At Don’t Divide Us we receive many messages from people who are facing the prospect of some form of compulsory training to deal with problems of systematic racism, unconscious bias and white privilege. Irrespective of whether one believes these claims to be true, partially true or false, it is vital that we have the freedom to raise questions and criticisms without fear of formal or informal sanctions. People are beginning to ask questions and voice their concerns. We think it’s always helpful to hear what others have done – for guidance in how you might start such conversations in your own situation, and also just for some moral support – you are not alone!
Below is one example of a story we have received. We hope others will be encouraged by such examples which are so important irrespective of immediate outcomes, although press coverage is no bad thing!
A Finance Administrator – (anonymised)
In the training it was stated: “If we are to stop failing UKME/GMH candidates, we must embrace targets for recruitment and appointment”. This implies that the company has been failing UKME [UK Minority Ethnic] candidates. Please can it be explained in what ways the company has been failing UKME candidates for positions at the company? That sounds like an admission of discrimination in our recruitment processes. Has the company been discriminating against UKME candidates? If not, in what way has the company been failing UKME candidates for its positions? Some specifics in regard to such a worrying admission would be useful. If the company has not been discriminating against UKME candidates then I’d suggest we don’t state that we have been failing them, as such a statement would be untrue (and may put us at risk of litigation).
The figures presented showed that the proportion of UKME employees in our subsidiary company greatly exceeded the proportion of UKME in the population both nationally and in the county, and somewhat exceeded it in the city. Does this not show that there is no evidence of the subsidiary company ‘failing UKME candidates’? That being the case, why is it assumed that the company is also ‘failing UKME candidates’?
On the proportional representation of races, why is it suddenly now a requirement to aim to have the same proportion of ethnic minorities employed in the organisation as is present in the population? This was never an aim before, and such an aim would seem unethical and disturbing in its implications. Most worryingly, it implies that the company now has a form of ‘racialist constitution’, whereby each race must be represented in proportion to its presence in the community. But why should the company be assumed to have such a racialist constitution? That has not been explained anywhere, and on the face of it, it doesn’t sound like a very sound or ethical idea. Aren’t racialist constitutions, treating people differently according to their race, a very bad idea? Don’t they contain the very dubious assumption that all members of a race are sufficiently alike to be interchangeable, to ‘represent’ one another, and be counted as equivalent? Why don’t we treat people as individuals rather than grouping them by their race, counting them and treating them differently on that basis?
Furthermore, what is the implication of the idea that people of ethnic minorities need additional help to get a job with us? Why do we feel we have to give them special treatment, e.g. by favouring them on the basis of their race in shortlisting? Why do we assume non-white-British people need extra support and assistance? Is that really a sound assumption? Is it not actually demeaning and undermining? I know I would find it patronising and offensive if I was told that my ethnic group was deemed to need special treatment to help me get a position. Should the company really be expending resources on such a racialist initiative?
On a practical level, how can we avoid this initiative slipping into ‘positive discrimination’, which in most instances is unlawful and opens the company up to litigation? It was even stated at one point in the training that we must use positive discrimination. This appears to have been a slip of the tongue, but it does suggest that the distinction between lawful positive action and unlawful positive discrimination is not being kept in mind or made clear.
The section on unconscious bias was, for me, the low point of the training. It was unclear in its intention, meaning and application. It listed what were said to be types of bias but, despite earlier training having been provided on this, it still wasn’t clear (and not only to me) how these types were to be distinguished from each other and to what extent each was supposed to be good or bad. It was called bias so it sounded bad, but it’s not clear that all the examples were actually bad. For example, it was suggested that it was ‘bias’ to disfavour candidates whose application form was poorly presented, or who were not smartly presented, or to heed educational attainment. An argument I suppose can be made either way on the importance of these, but it is patently unsound to label one position ‘bias’, with the implied negative. Why is it not equally ‘bias’ to dismiss the importance of presentation or education? The difference between bias and judgement was not being clearly made.
As this followed on from the section on unlawful discrimination it also wasn’t made clear that these categories of ‘bias’ were not necessarily describing unlawful or forbidden ways of thinking. The nature and status of the ‘biases’ being described was unclear and so the purpose and application of the training was unclear and unhelpful. This was not the fault of the trainer but of the material, which is of dubious scientific provenance. The government has explained the problems with this kind of training in advice to employers, and recommended them not to use it, saying it may even ‘backfire’, a point which is supported by academic study reported in the Harvard Business Review. As I have noted previously, the company would do well to heed this advice.
A number of people remarked on how similar shortlisting scores typically are during company recruitment processes. The same has often been observed about interview scoring. Isn’t that in itself evidence that ‘bias’ is not a notable problem in our recruitment processes? Do we have evidence that bias is a particular problem in our recruitment? Besides, if such bias was present it would be quickly shown up and removed through comparison to the scores of others. Given this, what problem is unconscious bias training attempting to remedy that justifies the cost and confusion it brings?
‘Global Majority Heritage’
This is a relatively new term used in the training that on the face of it makes no sense. Plainly, no person’s heritage is in a majority globally. Why use a term that makes no sense? It appears to be intended as equivalent to UK Minority Ethnic (hence ‘UKME/GMH’). But UK Minority Ethnic accurately describes the relevant groups of people – people who are in an ethnic minority in the UK, and thus for that reason are subject to special consideration in the UK.
Global Majority Heritage, on the other hand, accurately describes no one, as no one’s heritage is in a majority globally. The aim appears to be to say that people who are in an ethnic minority in the UK are part of a majority globally. But that is only true if you assume that the comparison is to the UK ethnic majority, so that the idea of the term is to classify the UK ethnic majority as a ‘global minority’ in contrast to everyone else combined, who are a ‘global majority’.
But that is also true of any other ethnic group when singled out, who compared to every other ethnic group combined together are in a minority globally. Likewise, the UK ethnic majority is of ‘Global Majority Heritage’ by this definition, when a different ethnic group is singled out to be the minority.
The term is thus confusing and inaccurate, and also has the dubious connotation of unfairly singling out one ethnic group to identify them uniquely as a ‘global minority’. It would be best avoided as potentially offensive, I suggest.
Overall, I think it would be worth the company reflecting more deeply on whether the current direction and policies around race and diversity are ethically sound and will stand the test of time. While it’s true that such initiatives are currently popular among some in our society, many others regard them as highly questionable, unethical and divisive, and the company may find that they are not as universally welcomed as might be thought. My suggestion would be that the company returns to its former, liberal approach to race issues, under which people are treated as individuals and not according to their race, rather than continuing down this murky racialist line.