Srabani Sen: Conversations about diversity might cause discomfort, but we must have them

Since setting up Full Colour, I have had several conversations where people have expressed disquiet about the drive towards diversity and inclusion. The reasons? They feel the way people talk about and seek change are prejudiced against or disadvantage white people. Each of these people espouse a belief in equality. Each of these people were white.

Colleagues working on diversity and inclusion, or who are themselves from a racially different background, may well be rolling their eyes reading this, shouting at the screen. ‘For the love of Mike!’ you might be thinking. ‘Don’t these people understand the systemic disadvantages people of colour face every time they walk out of the front door? Don’t they see the layer upon layer of privilege they experience simply by being white?’

The answer to these and to similar questions is no. And why would they? I’ve never lived as a man. How could I ever really understand what that is like? Don’t get me wrong. Most people understand at an intellectual level, but not at a deeper, visceral level. They don’t understand it in their bones.

Much effort goes into trying to ‘make’ white people understand how people from black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds experience the world and that is therefore why we need to work harder to achieve genuinely diverse and inclusive organisations and societies. Research reports, media articles, blogs like this or conversations over dinner abound.

In the many conversations I have had, there is one thing that is always the same. The person on the other side of the discussion never budges. They are entrenched in their views. At an organisational level, these entrenched views can generate turmoil that can damage an organisation within, as well as externally – for example their reputation. Just look at the BBC and the row around Naga Munchetty’s comments about Donald Trump, for example.

It is right that we generate greater understanding among white people of the challenges faced by people of colour. However, it is also important for us to understand what lies at the heart of the desire of these people not to feel disadvantaged by this work, not to feel so threatened.

And here comes my confession. In all those conversations I mentioned, I am equally entrenched in my views. It is frustrating when people wilfully – or so it seems – won’t understand what is patently true. (For heaven’s sake, how many research reports do we need!) But maybe, just maybe I need to listen more…

This is not about saying – ‘you poor white people, how horrible this must be for you’. It is about those of us trying to generate change understanding that we need to first understand and then address the concerns, fears and perspectives of those who feel excluded and disadvantaged by the change we are seeking to achieve.

If we don’t, we are doomed to fail. The people who feel disadvantaged will passively or openly resist change, lines will be drawn, tents pitched, and nothing will change. We will never make the glorious possibilities that come from diversity and inclusion a reality. They will never even see what these possibilities are.

And let’s face it, these are sometimes the very people with their hands on the levers of power. Unless we understand why the white people I’ve spoken to, and those like them, are so uncomfortable with the drive towards diversity and inclusion, we will never achieve the change the rest of us want.

However frustrating and uncomfortable these conversations make us, we must have them. Isn’t the prize we seek worth discomfort? And maybe, if we can truly engage, there won’t be a ‘them’ and ‘us’ anymore.

Srabani Sen is CEO and founder of Full Colour

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