The sound of silence on race talk. An ode to this year's unsung heroes

It’s been quite the year for black and brown British people. As if a pandemic wasn’t enough to deal with, with an unknown virus disproportionately affecting our families and communities, there’s been the impact that George Floyd has had on the world. Forcing global attention onto a reality that shows us racism is very much still alive and kicking.

That’s a real slap in the face to the many black people who never had the privilege of forgetting about racism and its impact on their lives. People like my father who literally has nothing more to say on this topic, with zero energy left for expecting anything to change. But also people my age who struggle to handle that the country just woke up to a reality they face on an everyday basis. It’s a confusing cocktail of bitterness, anger and overwhelm at how one’s experience in life can be so unseen and invisible to so many.

‘What do you mean has racism come back? It never went away. I can’t walk into any meeting without seeing the sideward glances when they realise that I look nothing like what they had in their mind when they thought they were meeting the leader. I have to take care of how I express myself, the words I choose so as to not inadvertently trigger any angry, black woman stereotypes’

It’s been a harsh wake-up call for those people of colour who’ve tried to minimise or numb the reality of race inequality to get on with their lives and careers. Expertise in code-switching, perhaps lighter skin or maybe class privilege easing their shape-shifting way to an easier life. Which has now been abruptly changed forever as their eyes are wide open to a reality that they cannot unsee.

“I look back at that job interview, and the set up - a panel interview with a load of white men and me a brown woman. It was a long, intense experience and at the time I congratulated myself for winning them over, for convincing them to like me, despite being different to them. When I look back I feel sick that I saw that as cause for congratulation”.

There’s the trauma of seeing or reading about racism, which is deeply upsetting. And it feels important to say that it’s often not racism’s grand gestures of violence and injustice that cut most deep. They are horrific, wrong, unacceptable. We all feel that. No, it’s the small moments of being cut down to size that hurt the most. It’s feeling the swell of pride in seeing the Diversity performance and then the brutal onslaught of 30000 comments that put you back in your place. It’s seeing Rashford on the cover of Vogue and knowing that the black editor was racially profiled by his own security team. It’s the promise of progress swiftly followed by the reminder that we’re early on the journey. It’s an emotional roller coaster that I suspect only people of colour experience.

But there’s another kind of trauma and it is the sound of silence. And that silence is loud! It’s multi-faceted. Who knew that silence could have so many voices?

There’s the obvious silence. This is just something we don’t talk about. Many workplaces were like this up until 6 months. Some still are here. Let’s not kid ourselves that the whole of the UK, or all business sectors, are on the same journey to anti-racism. They are not.

Then there’s the stealth-like silence. It masquerades as real conversation but actually nothing much is being said. Background noise that shows us a facade of progress. The conversation about language, to BAME or not to BAME, lives here. It’s not that language isn’t important, but the debate is a distraction from the real work to do. It makes it sound like we are doing more than we are.

There’s the silence of realisation. The cloak of silence that envelopes you when it slowly dawns on you that there is vast variety of ‘awakeness’ to racism amongst people you know. Perhaps friends, possibly people you work with, or maybe even your boss. You’d got them wrong and now you’ve seen a different side. You don’t quite know what to do with this new information or who to talk to about it. It remains a quiet, inward reflection where you start to pay more attention to things they say and do, to be sure. It always comes with negotiation – can you make compromises for the greater good of the relationship, do you try and change it or is this a deal breaker?

There’s the selective silence. Deciding what to stand up for and what to let go of. If you picked on every battle you'd be exhausted. Getting the balance right in your quest for progress, your obligation to the cause, your own mental health and sense of optimism is a tricky one to navigate. It's why we see high levels of burnout amongst people working in the D&I space.

“People do not know how much kindness it takes to support their awakening. We think of kindness as something gentle, but actually it’s full of strength. To be able to hold all of this and still show patience, compassion and optimism is in part, why this work is so hard”

And perhaps the toughest of all is the silence of complicity. Your own sense of disappointment. Where things remained unsaid because you didn’t have your eyes open enough to what was going on. So many things sit in that grey area of ‘was that racism?’ It’s not an easy place to navigate. Perhaps you had the clarity, but something else felt more pressing – you wanted to preserve a relationship, you didn’t want to make it into something, you didn’t have the emotional capacity to do anything about it or you didn’t think doing anything would make a difference. It’s painful because with the benefit of hindsight you’d do things differently. Or perhaps it’s the recognition that you wouldn’t that’s ultimately so hard to accept.

These experiences of silence are not unique to people of colour. I’m sure many can recognise them in some form in their lives. I personally couldn’t be prouder of all my Race Talk Course clients this year for not putting up with silence anymore. White leaders and their teams that have decided that silence isn’t good enough and have worked on themselves, their leadership and their workplace cultures to bring about the workplace conditions for true belonging and the kind of equity we need to see more of. They’re using their power and influence to break silence and make real change in the world. It is genuinely moving and inspiring to see it unfold before your eyes.

But it’s only black and brown people that have to manage their way through a world where they are seeing all of these silences all of the time. It’s only they that have to endure the silence and endure the racism side by side.

To me they are the unsung heroes of this year. That in this loud silent world they still do amazing work. They make meaningful, behind the scenes contributions to everyone’s collective progress. Inspiring others. Showing that new ways are possible. Making actionable change. Representing and changing stereotypes. Being a lone voice on issues that need to be heard. Choosing to no longer accept the ways things are. Having patience to teach others how to grow. Bringing creativity, optimism and energy. Being patient and choosing the right moments to have impact. Having compassion for others. Looking out for each other, especially on mental health. Working together to effect change. Learning together.

To you I say I see you. I appreciate you. I value you. And I need you.

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