Reflections from anti-racism learning sessions
We were delighted to work with the Respond and Adapt Programme (RAP) on an anti-racism programme. The design of the anti-racism sessions we delivered was shaped by a consultation we ran with 35 UK organisations in June 2021. From these insights, we were able to clarify the key aims of the programme:
To deepen participants’ understanding of racism and anti-racism,
To increase understanding of what anti-racist practice requires, and
To create conditions for building a community of support and accountability within which to continue developing anti-racist practice.
‘[I feel] more confident about going forward - that the getting it wrong may / probably will happen, but then I need to learn from that and start to get it right. The urgency to address it is clear...An understanding that this is a long-term commitment to being proactive on all of this’
Participant in the training.
Three themes emerged from the learning sessions
White participants often want to learn the “correct” terminology. While some terms are offensive and clearly wrong, there is no list guaranteed always to be right. Language changes and is contested. Anti-racism requires us to stop assuming that people of one ‘racial’ group are all the same, or think the same.
We should also interrogate our preoccupation with language. Focusing on words can be a defensive move to avoid looking at the reality of racism, with all the emotions that follow. Discussing words is easy, but deep learning about white supremacy can mean stepping outside our comfort zone.
2. What about ‘white’ ethnic minorities?
In brap’s analysis, racism is intimately connected to skin colour privilege, to the ways that darker populations are disadvantaged and excluded while lighter-skinned people are privileged.
Some participants asked how the lived experience of some white populations facing prejudice and discrimination in the UK squares with the above definition. The framing we offer – drawing on charity so white - is that while some white presenting populations are racialised and face racism they also enjoy, in certain contexts, the benefits of being white.
What is racism?
Racism is based on the false belief that we can categorise human beings based on physical features, predominantly skin colour, in a way that says something meaningful about their characteristics, or value.
Racism prioritises white populations, while denigrating and dehumanising those with darker bodies. Racism is systemic – it’s not (just) about ‘bad people’ and their individual acts – it is about prejudice backed by institutional power.
Racism = Prejudice + Institutional Power
3. BME people* are not the same as people with lived experience of the asylum system
* We use the term ‘BME’ to refer to people who identify as Black or as part of a marginalised ethnicity, community or group. We recognise that this is a contested term and not everyone will identify with it. We also recognise that because it is a broad term, it may not accurately express the views of those who experience discrimination on the basis of skin colour. However, for the purposes of analysis, we have used the term so that we can draw comparisons between people from White British and BME backgrounds.
Many participants said their organisations were trying to increase representation of people with lived experience of the refugee and asylum system, within their staff, leadership and/or governance groups. But some then spoke about efforts to ‘racially’ diversify their organisations, reducing their overwhelming whiteness, as if this is the same thing.
Thinking like this is very ‘othering’ of BME recruits to your organisation (as if they ‘couldn’t’ be British, or native English speakers, for example). And it implies that the main value of Black people to an organisation is their lived experience, not their skills. Nobody should be expected to share their experience of racism as a ticket to getting a job or to being valued in an organisation.
BME candidates and people with lived experience are not interchangeable terms - the two groups of people are distinct, though overlapping:
What comes next?
Participants who took part in the anti-racism programme shared what they are taking away from the sessions:
“The need to challenge my own behaviour and reflect on the ways my organisation [is] reinforcing racist structures”
“White fragility and the fact that[it] is stopping important, open, honest and difficult conversations from taking place.”
But it's hard to keep our focus on anti-racism. For white people, there’s always the choice to take ‘race’ off the table. And within organisations, competing priorities are real, and leaders’ headspace is finite.
Three suggestions to help you on your journey
1. Be relentless in keeping anti-racism on the agenda.
Maintaining steady attention is difficult but necessary, because anti-racism won’t guarantee quick wins – dismantling centuries of oppression takes time. You need to be in it for the long haul. In our consultation, organisations mentioned the issues of racism which are more hidden or talked about less in the migration and refugee sector, including lack of senior leaders from BME backgrounds and unequal distribution of funding. How can we open up this conversation and work together to do better?
2. Find like-minded people and create a community.
We need friends and community to support us and keep us accountable. As one participant said: “It would be helpful to have some sort of a network to connect afterwards to check in on how it is going or share.” Check out Charity So White.
3. Think about how to ‘support’ BME UK staff who experience discrimination from people who use your services.
Sometimes service users don’t see or treat Black staff members as professionals. If this is not noticed or addressed by white colleagues, discrimination is compounded and BME staff can become marginalised. White team members need to be able and willing to challenge racist behaviours by service users, for anti-racism to be part of your lived organisational culture.
Robin DiAngelo deconstructs white privilege - 2018 (20-minute video)
The School That Tried to End Racism - Channel 4, 2020 (2-part documentary)
The Myth of ‘Race’ - BBC article, 2021
How white fragility reinforces racism - Guardian article (Robin DiAngelo), 2020
‘The Paradox of Diversity in Social Change Organizations' - Berthoud Consulting
How we define racism may stop us seeing it - Metro newspaper article, 2020
'How do we change organisational culture so BME people can thrive?' – Sharon Hurley Hall
The brap anti-racism sessions were funded through the Respond and Adapt Programme, coordinated by Migration Exchange, Refugee Action and NACCOM.” This blog originally appeared on the Refugee Action Good Practice site here.