The damaging impact of white people being afraid to talk about race
Have you ever noticed that some people find it incredibly difficult to say the word ‘Black’ in reference to someone’s race?
They lower their voice or adopt a stage whisper, or they bend over backwards to find another way to describe the person in question, or maybe they use an awkward alternative like ‘BAME’, ‘coloured’, or ‘funny tinge.’
In fact, recent research found that 40% of Brits are actually afraid to say the word ‘Black’ at work, as though the word itself is offensive, and not merely a descriptor of a person’s race.
‘It makes me think – “what is so horrible about Blackness that you don’t even want to say the word?”‘ says Ava*, a 26-year-old Black woman from London who works in ad sales.
Ava says that white members of staff at her workplace have frequently displayed discomfort when speaking about race in her presence, struggling to say ‘Black’, but also avoiding conversations altogether or shutting her down.
‘There was a team talk about the gender pay gap and I brought up the “BAME” pay gap, because for those of us who are both women and non-white, that is a huge issue,’ says Ava. ‘What I was saying was barely acknowledged and the subject was awkwardly changed.’
‘Other times I have noticed people really not wanting to say “Black”, or “racism” and stumbling over phrases like “POC” or “BAME”. Don’t refer to me as a “person of colour” when you have the option of saying “Black”, that isn’t better.
‘It makes me feel as though nobody really sees me. As though my Blackness is something that is inconvenient or awkward. It also completely erases my lived experiences as a Black woman. If you’re not able to call things what they are, to say “Black”, to say “racism”, how will we ever tackle issues of inequality?’
This awkwardness around racialised language is symptomatic of a society in which whiteness is the default and everything else is positioned as ‘other’. It may be that because white people aren’t conditioned to think of themselves as a racialised group, there is a gap in language and a a deep insecurity about how to address these issues.
But taking a ‘colour-blind’ approach means issues of inequality and racism will keep being ignored out of awkward ‘politeness’ – but also due to a deep fear of getting it wrong and how you may be perceived.
‘There is concern among people who identify as white about being seen as a racist when talking about issues associated with race,’ explains clinical psychologist Dr Roberta Babb.
‘Talking about race and racism is an uncomfortable and often emotional experience. This can lead to the employment of avoidance behaviour as a strategy to manage the issue.’
Dr Babb says it’s understandable to have a fear about being seen a ‘bad person’ or being part of the problem. However, she says this is a problem when the fear of being perceived as hated and socially unacceptable becomes worse than the thing itself, ie. when being called a racist is seen as worse than the actual racism.
‘This detracts from focusing on the central issue, which is the existence of, and the negative and destructive impact of racism,’ explains Dr Babb.
‘Racial (or any other characteristic) blindness is not the same as social justice, and racial avoidance behaviour also impedes the tasks of allyship and anti-racism work.
‘These tasks require courageous and active engagement with the processes of identifying and challenging instances of racism, microequities and microaggressions.’
Why is talking about race so hard for some white people?
Recent findings in the Diversity & Confusion Report by The Unmistakables revealed that one in six workers fear they could lose their job if they got terms around race and ethnicity wrong, and nearly 30% believe it would result in a formal disciplinary.
This fear of repercussions might help explain why working professionals are now more confident talking about death (38%) than race and ethnicity (29%) in the workplace.
‘Social media and “cancel culture” are also driving this fear,’ explains Simone Harvey, inclusive campaigns director at The Unmistakables.
‘A video, image or tweet of someone doing or saying “the wrong thing” can go viral and completely change the way a person is perceived and received.
‘Language evolves, sometimes rapidly, and if we want to address the fear around racialised terms we really must evolve with it.’
Simone says we can take away this fear through learning and building our own cultural confidence.
‘The block for some people is that it requires learning and there’s really no way of doing this without putting in the work,’ she adds. ‘But it’s not really any different to having to keep up with new technologies, especially if we consider how we need to operate in the workplace.
‘We go on IT training courses to learn about new technologies and are obliged to keep up with health and safety guidelines in the workplace – we just need to start taking inclusion as seriously.
‘This requires openness, dialogue and creating safe spaces for people – including the communities that the language most affects – where people can talk, listen and learn.’
One in five (19%) of working professionals use the term ‘diverse’ to avoid stating specific protected characteristics – like race or sexuality. Simone says that the fear of getting it wrong has given rise to sweeping terms that are easy to hide behind. But the impact on minoritised groups can be significant.
‘A great example of the impact of this is when Matt Hancock was asked how many Black people there are in the Cabinet, and he responded saying that there were a “whole series of people from a Black and minority ethnic background”,’ recalls Simone.
‘The term “BAME” groups together people with incredibly varied ethnicities and backgrounds. When you focus on BAME you miss the nuances, experiences and needs of individuals within those varied groups. It’s collectively othering rather than inclusive and, at its worst, erases identities and cultures.
‘The term “diverse” means so many different things that it can quite easily mean nothing at all. At The Unmistakables, we regularly challenge requests to reach “more diverse people” and help our clients to get specific about the audiences they seek to include.’
What is the psychological impact of awkwardness around racial language?
For people from minoritised racial groups, having your race treated as though it is something shameful or awkward is painful. And having experiences of racism minimised through the use of vague language can be incredibly damaging.
Dr Babb says that the awkward behaviour of avoiding racial language can have both an explicit and implicit impact on the working environment for racial minority employees.
‘It can also contribute to acute and chronic difficulties and race-based stress (the incessant and cumulative impact of racism and racial discrimination),’ she adds.
‘Consequently, the environment can become uncomfortable, stressful or even hostile. Constant exposure to such an environment can alienate racial minority employees, and leave them feeling, invisible, invaluable, like they do not belong, or like they have done something wrong.
‘This can contribute to pervasive feelings of disconnection and isolation from their work, their peers and senior members of the organisation, the organisation itself.’
Dr Babb says that these experiences can take a psychological and physical toll and can result in health issues, relational and social issues and in serious cases cause racial trauma.
‘One of the problems of this type of avoidance behaviour – not saying the word “Black” – is that by not acknowledging a part of a racialised person’s lived reality, it paradoxically serves to perpetuate racism, while simultaneously rending it invisible.
‘The result means that racism and microinequities become an ordinary part of the working environment and culture, and more difficult to identify, challenge and address.’
How to cope with ‘racial avoidance’
Although experiencing racial avoidance or racial ‘colourblindness’ can be difficult and wearing for racialised minorities, there are things that people can do to support themselves and others in similar situations.
Dr Babb has provided her expert tips:
Look after yourself
Self-care is vital during periods of stress.
It is helpful to explore self-care strategies from the widest possible viewpoint, as it also includes putting in boundaries with regard to what you are exposed to, who are around and interact with, taking time out, mindfully breathing, exercising, getting enough sleep and eating in a way that nurtures, rather than stresses your mind body.
One of the most important ways to manage the psychological impact of racism and other emotionally stressful experiences is to make sure that you are connected to supportive people.
A robust professional, personal, social and culturally aligned support network can be a crucial element. This may include friends, family, colleagues or allies.
Name and challenge instances of racially avoidant behaviour
(Where you can and feel able to.) Naming instances of this behaviour can be important as they validate your experience, make a reality known and put experiences into context.
Racially avoidant behaviour is powerful and impactful precisely because they are difficult to challenge and are characterised by the following elements:
- Denial of reality
- Invisibility of the unintentional expression of unconscious racial bias
- Perception of minimal harm inflicted or experienced
Try not to internalise the racism
When you work in an environment where racially avoidant behaviour exists, challenging and managing it can be psychologically taxing and exhausting.
It can be easier to want to change something about yourself or your behaviour in order to be more accepted and less distress.
However, it is important to stay connected to the fact that you are not the issue, it is racism and the structures, processes, policies, and interpersonal interactions which perpetuate it.
Know, maintain and reinforce your boundaries
Within a workplace that has a racially avoidant culture, can be challenging for racialised minority employees. However, it is important to have an awareness of your limits, as staying in a situation that is psychologically invalidating can be harmful.
Talk to a professional
It can be helpful to talk to a psychological professional when you experience systemic oppression or are directly or indirectly dismissed or ignored.
This experience can minimise the internalisation of the experiences and help you to understand, process and manage what has happened, or is happening to you.
The State of Racism
This series is an in-depth look at racism in the UK in 2020 and beyond.
We aim to look at how, where and why individual and structural racism impacts people of colour from all walks of life.
It’s vital that we improve the language we have to talk about racism and continue the difficult conversations about inequality – even if they make you uncomfortable.
We want to hear from you – if you have a personal story or experience of racism that you would like to share get in touch: [email protected]
Do you have a story to share? We want to hear from you.
Get in touch: [email protected]
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