Covid19 caught us all off guard and so none of us were prepared for the level of devastation it would cause. There have been surprises and adjustments along the way for us all. The biggest surprise for me though has been my reaction to the under belly of Covid19 – the ‘race’ issue. You see, I’m not surprised that there is a race issue, as a diversity and inclusion practitioner of many years I understand that certain demographics within our communities have a less than positive experience of life due to deprivation, racism, sexism and many other disparities. No, the surprise for me has been the impact on my emotional wellbeing.
When the first reported cases of the virus hit the UK, unfortunately I wasn’t surprised to hear that some BAME health care workers experienced racist comments, especially those of Chinese heritage. I wasn’t surprised to hear the latest news that BAME people are 4 times more likely to die from the virus – well I was a little surprised at the number (I thought it might be lower) and by the fact that this isn’t necessarily because of social factors like lower incomes and deprivation. I wasn’t even surprised to read of the racism that people of African heritage began to suffer in China as a result of the rhetoric surrounding black deaths from the virus.
It is very sad that I wasn’t surprised by such negative behaviours but that’s the truth, because as a black woman and D&I practitioner I am unfortunately all too familiar with some of this behaviour. So where have I been surprised? I mentioned my emotional wellbeing. I have been surprised at how many tears I have shed because of everything I have mentioned and because of my lack of surprise because no one should become so numb to this level of injustice that they are not surprised by these awful and scary truths.
Some of you may be aware of the story in the news in the US about an unarmed 25-year-old black man Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed by two white men while out jogging in his neighbourhood. The shooting happened in February and even though the assailants were identified at the time they were not arrested until recently. They were not arrested until the disturbing video of the shooting was broadcast all over social media. This placed the law enforcement agencies under pressure to do the right thing and the men were arrested.
Whilst this incident is not Covid19 related, I mention it because it was the thing awakened me from my numbness. Over the past week I have shed too many tears to count over this incident and the beatings and unjustified evictions of Africans in China because they were unjustly deemed to be responsible for the virus. I’ve shed tears over the NHS health care workers who have suffered racist abuse at the hands of those whose lives they work tirelessly to save or Belly Mujinga, who was spat at by a person who said they had the virus and then contracted it and died and the racist comments of the keyboard warriors on Twitter because they refuse to believe that this is the true experience of these health care workers so the gaslighting becomes part of the norm.
It becomes difficult to excuse or deny the validity of these incidents when they are captured live and in living colour like the recent killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, or the weaponising of tears from Amy Cooper, recorded in Central Park falsely accusing Christian Cooper of threatening her. As a black person, it is also becomes difficult to set aside, mask or ignore, so that you can get up and keep going every day. It becomes difficult to continue to swallow your feelings and act as though everything is ok. IT IS NOT OK, WE ARE NOT OK!
You might be asking what any of this has to do with work? Well on the face of it, nothing at all but these are some of the things that may be weighing heavily on our BAME colleagues, I know they weigh heavily on me. These are the things that I am thinking about on a daily basis. These are some of the things that cause me great stress not to mention my concern for family members, friends and loved ones who may be at risk.
These are some of the things that may be causing some of your BAME teammates and other BAME colleague’s stress. We all understand that stress is a major factor in poor mental health and that it impacts our performance but what we may not all be aware of is the fact that studies have shown that racism and negative race related issues are factors that are harmful to health of BAME people, specifically black people. Research has found that higher levels of discrimination are associated with an elevated risk of a broad range of diseases including blood pressure, obesity, breast cancer and premature mortality
So, why am I writing this article? I’m writing it to highlight some of the concerns that some of our BAME colleagues may have that might impact on mind-set and mental wellbeing, which in turn impact performance and/or behaviour. I wrote this article in the hopes that it will start a conversation between our white and BAME colleagues rather than have this be a topic that becomes the elephant in the room. Quite frankly, Im writing this article because silence is no longer an option. Silence is not an option for black people and its not an option for white problem, because this is not a me or a you problem is a we and us problem and only WE can fix it.
The news has shown the figures on the disproportionate death rates among BAME people and this is bound to have an effect on some of our BAME colleagues and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it. Don’t be afraid to raise this topic, not all BAME colleagues will want to talk about it and if they don’t want to they should feel empowered to say so in much the same way as they would for other topics related to their mental health and wellbeing, but please do raise the topic so that those of us who wish to talk about it know that it is safe to do so and that our colleagues are aware of some of the things we may be dealing with.
To our white friends and colleagues, don’t be afraid to share how you feel amongst your white and black friends and colleagues, even if it feels uncomfortable……especially if it feels uncomfortable. It is within in this discomfort that growth and change happens. If we don’t talk about this nothing will ever change and change is long overdue.
To be clear, I believe that we are currently in the middle of two global crises Covid19 and Racism. We are all responsible for doing our part to end both crises, for one we need to stay at home and be safe and for the other we need to start meaningful dialogue, we need to challenge racism where we see it and make it clear that we will no longer tolerate it. Most importantly we must ALL do our part to effect change. So I’ll leave you with this question – What will you do?