The Privilege of Silence

Article by Monica Mwanje

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” James Baldwin

The killing of George Floyd in America devastated me. The death of a Black man captured on camera for all to see. If you have not seen the video or images from it, a White police officer restrained Mr Floyd by placing his knee on his neck. Mr Floyd cried out that he couldn’t breathe. This was ignored. Other police officers on the scene stood by, watched and did nothing.

The tragic consequences of institutional racism, structural racism on camera for all to see. The tragic death of a man because of a workplace culture that enabled an individual to act unchallenged.

You might be reading this thinking, something as tragic as this would never happen within my business/organisation. You might be sitting there thinking well that was in the USA, I’m in the UK and things like that don’t happen here.

Racism happens in the UK and it happens in the workplace. Harmful racist incidents against Black people happen here in the UK too. For those of you who want some evidence: I still remember where I was when I heard about the murder of Anthony Walker. Anthony was murdered close to where I grew up. He was a young Black student whose life was cut short because of the colour of his skin.

The Macpherson Report prompted by how the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence was handled by the police, made recommendations for change and called for improved accountability of public bodies.

The Glassdoor Diversity & Inclusion Study 2019 survey results reported that 31% of the UK workforce they surveyed had experienced or witnessed racism in the workplace.

How racism survives in the workplace

You might be sitting there thinking “I am not a racist”. The thing is are you doing the work to be anti-racist? Are you doing the work to stamp out the micro-aggressions and behaviours that permit a working culture to exist which can escalate with devastating consequences? Are you actively checking for and dismantling policies that could cause structural racism and inequity?

Incidents like that scene in the USA do not exist within a vacuum. The warning signs are there, it is likely you have stayed silent, or you just didn’t realise what they were.

  • Did you call out a racist joke or did you sit there silent and say nothing?
  • Have you noticed that Black colleagues have struggled to be promoted and said nothing?
  • Heard someone describe a Black candidate as “not being the right fit” despite the fact they are very well qualified and you know they can do the job, but you said and did nothing?

The above are just 3 examples of how this can happen. The consequences of this are real and cause hurt and harm.

The privilege of silence means you keep your head down, you don’t get involved as: “it’s not your fight” or “they didn’t mean it that way, it was a joke”. However, your silence is complicit in allowing the workplace culture to remain as it is. An unspoken endorsement of the status quo.

Why You Need to Do Something About This and Break the Silence

If your organisation has values that say something like: “we love and respect our people” or “our talent is sacred to us”, then you need to demonstrate these values and live them out. Hold and make space to talk with employees about racism, about the events in the news and acknowledge the hurt, the trauma and the fear that is being felt.

If talking about racism makes you uncomfortable you need to sit with that discomfort and make space to have these discussions. If you have Black people working in your organisation or you wish to have Black people working in your organisation or you want to engage better with Black clients or customers, or with Black communities that interact with your business, then you need to do this work.

You need to face up to racism, to how it manifests or could manifest in your organisation and take action to root it out and end it. Make it unacceptable in your workplace culture. Bring in the right expertise to support and help you to do this. It’s crucial to not do what you have always done, otherwise you are very likely to get what you’ve always got.

Start where you are

If you saw the video of Mr Floyd’s death and you never ever want to see something like that again or to hear about it happening to someone else, then start now. Do the work now. Speak up and out now. Organisations lending their weight to this and saying: “no more” will have a massive impact to help make change happen.

If you’re not sure how to speak out or you simply don’t know what to say, then you can start by amplifying the voices of those who do know what to say.   

You can read and centre the work of Black authors on racism e.g. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Book ‘Why I’m no longer talking to White People About Race’  and Dr Ibram X. Kendi’s book ‘How to Be an Antiracist’.  You can broaden your knowledge and access resources that have been shared online here and here.  With a more UK focused context, this twitter thread from Obioma Ugoala shares some ideas and resources on what you can do.

You can pay for consultancy support from inclusion and diversity specialists who can coach and guide you through this and help you to move forward with tangible plans that will truly make an impact. Draw on the expertise of the specialists who have the skills and knowledge to do this antiracism work with you and help you build and develop cultural competency. (Side note: if you are a Diversity and Inclusion specialist, and you get approached to do this type of work and you do not have the skills to do this work, please do not accept the work, refer it to the specialists who can do it).

Closing Thoughts

I’ve not touched on the Christian Cooper incident that was widely reported this week, which luckily did not end in as tragic consequences as the George Floyd incident. If you want to know more about what happened to Christian Cooper – you can read about it here.

There are also many other incidents in the USA and incidents in the UK that have happened. I’ve also not written about the impact of covid-19 in the context of structural racism in this article. I’ve not written about the Windrush scandal. I’m not ignoring these incidents, if I had included everything, I don’t think I would have had the strength to type this article.

As a Black business owner, as an aunt, a sister, a daughter, a cousin, as a friend, as a colleague it was so tough to write this article. Tough because when I read the news and see what has happened, I see the babies within my family and the injustice of this world breaks my heart and fills me with fear about the type of society and workplaces that the future may have in store for them.

I’ll be honest I did momentarily worry that this article might put off potential clients from working with my business and I decided that if it does, then it filters out those who are truly not ready to do this work.

If you have worked with me in the past or received inclusion training from my consultancy you know my values. If you are aware that in 2019, I co-founded the Diversity and Inclusion in UK Nuclear initiative, you know my values. I push to create a space to talk about and advocate for inclusion and equity for all aspects of identity whether it be: race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexuality, disability, amongst others. Those are my values, that has not changed. This article I have written today is specifically focused on Black people and the racism that affects Black people because of the traumatic events witnessed this week in the news.

I wrote this article to acknowledge it and to say that something can be done about it if action is taken to make the change happen.

I’ll close firstly with some words extracted from this post I spotted from the engineering company Jacobs, specifically their CEO Steve Demetriou:

“Speak up. Speak out…

We do things right. We challenge the accepted. We aim higher. We live inclusion.

Join me in reinforcing our values – day in and day out.”

And with these words extracted from the article ‘Where is the human in humanity?’ written by Barbara Whye, Vice President, Human Resources, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Intel Corporation:

“We know what is happening in our world inevitably impacts our places of employment, it impacts how employees show up, how they produce and how they shut down when they feel no one is listening.

You cannot lead successfully today without a lens on societal issues. So, I challenge you, humanity…to follow my lead…give a virtual hug, check in on each other, value and respect differences but have the tough conversations that are desperately needed, choose love over hate and lead with faith and an optimistic spirit.”



This article was first published on Monica Mwanje’s LinkedIn Feed: The Privilege of Silence