Recent disparate (yet interconnected) occurrences and activities in and around me prompted me to reflect upon the current state of play in the corporate (and wider) arena. My findings, I don’t believe to particularly novel nor revolutionary but they nonetheless mark a point of personal realisation of everyday reality which hitherto (for me) was substantively theoretical. This article seeks to convey my thoughts and findings in the context of recognised research and theory in the hope that it might help others in a similar situation.
It is worth noting that a lot of my arguments here revolve around works on Critical Race Theory (see Rollock and Gillborn, 2011), White Privilege (see Chavrimootoo and Dawson, 2017) and Inequality Regimes (see Acker, 2006). I could never hope to do any of these topics justice in a piece such as this, but would direct the reader to the stated references for an introduction to these subject matters. Before proceeding further, I believe it is important to define key words and intended interpretations in the context of this item as I believe this is crucial to understanding what it is that I seek to communicate. I will do this below, followed by the main thrust of my arguments, a brief conclusion and my list of references.
Key Definitions and Interpretations
“Black” – The word Black is used primarily in the context of race within this literature in reference to individuals who are not White. It is important to clarify here that “race” and “ethnicity” are NOT the same thing (see Conley, 2003; James, 2016).
“Race” – The most important thing to understand about race in this context is that race is a non-negotiable categorisation that is assigned to someone by others; it is unitary, i.e., an individual can belong to only one race.
“Ethnicity” – Ethnicity is a complex identity dimension, inextricably linked to other identity dimensions such as race, religion and culture. Individuals can belong to multiple different transient, even simultaneous ethnicities; it is a characteristic that is self-negotiated and self-identified by individuals. An understanding of these characteristics of ethnicity suffices for the purpose of this item.
“Inequality Regimes” – Acker (2006) defines inequality regimes in the context of organisations as:
“…loosely interrelated practices, processes, actions, and meanings that result in and maintain class, gender, and racial inequalities within particular organizations.”
This definition extends seamlessly applying to all communities, up to and including the world community.
“White Privilege” – This is the reality that White people by sheer virtue of their “Whiteness” are beneficiaries of advantages (privileges) unavailable to Black people and for which Black people have to work, i.e., earn (see McIntosh, 1988).
The Dynamics of White Privilege, Inequality Regimes and Structural Racism
White privilege is not a novel construct, but has been a tool wielded for centuries by the privileged White to preserve a position of advantage over all else. A key tool of White privilege is the denial or disregard of key characteristics of non-whites so as to preserve White advantage. So, during the days of slavery for example, Black people were denied the key characteristic of humanity not only to justify slavery but more importantly, to preserve White privilege. “White psychosis” (see Andrews, 2016) made it “undeniably evident” that slavery was to the benefit of the barbaric, uncivilised heathen. With the abolition of slavery, new characteristics have been (and are being) denied/disregarded to the same end – preservation of White privilege (see Harris, 1993); this is brought about through the machinations of inequality regimes.
Today, all societal structures – public and private sector organisations, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), charitable organisations etc. are all founded upon the central construct of inequality regimes (see Acker, 2006). With the single aim of preserving White privilege, inequality regimes control who are able to engage with the regime, they control influence, power and rewards within (and outside) the regime so as to ensure that only individuals who demonstrate loyalty to the cause of preserving White privilege benefit from interaction with the regime.
Now, the rules designed for the preservation of White privilege (carefully constructed over centuries) translate directly into corporate policies, regulations and “rules of behaviour”. These rules are used to control and effect certain organisational dimensions necessary for the maintenance of White privilege. Two notable control mechanisms are: 1) Inequality is legitimised – Participants (and outsiders) are made to accept that certain inequalities are acceptable. Some inequalities are more easily legitimised than others; so it’s acceptable for some individuals to be paid more than others, it is acceptable for some individuals to have more power and influence than others etc. but (only recently) race and gender inequality for example are not as easily legitimised and viewed “acceptable”. 2) Control and compliance – In order to be allowed to participate with the regime at its very lowest level, individuals are required to demonstrate a willingness to conform to the rules of the inequality regime (enforced through the recruitment infrastructure and strategies). However, to further benefit from promotion into a leadership/management positions participants must demonstrate not just compliance with the rules, but a willingness to defend and enforce the rules preserving White privilege. The further up the organisational hierarchy one desires to climb, the higher the level of commitment to the cause of reserving White privilege that is required to be demonstrated.
As mentioned above the preservation of White privilege (which is the sole purpose of inequality regimes, of which organisations are a subset) hinges upon the denial of key characteristic(s) to non-whites, i.e. Black people (to the advantage of the privileged White); corporate rules and regulations are today employed to this end. As mentioned above, strict control is exercised by inequality regimes to 1) enforce and encourage systems, structures and mechanisms promoting the preservation of White privilege and 2) exclude anything unconducive to the preservation of White privilege. This is embodied in corporate rules and regulations defining appropriate ways of conduct. What these rules are is a less interesting question than why they exist and what they seek to include and exclude. We’ve already demonstrated (above) that they exist for the preservation of White privilege. Now, what do corporate rules and regulations include and exclude? In terms of its impact upon Black people, the single most important ingredient of corporate regulations and behavioural rules is race. This is not surprising seeing the purpose of these rules (preservation of White privilege). Upon an almost cursory examination, the most glaring, most impactful omission from organisational regulations and behavioural rules is anything to do with Back identity, most notably ethnicity and religion.
As mentioned above, ethnicity is a very complex, yet crucial dimension to Black identity, closely interrelated with religion and culture. For some ethnicities such as Sikh and Rohingya, ethnicity is in fact defined by religion. Despite their many differences, I have not been able to identify many religions in which qualities such as love for fellow human beings are not actively encouraged. It is important to note here that whilst ethnicity and religion are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 (see Legislation.gov.uk, 2010), and most organisations are keen to demonstrate compliance in these areas, organisations actively disregard these crucial dimensions of Black identity when it comes to “appropriate corporate behaviour”. So for example, it is not deemed “appropriate” to make mention of religion, or tenets of religion such as love in dealing with colleagues. In so doing, corporations while adhering to legislation disregard specific, targeted, strategic dimensions of Black identity, not only to the disadvantage of Black individuals but (more importantly) preserving White privilege.
Furthermore, the disregarding of ethnicity and religion from the rules of “appropriate corporate behaviour” serves to exclude Black people from benefiting from aspects of wealth, power and influence within organisational regimes by eliminating them from promotion. Recall from above that in order to move up the corporate hierarchy, individuals are required (not only to demonstrate compliance with, but furthermore) to demonstrate a willingness to defend and enforce the rules preserving White privilege. In this scenario, Black people are expected to demonstrate disregard not only for their own ethnicity and religion (since these are explicitly forbidden in corporate behavioural rules), but also to defend and enforce these rules when interacting with colleagues and prospective colleagues. So Black people are explicitly excluded from participating fully in inequality regimes as a result of the calculated strategy to disregard specific dimensions of Black identity such as ethnicity and religion. This, by definition is structural racism. This structural racism is once again justified (by the privileged White) with the argument that structural racism is necessary as anything but structural racism would result in a breakdown of organisational structure and discipline, ultimately resulting in chaos and is therefore necessary for the good of all (see Andrews, 2016).
Conclusion – Current State of Play and Looking Forward
That there is a dearth of Black people in senior leadership positions not just in Higher Education but across wider British society is a widely documented and accepted fact (see McGregor-Smith, 2017). After my reflections outlined above, rather than bemoaning this statistic, I believe this is cause for consolation. Disparate strategies and training courses (e.g. University of Manchester, 2015; StellarHE, 2018) have so far failed to have a significant impact upon this poor statistic. In the light of my findings above, I believe this is also cause for celebration. My reasons for this (arguably paradoxical) reaction regarding the lack of senior Black leadership is (in my opinion) indicative of the fact that: 1) Black people are (consciously or sub-consciously) unwilling to disregard their ethnicity and religion for professional advancement. 2) Black people are unwilling to disregard the ethnicity of Black colleagues to further their own career advancement 3) Black people are unwilling to promote, defend and enforce rules and regulations (covertly, but very deliberately and strategically) constructed to preserve and further White privilege. 4) It supports my position that Black people are not “broken”; the solution to the dearth of senior Black leaders does not lie in “training” or “re-educating” or “re-habilitating” Black people to progress in corporate inequality regimes – i.e., training them how to disregard their Black identity (ethnicity and religion).
I submit that pursuant to my arguments above, the root cause for the dearth of senior Black leadership across British public and private sectors is the existence of the structurally racist rules currently used to govern British regimes with the (tacit?) aim of preserving White privilege (to the disadvantage of all else). Are these rules broken? Clearly not; they are functioning very effectively doing exactly what they were intended to do – preserve White privilege (and exclude anything and anyone not committed to this cause). How is the problem remedied? 1) Simply put; if organisations are serious about addressing race (and other) inequality, (necessarily) the first step needs to be a change of corporate regulations and behavioural rules to acknowledge all aspects of Black identity, starting with ethnicity and religion. 2) Any leadership training targeted at Black individuals necessarily need to be re-oriented to explicitly acknowledge and accommodate dimensions of Black identity. 3) Policies and strategies should then be constructed in the context of these new regulations and rules promoting Black advancement. I believe that once organisations are “primed” with the first influx of Black leaders, this will be self-sustaining as the initial hurdle of a lack of understanding of Black identity by White recruiters will be overcome with the existence of Black leaders capable of understanding Black identity (The implication here that privileged White individuals are incapable of understanding Black identity is not unintentional and is a widely supported position (see e.g. Chavrimootoo and Dawson, 2017; McIntosh, 1988)).
With inequality regimes permeating all aspects of society, I don’t believe anyone has the option to not engage with these regimes if they wish to survive. We might have some say as to how much we wish to engage (e.g. remain at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy only conforming to the structurally racist rules or choose to “play the game” trying to either “outwit” the privileged White “oppressors” or to capitulate and do whatever is required for personal gain). For the professional struggling to advance in current corporate environment, I believe that an understanding of the basic fact that the rules governing corporate behaviour are (deliberately) structurally racist will be invaluable in understanding the professional landscape in which they work and help them decide how best to strategise – either to fight for the elimination of structural racism or to seek to skilfully navigate their environment (with insight into the structurally racist landscape in which they have to survive). The latter option, I would suggest is a short-sighted, ego-centric view which will leave future generations in a worse position than we are currently in. It is widely accepted that race equality benefits all, not just the Black population (see McKinsey, 2015); I would therefore seek to rally us all – regardless of race or ethnicity – Rise up and fight! Together we must destroy the scourge of endemic, legitimised structural racism!
A Software Engineer by trade, Berrisford has over 15 years experience working within the private and HE sectors. He is an experienced Project Manager, with over 15 years experience in Event Management. Since 2014, Berrisford has immersed himself in the work of advancing equality (generally) and race equality (more specifically) in HE and wider British society. He has an MSc in Social Research Methods and Statistics for which he examined ethnicity nondisclosure in HE. However, his passion centres on the practical implementation of (recommended) interventions aimed at addressing racial inequality. Berrisford currently works at the Main Library at the University of Manchester and is co-chair of the University BAME Staff network. He is actively involved with various groups inside (e.g. Library ED&I Working Group, General Assembly) and outside the University (e.g. GMP Black Police Association and GM BME Network) as well as (joint) community projects such as the Black Lawyers Matter; also serving on advisory panels (e.g. Runnymede Trust); all with the central aim of advancing race equality – which he claims to be his “calling in life”. Contact Berrisford here.
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