Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement Phoenix’s Head of HR and L&D Woosh Raza, and Director of Marketing and Innovation Jim Armstrong, took some time to discuss racial discrimination, inclusion, workplace communities, privilege, education and how to make the world a better place.
We’ve split the conversation into three parts.
Part One – what can we learn from the Black Lives Matter movement?
Part Two – the potential of uncomfortable conversations
Part Three – being your authentic self
What can we learn from the Black Lives Matter movement?
We wanted to talk about what's happened over the last couple of week or so. Events that have raised awareness and consciousness of a very specific issue in America, but also underlying social issues that affect us all. Perhaps this is an opportunity to pause for thought about wider range of considerations in relation to discrimination, respect for others and understanding our own position of privilege.
From my point of view this is an important discussion because I have some responsibility for ensuring that our services are accessible and open and welcoming, but I don't have direct experience of being in any particular minority group, in fact in most cases as a heterosexual white person I'm generally in a majority. What about you Woosh what do these current times mean for you?
Hi, thank you for creating a space for this important conversation can take place. I'm feeling really grateful of my privilege in this as well that I'm able to sit here and have this conversation and hopefully have a great conversation around what this means. And how we can process the horrific and tragic events that have taken place in the last few weeks. As Head of HR and L&D I know we're really passionate about creating inclusive, open, transparent honest spaces for people to access support. But similarly, it has a staffing element as well, so there's really a duality and well actually I'd say a wholeness in the approach, or a whole system approach. We must look at the impact of recent events because we do employ people of colour, we employ people from black communities, from minority ethnic communities, and it's about how we can support those individuals to help make the world a safer place.
So, one thing we've talked about over the last week is feeling like we're observing things which are important occurrences in the world, but not necessarily having any ability to sort of go and deal with those issues. We observe and absorb social media where you can see tragedy occurring but you can't go in and solve that problem. We have to think about ourselves and our individual behaviours I guess. The death of George Floyd happened in America, but I suppose we're saying it might trigger us to think about ourselves and our workplace and associated issues. How has it affected you?
Great question. I think first and foremost I do send my absolute love, condolences and respect to his family. It was clear from the memorial that took place, as we saw this week, that it has left the family absolutely shattered. The tragedy of George Floyds death has been something the whole world has been in solidarity with and it's been absolutely inspiring to see how many people have got behind the driver for real change. It has felt like a personal sense of loss. I saw the video, as I'm sure many have and technology has brought us to a position where we can see something so horrific like that in our homes and has created a personal connection to the issue. I felt, like many, heartbroken and devastated and I've shared with you throughout the course of this week Jim how I've been down, emotionally, and I think it's impacted on my resilience. It made me really question who I am, the core of who I am. A lot of people have been dealing with it. As person of colour I have experienced racism, but in other respects this is a black community issue and I think that's really important to mention. I think what it also has triggered me is how much I even though I'm a person of colour, how much I need to educate myself on the persecution of the black community and, you know, like you I don't have that lived experience, that history, because my background is Asian. So yeah, it's been an interesting week it's been a week of much reflection. We've seen the absolute worst in people but like coronavirus you also see the absolute best as well, and it's been one of those weeks of ups and downs.
Yeah, as you say with coronavirus it's an era of increasing unemployment, deprivation and isolation and a disproportionate impact on different groups of people. Do you ever feel that people of colour are grouped together and well-meaning people like me come along and say, Oh, as someone from a BAME background you could help me understand? That’s something I consciously try not to do, but do you see that happening?
Yeah, it's a really interesting point because on the one hand as an activist and as someone who's dedicated a significant amount of my time to going on webinars, putting my identity on display, and saying okay dissect me, because I want you to understand me I know education is a really powerful way of enabling change. You know, you fear what you don't understand and this is what drives some of the racial prejudices that we see. But, likewise, I think a lot of what I've heard over the last week, it is exhausting to have to explain your race and your history, and every moment that's led up to your creation as a human being to everyone that has the slightest bit of curiosity. I think there's a balancing act between yes there's a role for people of colour to educate, but also you know Google is very good at getting that information and I think one thing that has really struck a chord with me this week is ‘Don't use black people as Google’. It may come from a really positive space but right now people's resilience and stamina around these issues is being tested. I assure you there are some resources out there that you can use to educate yourself, and happy to share some of these with anyone interested
And there's an implication in that if you're using people ‘as your Google’ that you're sort of saying this is a problem that affects you and I'd like to know more about it, rather than this is an issue that we all have some responsibility for because we're all a community.
We know racism is a systemic issue, baked into culture and law, policy and society. And so those people like me, that have sort of privilege of never having being discriminated against, have the responsibility to find out stuff independently.
One thing that's interesting, I think, is in your role from a professional point of view, you have responsibility for some policy areas of inclusion within the organisation. Do you find that you have a different type of professional identity when it comes to these issues? It is quite easy I suppose if you've been trained and educated to say oh I know I know the theory, but sometimes real life is more complicated?
It's why I got into HR. And it's why I considered a profession in HR. That's a fantast question firstly Jim because that's something I've also been reflecting on this week. And it's something I'm quite vocal about in the in my own professional community and it's something I've actually dedicated a lot of time this week to challenge fellow HR and L&D professionals out there to speak up now and advocate, and the time is now to initiate meaningful change within your organisations.
Diversity and Inclusion is a very academic subject, just as much as the practical subject. And I have invested in educating myself on the academic principles but I then can't ignore the practical aspects of it because of the colour of my skin, if that makes sense. When you're experiencing racism and when you're experiencing homophobia it's interesting to then look back at the academic drivers behind it, I can understand what may have led up to that moment, but obviously there's an emotional reaction there that I'm experiencing as a result.
And I think that has been in so many ways, part of my success in the Diversity and Inclusion space is that I have committed to being honest and transparent. In the HR community we talk a lot. We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion but we don't necessarily put ourselves in a space where we can have an uncomfortable conversation from different angles and perspectives and that is where the growth is going to happen and that change will happen. You need to put yourself in an uncomfortable state, and you need to need to think about the personal impact of this because you can get so academic, it takes away from you know the fact that actually there's a human element to this issue. It is a very fine balancing act and it's the reason I do what I do, it's the reason I've dedicated my career, not only working in HR but also work in the third sector because I believe passionately about social purpose.
So, it's really given me some interesting spaces to explore the perspective on both the account of the HR professional, but also on the account of a person of colour who has experienced racism and a member of the LGBT community who has experienced homophobia.
Read Part Two - coming soon