“Institutional racism is that which, covertly or overtly, resides in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions – reinforcing individual prejudices and being reinforced by them in turn.” 

It’s been over 20 years since The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry which was chaired by Sir William Macpherson. During that time, Macpherson made 70 recommendations which covered matters from policing to education and saw the then Home Secretary Jack Straw ensure mandatory race awareness training be offered to 43 police forces across the country. This was seen as a watershed moment for the policing department – concerning British race relations. It was time to stand up and take note that racism had become institutionalised within society, and fueled by police brutality. Black folks were excited about change and were prepared to welcome it with open arms. 

Fast forward to 2020 – it would seem they are still waiting. Following William Cameron’s death in January 2020 and the activity surrounding George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery’s brutal murders in America, it has become even more apparent that racism still runs deep in our countries – and others – culture and foundations. 

In his 2020 BAFTAS acceptance speech, leading actor winner Joaquin Phoenix called out institutional racism within the film industry by saying “I think that we send a very clear message to people of colour that you’re not welcome here. I think that’s the message that we’re sending to people that have contributed so much to our medium and our industry … I think it’s more than just having sets that are multicultural. We have to do the hard work to truly understand systemic racism.” As he addressed the room, it was apparent that his statement rang true – that white is considered the default at every level and that the industry was benefiting from the idea of multiculturalism, but not encouraging it. Unless there is a token role to play, the default is to cast a white lead every time. 

Institutional racism is embedded in our legal system, our healthcare system, our workplace and our educational system. According to The Conversation, universities tend to hide their racial bias behind superficial tag lines such as ‘post-racial’, ‘encouraging inclusivity and diversity’ and ‘invest in non-white academics’. In reality, if you’ve ever visited a university, you tend to see the same cookie-cutter individual gracing the hallways – and this doesn’t stop with the students. According to a report published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), out of 17,880 professors, only 85 were black, 950 were Asian and 365 were “other” (including mixed race). What’s more, there are just 17 black female professors in the entire British university system. This type of blatant institutional racism is present in the workplace also. In a 2019 study conducted by Professor Anthony Heath from Nuffield College, it was recorded that minority ethnic applicants have to send in around 60% more CVs to get a job interview. “The absence of any real decline in discrimination against black British and people of Pakistani background is a disturbing finding, which calls into question the effectiveness of previous policies. Ethnic inequality remains a burning injustice and there needs to be a radical rethink about how to tackle it.” It would seem institutions in Britain have yet to move away from the discriminative mindset of the 1960s and that the failed race relation legislation needs to be addressed.

Activities to try with your team

  • In your next team meeting or all hands.  Ask folks to consider when they first became aware of racism. How old were they? Ask yourself the same question – how old were you and what happened to make you experience it?
  • Re-framing constructive feedback through the lens of bias.  Consider a comment made in your academic or professional life that was tinged with racism. What happened in that scenario? Who said what? Were there any consequences or interventions taken?
  • Think about your last 1:1. Think about the last conversation you had at work with someone of a different race. Did you take a beat to recognise your race and privilege? Did you take a beat to consider their lived experiences and how they differ from yours?

New habits to make a difference

  • Find peers in your professional network who are from different races and cultural backgrounds
  • Challenge yourself to find examples in popular culture, sport, the corporate world and the media who come from Black and other underrepresented racial backgrounds.
  • Challenge yourself to consume at least one type of content a week e.g. book, podcast, TV show or film, created by someone of a different race.

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