How to create a brave space for Black heritage people

Nov 2, 2022 | Diversity, How-to, You might have missed

Creating a brave space can be uncomfortable, but is a necessity to developing an inclusive culture, says Iwi Ugiagbe-Green from Manchester Metropolitan University and speaker at ISE’s EDI Conference.

In the last two years, the UK’s most forward-thinking employers of young people have gone to great lengths to recruit more racially diverse candidates. Deep work on race has led organisations to recognise that the lived experience of racially diverse people is uniquely complex.

However, the recruitment of young, Black talent remains particularly challenging, and retention rates are disappointing. This has led many top employers to conclude that in order to be truly inclusive they must go even deeper, and do even more.

Being Black in white spaces

Blackness is not a monolith.  A Black British man experiences the world of employment differently to that of a Black African man who was not born in Britain.  One of the things that impacts on the experiences of different people racially categorised as Black, is their perceived proximity to whiteness. 

Ruth Frankenberg, explains that whiteness is embodied in three different ways:

  1. A structural advantage of race privilege, which we see most clearly in terms of inequitable outcomes.
  2. A standpoint or the place from which people look at themselves and others in society – meaning proximity in relation to self
  3. In the form of practices, procedures and policies that are unnamed and unmarked, and unnoticed by white people as having any relation to whiteness.

Whiteness is often invisible to white people, but it is everywhere! White people don’t think about, and this is not just about the fact that white people are in the majority. Whiteness is always centred, in a way that white people don’t realise it is. Whiteness is at the core of corporate culture. It’s not conscious, it’s just the norm. It’s the rules of the game, it’s what upholds everything that we do, how we see professionalism, it’s the way things have always been done, it’s how things play out.

We need to acknowledge that, and then we have to surface it. There needs to be serious conversations about exactly how ‘whiteness’ is embodied within all our organisations.

Well-meaning people; colleagues, employers etc have shared with me their pride that they have created processes that are ‘colourblind’ or ‘de-racialised.’ They do this because whiteness is invisible to them.  To create ‘colourblind’ processes is to perpetuate systems of whiteness and maintain the status quo.  This approach will not address issues of racial diversity in the workforce, whether that is associated with recruitment, selection or retention.

This is a huge issue in my opinion. If you don’t see my racialised identity, you don’t see me. 

Brave space

The majority of Black heritage people are not perceived to embody or be in close proximity to whiteness and don’t we Black people know it. We know it through the micro-aggressions, discrimination and inequitable outcomes are experienced on a daily basis. 

There is much talk by employers of providing conditions of psychological safety at work. The notion of safety is hugely important because everyone should feel safe to exercise agency in bringing of what they choose to, of themselves to work.  However, safety does should not be conflated with comfort for those engaging in conversations or actions about race equity issues. 

It is important that people get use to having uncomfortable conversations.  People need to be brave.  There needs to be acceptance that they will not be comfortable in these spaces.  They will experience guilt, resentment, defensiveness and even sometimes even conflict.  People should not convince themselves that they are doing inclusion work if they do not experience these things.

Brave space (as opposed to spaces of psychological safety) must allow for vulnerability, for authentic expressions of pain without the imposition of condemnation because people seeking to gain learned experience, feel discomfort or perhaps resentment. 

This means that the whataboutisms and the trying to explain away racism by turning to things that make people feel more comfortable like classism or sexism have to be let go.  People need to enter into these conversations with compassion and care for those who are sharing their trauma and lived experience. 

Conflict of opinion should be framed as a normal outcome of a diverse group, and this will also be applicable to how the space may be curated.  Arao and Clemens ibid, suggest that it is important for participants to “own your intentions and your impact” (p.16). 

A time for action not words

In brave spaces, there must be a shared understanding of intent, an openness and willing to learn, to be compassionate and be accepting of mistakes but adopt a growth mindset to acknowledge and learn from those mistakes. 

A culture of openness and trust is one that takes time to foster and will not suddenly be created on the declaration that brave spaces are going to be created in your organisation. 

Brave space should be a collectively curated space to enable dialogue, in which Black people are empowered to speak and share authentically about their lived experiences.  However, they should also be safe and protected as well as have access to effective health and wellbeing support.  Reliving trauma is psychologically damaging. 

Three takeaways to create a brave space:

  • Collective agreement of conditions of psychological safety (which will mean different things for different people), for those sharing their lived experience, with health and well-being support wrap around
  • Centre race in all discussions, whilst recognising intersections (e.g. disability, gender) as unique sites of inequity – do not let race become the elephant in the room. Celebrate racial diversity, do not constantly frame it as an issue/problem.
  • Do not be a ‘self-appointed ally’. Be welcomed and brought into this space by your Black colleagues to position you as a co-conspirator, because of your actions not your words.

To provide space to enable that and then do nothing with it, is unconscionable.  So, in the spirit of Black history month, a time for action not words. 

Hear more from Iwi at ISE’s EDI Conference taking place on Tuesday 15 November 2022.

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