Virtual coffee chat brings fresh perspectives to tackle prejudices

Reflections of two CCG colleagues as they met over a ‘virtual’ coffee to find out more about each other and how being open, being curious and finding a safe space to talk can help us develop ideas to create a fairer society

Emma Heeson and Shak RafiqEmma’s Story: to be (prejudiced) or not to be (prejudiced)….…that is the question?

We are all prejudiced. I can say this with conviction because Shakeel Rafiq (Shak to you and I) told me so and he’s British, he’s BAME and he’s a Muslim among other proud identities. This helps me feel slightly more comfortable somehow; not because I believe I am prejudiced, but as humans we are designed to make judgement calls, identify preferences and notice difference. This means that sometimes we make less brilliant choices or fail to #bekind in our responses which can hurt or marginalise others.

I like to prepare; to be prepared. So, before I met Shak for our virtual coffee I googled ‘ethnicity’, ‘race’, ‘culture’ and ‘social class’ (he didn’t know this at the time). This was to mitigate any ignorance that I might inadvertently surface and in an attempt to demonstrate complete (and sincere) political correctness. Of course this was ridiculous; we were not competing on Mastermind with ‘specialist subject: BAME’. We had simply committed to a good old fashioned chat. Who would have thought it, eh?

In Shak’s original article he said ‘Don’t ever ask me where I’m from’, but ‘be curious’. #confused, I pressed him for clarity and his response was, ‘Ask me where I am from, but don’t then ask me where I am really from. The answer will still be the same: Leeds!’ Of course this makes absolute sense to those of us who pay attention to Shak’s accent. He is more Yorkshire than I will ever be. As Shak says, the biggest issue we have is that people are often unwilling to have an open and honest debate and are more concerned about offending each other. Thus, conversations don’t always even begin.

I am glad to say that our conversation did get started and I am far richer for the experience.

So, what did I learn?

I learned that it is aggravating to be considered the nominal BAME representative or expected to become an organisational mouthpiece. Of course this is obvious, but I have never actually consciously processed this thought. Why would I? After all, I am never asked to represent ‘white women’, or ‘older mothers’, or ‘southerners’! It sounds ludicrous when I say it like that doesn’t it?  Sometimes due to competing demands, poor access to suitable representatives, or even perhaps (unconscious) nonchalance, tokenism is the best we achieve. Maybe we should just acknowledge that and be transparent; and yes, be apologetic when we fall short.

I learned that organisational key messages sometimes feel like rhetoric and tokenism, for example job adverts that claim ‘we are an equal opportunities employer’. Well, it’s easy to say it, but the challenge is to authenticate this value statement. Look around at the majority of organisational ‘top tables’ (‘Leadership Boards’ as they are commonly known) which largely comprise white, middle-class representatives (lucky for me, eh?). There might be a perception that white folk get a ‘tap on the shoulder’ when it is time for promotion; Shak refers to this as ‘white privilege’. I clearly never sat in the right seat for this, irrespective of my snowy white skin, so I can refute this as ‘a thing’. But for some people, Shak included, this does feel like ‘a thing’. If it feels troubling for some BAME employees it probably needs to be thoughtfully addressed-this ‘thing’ may not be a misconception, it might well be real.

In the past I have exclaimed that I never discriminate during recruitment processes. Then Shak told me something that made me stop and think. He said that BAME applicants are frequently denied employment /promotion on the basis of ‘poor interpersonal skills’. This, he tells me, is not necessarily related to inability, but to maintain eye contact in some cultures, even with your parents, is disrespectful and in some communities as a BAME man it is simply foolhardy. In Shak’s words ‘I might just get a kicking if I look at someone for too long’.  This statement took my breath away. I searched my memory to consider if I had possibly misjudged or denied BAME candidates employment for this reason in the past. I don’t feel like I have and have often taken great pride in establishing teams that are broadly representative of our community. It makes for really varied shared lunches, with a chance to check out worldwide delicacies! Joking aside, I have learned what ‘never judge a book by its cover’ really means and this is a lesson I will be unlikely to forget.

I heard that the bias in some daily rags causes great offence and misery for the BAME community. The Sun and the Daily Mail seem to figure strongly in Shak’s disgust of ‘fake news’. When he explained why, I began to understand: the use of language and inference is critical in landing a news story (of course we know that). But have I ever deconstructed tabloid language such as, ‘an articulate black male….’? I can’t imagine a white person would be described in this way. Let’s challenge ourselves to notice these things in future and call it out.

Feeling brave (and safe), I shared my personal story of shame with Shak. I arrived in Leeds in the nineties, having grown up in a southern chocolate box village. There were only white people in my life back in the day.  Fact. Not racism. Simple fact. I eagerly commenced my first social work placement in a socially deprived area of Leeds; rife with child protection issues but blessed with some nice down to earth folk. Very quickly I found myself in hot water and dropped the ‘H Bomb’. I described someone in conversation as ‘half-caste’. You are probably recoiling in horror right now; after all, ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law. But I would suggest that naivety and lack of experience might be. I reflected to Shak that I will never forget this; not for being (rightly) called out by the person who corrected me, but for the manner in which I was humiliated and berated in front of others. The ‘censor’ was white by the way. It is true to say I have never used this term again until now but what struck me was Shak’s forgiveness when I described my misdemeanour and his reply that ‘it is not what people say that is the problem, it is the intent with which it is said that matters’. It was refreshing to hear that keeping up with politically correct language is not simply a challenge for white people; it impacts all of us and we can all get it wrong! Perhaps it’s about recognising (and dare I say) accepting our limitations in knowledge.

Having a good old chat surfaced things we have in common; imposter syndrome in large senior leadership forums. Imposter syndrome is not racist; it attaches itself to those of us who care about how we are perceived and have a desire to be credible and authentic. It highlights under-confidence and awareness of hierarchy; dare I say power imbalance. But the discomfort that many of us might experience in this situation is potentially compounded for people from a BAME background for fear that ethnicity decreases worth in comparison to white colleagues. To feel unable to articulate your ideas; to be truly heard and indeed achieve success all because of your skin colour; now, that’s hard to hear.

Shak told me that he never really saw himself as BAME until recently. He reflected, ‘I saw myself as British; that’s it’. How interesting a fact is that? He reflected that he couldn’t recall the last time anyone had referred to him as a ‘’Paki’’ (thank god I thought and by the way my toes are curling typing that word). But each time a terrorist incident occurs his senses are heightened. He has to wonder what might happen-because so often such crimes misappropriate religion and sadly for Shak it is frequently in the name of his Muslim faith. The potential to be miss-associated with people committing murderous crime in the name of religion makes Shak nervous; pretty understandable really. Whilst I fully empathise and anticipate this is terrifying I must hold up my white hands and say I may struggle to remain comfortable in certain situations, for example where a Muslim man is carrying a large rucksack. Equally, neither would I walk confidently down a dark ginnel towards a youth in a hoodie, irrespective of his race or colour. Perceptions and maybe even unconscious bias cause fear; wherever they originate. Do I feel good about this? No I do not.  Do I feel sorry that it causes innocent people pain and anxiety? Yes, of course I do.

You may wonder why I contacted Shak to arrange a coffee. Did I feel sorry for him? Or, did I want to vehemently prove that I’m not a white, middle-class racist? Neither of these reasons is true. I reached out because he is someone I really like and respect and who generously shared his experience of belonging to a BAME community in Britain. I have learned that we all have a part to play; not just to be non-racist (un-influenced by a person’s race), but to be proactively anti-racist (a person who opposes racism and promotes racial tolerance). I believe these subtle differences are critical to achieving change.

I would ask that you accept there is a problem because Shakeel Rafiq tells us so (as have many other BAME staff); stop demanding more data and simply get on and create some magic. Let’s educate ourselves and ask the questions we’ve always wanted to ask; the most difficult part is getting started. With that in mind, my friend Shak and I are planning to collaborate. I’m going to do the grafting of course because he is fatigued from continuously raising the issues, determining objectives and then implementing the actions. So, from this day forward I plan to be ‘Shak’s white ally’, alongside other colleagues who he says have been in his corner and on the side of creating a better society for all. Not an ordinary job title as agenda for change goes; but one of great privilege. I hope you agree.

*Shak and I invite you to watch this space for an invitation to enrich your own BAME experience, whilst I of course fulfil my promise to him, to help support and develop our BAME work family.

Making the uncomfortable, comfortable – from Shak’s side of the virtual coffee table

So I had a chat with Emma who reached out to me after reading this article which was repeated in our staff bulletin. She wanted to know more about me and my experiences, to help in her lifelong journey on being an anti-racist and an ally.

Where do I begin my review of the conversation? Probably at the end when Emma said I want to help you and others make the change, what can I do?

Thanks a lot I thought, now I’ve got to think of something! I gave her a couple of ideas and said what would help is if she could progress them. Rather than the burden being on BAME people telling people all their problems, offering all the solutions and then being asked to deliver them too. She’s awesome and said yes, would you do the same if you wanted to really prove you’re anti-racist?

Now back to the rest of the conversation. I have to say I was struck by Emma’s genuine questions that showed she wanted to scratch way beneath the surface. But at the same time I learnt so much about her. She first became exposed to people from different backgrounds when she came to study in Leeds after growing up in a small village with only one black person in her school.

When I heard her talk about her experiences. I reflected not everyone has benefited from having the opportunity to grow up within diverse communities. There’s no fault or blame to be attached there but a reminder that we all need to be curious. That means asking uncomfortable questions – when the intents right I’ll forgive anything said. Genuine human efforts to engage are more important than false efforts to just adjust your language so you’re politically correct.

What I did take away was that actually it was really uncomfortable for me too. Talking of my experiences, giving examples of things I’ve directly been subjected to or witnessed or when I’ve had to adapt my behaviour for what I now see as nonsensical reasons.

And the number of times, particularly after any troubling domestic or worldwide events, I almost have to carry out a quick risk assessment of any people around me to see if my safety is compromised. I compared this to The Terminator, if only I had the same scanning technology and ability to take bullets I wouldn’t have to worry about being BAME in my own country.

But isn’t that a problem in itself. I have to make judgement calls and sweeping generalisations about white people.

So white privilege means that not only do I have to worry about my personal safety and know that often I’ll have to work twice as hard to progress in my career. I also have to develop my own prejudices that certainly weren’t taught at birth. Learned behaviour within the constructs of a systemically racist system and society. The danger is if we’re not careful we’ll miss the opportunities presented by white allies, like Emma, because we’ve lost faith and trust. Can you blame us?

I found the whole experience immensely liberating, far more useful than any equality training I’ve ever been on. I may not have been entirely comfortable but I was the authentic me. Not often I get to say that. That’s what made the uncomfortable, comfortable.