations are at their highest. Due to the events of 2020, now is a time when people are paying attention to the anti-racism agenda, and this often means they are more willing to take action.


‘As a consequence, starting with race and ethnicity can provide a gateway to helping businesses solve even more challenges (and create even more opportunities) across the wider D&I agenda in the future (remembering, always, that successful D&I work needs to take a nuanced approach that focuses on intersectionalities, too).’


Amani: ‘No one intersection cuts through all the others - they all intersect in a Venn diagram of sorts; they’re all important. For that reason, organisations can’t really prioritise oppression. It is impossible to compare and rank the experiences of someone who is a paraplegic with someone who is Black, for instance, and it’s not useful to do so. It can mean we tend to forget about the people who are in the middle of the Venn Diagram, so to speak.


‘It’s right and necessary to talk about anti-racism, of course. And it’s also right and necessary to talk about gender, sexuality, disability, faith, and parental status, amongst other protected characteristics. If we move beyond the safe and simple approach of a tickbox of line items to get through, and begin to see personal characteristics as convergent, we might generate more creative and inclusive solutions to the EDI issues facing organisations. It’s up to us all to set new standards for EDI together.’


Tania: ‘From my academic perspective, the starting point to any organisation’s D&I journey needs to be exploration. Although race and ethnicity may be the best starting point for some organisations, this decision should always be made on a case by case basis; there is no one-size-fits-all in D&I.


‘As for using race and ethnicity (or any other single protected characteristic) as a bridge to reach other protected characteristics, it is important that we all approach diversity and inclusion authentically and dynamically.’


Selina: ‘Before the murder of George Floyd, the influence of race and ethnicity has not been talked about enough in the workplace. There was such a taboo around the subject that some people - even though race and ethnicity is often one of the more visible protected characteristics - hid this part of their identity, knowing that people around them would often make snap judgements and assumptions about them based on stereotypes. This, we know from data, can affect key decisions and outcomes for individuals. There is still a lot of work to be done here (read our Diversity & Confusion research report here for more about just how much people fear talking about race and ethnicity in the workplace).


‘That said, focusing on one characteristic doesn’t account for intersectionality. I see myself as being a woman of Indian heritage and a working mother, for example, and all of these characteristics together influence both my working style and how I am perceived by others.


‘When we talk about inclusion, I think there are deep-rooted factors that underlie the experiences of many protected characteristics - and if we work on changing those then everyone should benefit. So sometimes we can be drawn into alleviating the symptoms of exclusion rather than focusing on the root causes. This is why the diagnostic phase of any D&I strategy development is so crucial in informing action. In reality, we need to work on root causes as well as managing the symptoms, so there is always a balance to be reached.


‘We need to educate ourselves on the details and nuances of particular communities. but we also need to identify and work on the underlying factors that can get in the way of inclusion.’


For another perspective, read this Forbes article, which says that anti-racism lies at the heart of the DEI agenda, and initiatives that fail to underpin it, risk imminent failure.


And if you fancy a balanced conversation and a number of different perspectives, email us at info@theunmistakables.com or slide into our DMs on Twitter or Instagram: @_unmistakables. We’re always up for a chat.