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  • Writer's pictureJulia Makhubela

Undoing racism in the workplace

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

Inclusion is like health and fitness:   You first work at having it, and then you work at keeping it. It requires proactive and deliberate effort.

When I started my digital marketing career 15 years ago, I never imagined that I would end up having conversations with leaders about racial biases, discrimination, and the struggles faced by people of colour. However, as time passed, it became increasingly apparent that changing my career path was a necessity. I frequently changed jobs during the first 10 years of my career because I experienced racial bias from colleagues who meant well but didn't know how to have inclusive interpersonal engagements. I struggled to thrive and advance in workplaces that lacked an understanding of how to establish racially inclusive structures.

Growing up in the 90s, I was exposed to a media narrative of the rainbow nation. We used to watch SABC 1 at home, their slogan then was “Simunye, We Are One”, they had racially diverse continuity presenters on the channel who embodied that slogan by portraying a genuine desire to be together. On a personal level, I vividly recall the excitement my mother and aunts expressed on the day they gained the right to vote and when Nelson Mandela became president. The 90s instilled in me a sense of hope for equity and inclusion.

A collage of 1990s nostalgia images from South Africa: president Nelson Mandela being sworn in, long lines of voters, Nelson Mandela congratulating  Francois Pienaar, a photo of the new South African constitution, SABC 1 logo and continuity presenters.

Therefore, when I entered a workforce that was becoming more racially diverse, I naively assumed that racial integration, equity, and inclusion would prevail. However, after six years in my career, it became evident that undoing racism is a complex process that requires ongoing effort, because racism did not end in 1994.

As the word "racism" carries different meanings for different people, I'll provide a working definition/framework.

Racism is not an isolated event, nor is it perpetuated solely by "bad" individuals. It is a lens through which we perceive people, and it reflects the societal structures that disadvantage some based on their race while advantaging others.

Racism encompasses both personal and structural elements:

  • Personal: This includes the prejudgments, assumptions, and stereotypes we hold about different races. These biases are often unconscious, leading us to make quick judgments about a person's intelligence, competence, and trustworthiness. Some races are unfairly viewed as more civilized, capable, intelligent, trustworthy, hardworking, fit to lead, ethical, and so on, while others are unjustly seen as dangerous, incompetent, stupid, lazy, unethical, and so on. We develop these ideas from an early age, influenced by our family, community, toys, media, religion, and other factors. Our racial beliefs significantly shape our interactions with people from different races.

  • Structural: This refers to how things are set up and operate within society or institutions, creating advantages for some individuals and disadvantages for others. For example, despite South Africa having 12 official languages, English dominates the workplace, influencing our thoughts and actions. Research shows that we unconsciously carry an accent bias, assuming that a person's English proficiency indicates their intelligence and competence. This bias can result in unequal access to opportunities in recruitment and work allocation.

Another example of structural racism is the underrepresentation of certain racial groups at the top of organisations. Historically, organisations have been hierarchical spaces intentionally reflecting the racial hierarchy, with white individuals occupying the highest positions and individuals of colour at the bottom. Changing this deeply ingrained hierarchy is challenging. According to PWC's 2022 executive directors report, the combined representation of Black African, Coloured, and Indian/Asian CEOs in JSE-listed companies remains low at 22%.

Screenshot from the PWC's Executive Director report showing that stats of racial representation of JSE listed organisations: 77% White, 14% African, 7% Indian, 1% Coloured
PWC Executive Directors Report 2022

Ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion are present in leadership positions is essential for establishing fair and inclusive structures and cultures within organizations. Diverse decision-making teams should bring both their skills and lived experiences, as this contributes to the development of more inclusive workplace structures. For example, a leader who has relied on South African taxis understands that scheduling interviews at 8:00 am may require a graduate who uses taxis to take one as early as 5:00 am, potentially compromising their safety. Similarly, expecting individuals who rely on taxis to work late also puts their safety at risk. By incorporating this knowledge into discussions about creating policies and processes, inclusive and equitable solutions can be achieved.

To enable leaders to leverage their skills and lived experiences, it is crucial for leadership teams to have individuals who are self-aware of their biases and blind spots. Furthermore, they need to possess the necessary skills for participating in inclusive meetings and making decisions that are inclusive and fair. Inclusion solutions also arise from sources beyond the leadership teams, necessitating a leadership style that is both psychologically safe and genuinely curious to encourage people to offer their ideas. These inclusive leadership skills are not innate, but they can be learned and developed.

Undoing racism in the workplace demands intentional and proactive efforts, and it begins with leadership. It involves prioritizing representation and fostering leadership team cultures that value psychological safety and inclusion. This approach helps address blind spots, facilitates effective decision-making, and encourages creative strategies to promote inclusivity.


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