Black employees face 'psychological burden' of fighting racism at work

Businesses, board rooms and office spaces across the country have scrambled to pull together responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, amid increased scrutiny on issues of diversity, equality and racial justice.

And as Black History Month arrives in the UK, corporate spaces are ramping up their ‘diversity’ output, with schemes, groups, pledges and initiatives that aim to make their workplaces more inclusive for non-white employees.

This is all great, in theory. But in reality, the burden of implementing these new measures is disproportionately falling on Black, Asian and ethnic minority staff members.

Whether they’re being actively put forward for these additional roles, or volunteering but receiving inadequate support from white colleagues, the impact of the pressure to lead diversity efforts at work can be extremely draining for non-white employees.

For many, it presents a deep and complicated internal conflict.

Some staff say they want to make sure these positive changes happen in their workplaces, but at the same time they are all too aware of the emotional and psychological challenge of doing the brunt of that work alone.

Alicia* is a co-chair of an NHS trust and was involved in reviewing the trust’s Black Lives Matter statement. She says she is torn because she is passionate about the work she does with her trust, but she has found the last few months incredibly taxing.

‘The pressure placed on myself and other Black colleagues is exhausting,’ Alicia tells Metro.co.uk.

‘It feels like the “coloniser culture” just constantly extracts the value from us, but gives nothing back. As a network chair, I find great satisfaction in being able to really create experiences and safe spaces for my Black and Asian colleagues, it feels like the safest space we have. However, I do this role without additional time, funding, resources or support.

‘I also feel conflicted, because the only time I am given a platform is when race or “diversity and inclusion” is concerned. But when we really want to have a conversation about lived experiences and trauma, they want to talk about unconscious bias.’

Alicia says she was deeply disappointed because her department’s Black Lives Matter statement omitted the word ‘Black’. She says that was a reflection of the erasure that many Black employees face on a daily basis. But she knows that her input can help to improve the experiences of her non-white colleagues.

‘I have spent the past two months working on a programme for Black History Month that isn’t just MLK and jerk chicken, but a programme that truly reflects what our Black colleagues experience and things that truly matter to them,’ she adds.

With the racial trauma, protests, brutality and violence that has dominated the news cycle over the last few months, it is already an exhausting time to simply exist as a Black person. Psychologist Dr Roberta Babb says it is no wonder that ethnic minority employees are struggling with the additional burden of championing racial injustice at work, too.

‘Organisations are scrambling, especially as October approaches, to address, or be seen to be addressing these issues,’ Dr Roberta tells Metro.co.uk.

‘However, it is important that attempts to address racism, inequality, diversity and inclusion issues in the workplace are actively demonstrated internally and externally and at all levels of the organisation.

‘When diversity issues are raised, BAME staff often feel the pressure, expectation and responsibility to be a cultural ambassador – primarily because of their skin colour.

‘It is recognised that it is good that BAME staff are being actively involved in diversity issues at work. This can present empowering, interesting and exciting opportunities to develop and promote anti-racist initiatives.

‘However, it can feel like a burden, because having to champion diversity issues in the workplace is a task additional to the regular workload. This can contribute to ethic minority staff feeling emotionally fatigued, and experiencing empathy fatigue, anxiety, anger, sadness, guilt, race-based stress and racial trauma.

‘It can also impact relationships with white colleagues who may not be involved in the initiatives as BAME staff can feel they have to work at least twice as hard as their white colleagues on behalf of the organisation.’

The internal conflict is not a simple one. Michael*, for example, who works in media, says he has had an overall positive and encouraging experience working to improve race and diversity issues within his company.

‘I’ve never seen such a strong collective response to an issue like this before, and also continue months after the fact,’ says Michael.

‘Considering I’m one of only three BAME people in the entire team – which is made up of 18 people in total – it has been impressive.

‘It looks to me as though everyone is committed and I find that extraordinary.’

However, even with this positive perspective, Michael admits that he has felt ‘a little burdened.’

‘When you are one of only a handful of BAME people helping lead this in a team, it comes with a bit of hidden pressure,’ he says.

‘Are you doing enough? Are you ensuring everyone understands the goal here? These questions, and other ones like it, are commonplace in my mind.

‘I help define the agenda for our regular Black Lives Matter meetings, and I am involved in a fair number of the ideas which are being collaborated on, but it can feel little taxing as the only Black person.

‘Having said all that, I am not taking anything away from the exceptional efforts made by my colleagues. They are outstanding people to work with and I feel grateful to be a part of it.’

The burden Micheal feels is real and appears to be common among non-white staff in all kinds of different companies. Dr Roberta says it’s important to be aware of these additional pressures, as they can have a lasting impact beyond your day job.

‘The additional stress and emotional toll being involved in, or feeling pressured to be involved in diversity efforts, can spill out into the personal domain,’ says Dr Roberta. ‘It can negatively impact the sense of self, agency and confidence as well as intimate, family and peer relationships.’

In the workplace too, this unspoken pressure can lead to feelings of resentment, dissatisfaction and questioning of self-worth.

‘It can also leave BAME staff feeling used, that their worth is tied to their skin colour – while their expertise or cognitive intelligence is not recognised, minimised or dismissed,’ adds Dr Roberta.

‘It can also cause employees to feel resentful towards white members of the organisation. This is because white staff members do not have to complete additional work in order to be treated equally at work, which contributes to the enactment of unhelpful power dynamics.

‘BAME members of the workforce complete challenging and painful work on behalf of the organisation, which the organisation can benefit from, but which the organisation does not actively engage in.’

Nadia* has been involved in her company’s anti-racism and inclusivity work for a couple of years now, but the focus on Black Lives Matter over the past few months has made more people aware of the work they are doing.

‘What we had been talking about for years was suddenly taken on board in days, and it seemed people from all areas of the company wanted to speak to us and engage with us,’ says Nadia.

‘As South Asian myself, I felt a responsibility to shoulder some of the burden of explaining how we can be more inclusive of Black people in our company – I wanted to protect and support my Black colleagues who were grieving and in pain, while making sure I didn’t overstep.

‘I think white people often don’t feel like they can take on this role because they’re nervous and don’t know what it’s like to live as a person of colour, but I want to see more people standing up and getting involved.

‘I stand up for LGBTQ+ rights as much as I can, despite being straight – it’s all about listening, learning and knowing what you can do to make a difference in your own circles.’

Nadia thinks it is wrong that the responsibility for enacting change still disproportionately falls on minority employees.

‘We’re looked to as though we have all the answers, or because we care enough to stand up and try to make a change,’ she explains. ‘We do the work we do because we’re passionate about it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not draining. It is, it’s hard, it’s frustrating and it’s painful.

‘I need more white allies to stand with me.’

Alicia agrees with this. She says she wants her white colleagues to do give her more than verbal support, and that now is the time for definitive action.

‘White people say they want to be allies, they want to support us, but very few are prepared to do the work, prepared to take the punches and challenge upwards,’ Alicia tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Are you here for a photo op? Or are you here because you understand when I walk out the door every day, I have a much higher chance of not returning home because of the colour of my skin?

‘Organisations need to really push the limits. Change the rules. Create new guidance. Introduce new policy. We need more than lip service, we need lift service!

‘Lift our voices, our causes and help pave the way for change.’

Earlier this week, Mental Health First Aid England released new guidance calling for all workplaces to become ‘actively anti-racist’, after their research found that millions of Black employees say that they can’t be themselves at work.

A positive step towards changing this would be to ensure that Black and ethnic minority staff are adequately supported and celebrated if they take on diversity and inclusion projects outside of their official job role.

Jenny* knows what it feels like when that support isn’t there. In her job – in media publishing – the small Black employee group volunteered to help organise Black History Month, but they were given a tiny budget and were made to feel completely alone.

‘We were allocated just £800 to arrange multiple speaker sessions. We had little to no support from HR and when we asked for more money we were just told there wasn’t any,’ Jenny tells Metro.co.uk.

‘But how can we feel comfortable approaching black people to speak for free when we ourselves don’t think they should be doing that?

‘There is a handful of white allies, but in terms of positions they don’t hold any power. Senior management and HR is vastly white, so it can be scary to try to approach them when you don’t know if anyone will be on your side.’

Jenny says that in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, she felt completely overwhelmed and spoke about this with another Black mixed-race colleague who felt the same.

‘No one ever reached out to us to see if we needed support,’ says Jenny. ‘I had to basically tell them we were talking the day off. There was no official follow up, nothing.

‘For a company that appears so “woke” from an outsider’s perspective with the editorial output, the inside is the complete the opposite. To me it feels very performative.’

Jenny says constantly working to promote diversity from the inside is incredibly stressful, that it’s like doing an additional job in itself.

‘And we’re not compensated for it, financially or in any other way,’ she says. ‘It’s almost like they think we enjoy it? When trust me, we don’t – but we feel like it’s our duty to do it.

‘If we had better support and understanding it wouldn’t be a burden. I think we’re happy to input ideas but the weight shouldn’t all be on our shoulders.

‘We still have our day jobs to worry about, on top of the emotional stress of seeing all of the press and media around Black Lives Matter.’

How can white people support BAME colleagues at work?

Dr Roberta Babb has curated a list of ways white people at work can be effective allies for their ethnic minority colleagues:

Being involved in BAME issues can be both empowering for both BAME and white staff staff, but:

  • Be aware of the current and changing socio economic and political context and the potential impact that it may have upon the BAME workforce.
  • Be aware of the potential for BAME staff to be exploited at that time in order to advance the organisation’s goals. The pull or expectation to be cultural ambassadors contributes to the racial outsourcing of diversity work which can further impact on BAME staff.

Ensure that race-based and diversity discussions become an integral and meaningful part of organisational life, and anti-racist language is used:

  • They are not one-off training days or workshops, and they do not only occur during October.
  • BAME and minority staff are ‘BAME’ 365 days a year, 7 days a week and 24 hours a day. Racism, discrimination and inequality is part of their everyday life and as such attempts to address these issues should become a meaningful part of the organisation’s culture and the endeavour to become a racially just workplace.
  • Be aware of the need for organisation to sometimes have BAME only spaces to support staff.

Recognise that listening is important.

It is important that non-BAME colleagues actively listen to understand, and not to respond:

Engage in self-reflection and recognise your own privileges and bias.

  • Being an ally means that you support to those who are discriminated against, and can recognise that you may not be discriminated against in the same way, or that it may not have the same impact upon you.
  • Be aware of, and actively and meaningfully challenge the structures that maintain the racially unequal status quo in the organisation.
  • Addressing issues of racism, diversity and inclusion is everyone’s business.

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