This October, organisations across the United Kingdom are celebrating Black History Month. From Lunch and Learn events, to film screenings, the achievements of Black people are recognised and celebrated by workplaces, and crucially, ensuring the key messages behind it are understood.
However, many organisations debate the question of how they should approach Black History Month every year, grappling with the tensions at the centre of the very concept of Black History Month. Do they celebrate it, critique its existence, or refuse to engage with it at all?
The best approach is for organisations to understand the critical role of history in the current ways that systemic racism plays out in the pay, terms and conditions, opportunities for advancement, and representation of Black people. They potentially also have stretching targets and action plans to address problems such as the ethnicity pay gap.
They can educate their workforce about the reasons these patterns exist, the historical and current factors, and take responsibility to make changes to the policies and processes, the structures, and the organisational culture to address them. They could ensure that individuals understand bias - conscious or unconscious - and know how to tackle them.
They can gather the metrics to be able to answer the basic but powerful question of ‘who gets what?’, then build the capacity of their leaders to understand what racism is and what, precisely, they can do to address it in their day-to-day work.
They may set targets that relate to the pay and bonuses of senior people and ensure that all their stakeholders understand the business case as well as the social justice case for taking such action so that some kind of ‘deficit model’ is not part of the narrative.
Some people believe that Black History Month is a powerful and necessary celebration and recognition of the experiences and achievements of Black communities and individuals, a history that is too often overlooked, ignored, distorted, or minimised.
Others argue that Black History Month is a tokenistic and patronising gesture that highlights how much work is yet to be done for there not to be one month in twelve where black history is recognised, understood, and celebrated.
If there must be a month that celebrates Black history, does that not suggest that ‘mainstream’ history is still seen as white, and imply that Black history is therefore peripheral? 31 days out of 365 is not enough, some point out, and trivialises the historical and lasting costs of colonialism.
Having a few posters or highlighting a handful of Black people who have achieved fantastic things does not truly educate and can be experienced as patronising and trivialising.
Our institutions and businesses need to listen, reflect, and educate, and understand why there are such different views on Black History Month, and acknowledge and respect those views. And then, decisions need to be made on how to practically proceed. Four things for organisations to consider are:
- Consult with black staff and listen very carefully. What is said will make some people uncomfortable. Keep listening.
- Have the conversations about how the company is going to respond to Black History Month as a concept and ensure that black colleagues are part of this decision-making process. The decision might be to celebrate black communities and individual achievements.
- Do things to tackle racism in the other months of the year. Create a culture where everyone knows what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, and why. Weave the learning from Black History Month into leadership and management programmes, and approaches to customer care, and how staff are recruited and selected. Think about supply chains – for example, are you working with businesses that share your values and are also doing the work to address the underrepresentation of Black people at senior levels?
- Ensure your board and leadership team are as confident in providing professional leadership on Black history.
Celebrating Black History Month can be an important part of ensuring that the whole workforce understands that Black history is not something separate from history, it’s part of history that has too often been overlooked. Done well and thoughtfully, celebrating BHM can educate, and celebrate and contribute to creating a more respectful, anti-racist culture, in which all staff can thrive, and in turn, all stakeholders can admire, and benefit from.
EW Group is a full-service diversity and inclusion consultancy, established in 1992 by Jane Farrell.
Today, supported by a team of more than 50 diversity specialists, its training, analysis and consultancy programmes are delivered to more than 1,500 organisations across 25 countries.
Its programmes are designed to challenge and engage staff and senior leaders, drive real culture change and help businesses attract, recruit, retain and promote diverse talent.
EW Group is an Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) Approved Centre, offering a range of open professional development programmes.