What does systemic discrimination and racism look like for corporates?

Anti-racism & unconscious bias training is a band-aid solution


Today I learned that a large organisation contracted an Anglo-Saxon man to conduct leadership training for a group of emerging First Nations leaders. This man is successful in his field and is heading to retirement. I would like to think that the organisation had well meaning intentions in reaching out to him to conduct this work.

But I am hoping you can also see what is wrong with this picture; an Anglo-Saxon man will be teaching emerging First Nations leaders, ‘how to be a leader’.

I want to use this example for us to PAUSE and REFLECT on how our actions can EMPOWER First Nations, Black and People of Colour. In order to do this, we need to first dive a little deeper.

When organisations seek to enlist non-Indigenous people to teach and lead work that pertains to First Nations people, it places white knowledge and ways of being as the supreme and dominant culture. When this happen, we suppress and oppress First Nations’ voices, wisdom, presence, existence, experiences and ancestral history.

The organisation may have meant well, but through this action they have enforced, endorsed and supported a white man’s privilege and power (and that of the ‘dominant culture’) and therefore are perpetuating a cycle of systemic discrimination and racism.

The placement of this man into the teaching/leading role, whether consciously, unconsciously or subconsciously, positions him as superior to program participants. We call this supremacy.

It is this thinking and actions (regardless if the intentions) that keep First Nations, Black and People of Colour locked out of what rightfully belongs to them. We call this systemic, structural and systematic racism and discrimination. Organisations, need to pause and rethink their actions.

There is a great need for systems to be dismantled and decolonized. Recent events have demonstrated what happens when we fail to dismantle systems to provide freedom and liberation to those that are oppressed.

The small example above is proof of the incredible amount of work that is yet to happen.

I want to implore organisations that operate on the principles of inclusion, and strength based approaches, to truly PAUSE and RETHINK their actions in seeking to assist, support, empower and promote First Nations, Black and People of Colour’s agenda.

We all have an important role to play in being active participants in bringing about systemic structural reform. It starts with dismantling our individual mindsets and beliefs we carry pre-packed as we step into adulthood. It starts with unpacking our privilege, dismantling our supremacy and actively working to remove bias/dominance within our families, relationships, communities and workplaces.

The first step is at an individual level, through the dismantling and decolonising of our own thoughts, biases and corresponding actions. Our thoughts should be – will my actions support and lift the flight of others? Or, will it keep First Nations People, Black and People of Colour subdued and locked into the paradigm of the perceived dominant culture?

It’s a new language to learn and way of being so I understand that this will be difficult and challenging to most. A once off workshop or virtual event won’t suffice – just like it wouldn’t if you were trying to learn a new language.

You need loads of practice. You’ll make plenty of mistakes, get it wrong more times than you will get it right and will need work at it consistently till you start to speak fluently and it becomes apart of your psyche and everyday life. This work does not stop with a one-off event, training session, workshop or initiative.

It is continuous and requires consistency, depth and empathy steeped in an intention to learn, unlearn and relearn. It requires a long-term commitment and dedication to doing this work internally and externally.

Black tiles on social media accounts are not sufficient. This is what we call ‘performative allyship’. It is not the deep work that we require you to do on a individual and or organisational level.

My investigations in the above situation revealed that at the core of the outcome – money was the motivating factor and it is my experience that in the western world, that money equals power. And so we continue to give more money and more power to those who already possess it, those of the dominant culture, and as a result we keep the cycle of oppression going around and around.

Here is where we need to learn from this example – both parties, the organisation and the individual contracted, in their course of action, did not – PAUSE to consider their moral responsibilities to source and support a First Nations person to perform this leadership work for other First Nations People. For both parties to continue with this thinking and mindset to arrive at their decision, we refer to as bias, privilege, supremacy and dominance.

This situation sadly is common and makes me wonder about the moral compass of people in positions of influence and power. These examples show up in many ways and forms in the workplace. Other examples are:

  • contracting non-People of Colour to conduct anti-racism workshops and or leadership programs/workshops for First Nations, Black and People of Colour.
  • non-First Nations people creating and contributing to organisational Reconciliation Action Plans.
  • non-People of Colour leading work on behalf of People of Colour with outcomes
    directly impacting us.
  • dismissing, not taking seriously, racism and discrimination complaints by People of Colour within the organisation.

These examples all involve people with no lived experience who have decision making power who are leading work for and on behalf of People of Colour. It is this thinking and action that perpetuates the cycle of suppression through the removal of our voices, people exercising their privilege and therefore the reinforcement of dominant culture. This is what systemic discrimination, racism, and oppression looks like in the modern corporate organisation.

First Nations, Black and People of Colour may not be bound by the physical shackles of slavery, but in this 21st century we are bound by the psychological shackles of slavery. Oppression is everywhere and the above example is testimony of this.

When the organisation contacted my colleague to teach, they removed freedom of choice for the First Nations participants, and First Nations Consultants and their voices were silenced and their expertise and experiences were devalued. This is the level of subconscious and unconscious bias we spoke of earlier that was involved in the initial decision by the organisation. This is what modern day slavery looks like.

When we review Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the second – safety – is barely met for the majority of First Nation and Black people, The Aboriginal lives matter and Black Lives matter movement is valid proof of this deficit. While for the proposed dominant culture /non-People of Colour their status is at the top (self-actualisation) having the luxury to ponder “what is my purpose”. We call this privilege.

In Australia we know that only 3% of people that sit in the CEO seat are from non-European, Indigenous backgrounds and 5% are senior leaders. If we broke this statistic down, it would be significantly lower, non-existent for Women of Colour.

Too many times, the ones that sit in executive positions get the opportunity to participate in expensive leadership programs, executive coaching and or conferences keeping them at the top. Being at this level of privilege provides access to top level continuous improvement activities to propel ones profession to the next level and promote those like them. As the saying goes, like attracts like.

For People of Colour, Black and First Nations people to not have access to such development and growth opportunities diminishes our participation and creates a ceiling to our advancement in the workforce with inequity and inequality being the disablers by the thinking of those in influence and privilege.

As a thought leader in the advancement of Women and People of Colour, my research shows that we are stuck in junior to middle management roles. We don’t lack qualifications, expertise or skills. We lack opportunity. Shutting the door of opportunity on us is a form of oppression. What we need to advance is mentoring and community. Why I hear you ask?

There is significant emotional tax that is paid by First Nations, Black and People of Colour particularly when we are the ‘only’ in a room, team, event, department, community and or organisation.

Providing us with community and mentoring (by People of Colour) provides us with the support structures we need to thrive and not just survive. I recommend ‘mentor the mentor programs’ where we work with a group of individuals over a 6 month period. We create internal support systems through a network approach and train a group of self selected People of Colour to be mentors to others in the organisation and across sectors (regardless of their position title). This approach also builds their leadership capacity and capabilities in a way that empowers and uplifts the individual and cultivates within them, resilience, personal power, agency and expertise. The program operates within a framework with the detail of the program fleshed out by the ancestral wisdom, values and beliefs of the collective group.

This is because any work that is targeted to support People of Colour must be led and created by People of Colour for People of Colour, nuanced according to the collectives unique needs and lived experiences.

My research has also shown that the number one thing People of Colour see is needed to advance, is community, mentoring and professional development opportunities that are specifically created by and for People of Colour.

You can do all the anti-racism and unconscious bias training you want. But this is only a band-aid solution. As much as white people want/need to do this training, giving them the opportunity without the equitable opportunity for People of Colour to participate in a mentoring or leadership program that has been nuanced to their unique needs and experiences, enabling them to advance, is a form of oppression and systemic discrimination and racism.

We are not giving them the necessary tools, strategies, resources, support, networks, templates and tactics to thrive let alone survive in the workplace. Instead we are first looking after the ‘needs of the dominant culture’ and leaving People of Colour to flounder. Potentially putting them in danger of the very people who are fresh from unconscious bias/an-racism training, who want to exercise their new ‘knowledge’ and skills with us and therefore jeopardising our psychological and cultural safety.

We can do all the diversity and inclusion work we want. But until we are brave enough to look at how we can dismantle organisational systemic discrimination and racism, and provide empowering, uplifting and equitable opportunities to advance, unfortunately, nothing will change for First Nations, Black and People of Colour. And this also applies to all Government departments, international aid and community organisations (and not just corporate organisations).

I hold onto the belief that as members of the human race can do BETTER. I know we can. And I know you can. We all have a role to play in stepping into the shoes of another and be the agent of change to assist, support, promote and empower First Nations, Black and People of Colour.

I have hope that some will. The brave few who are willing and able to get uncomfortable, be courageous and do the hard and difficult and challenging work of being true allies of First Nations, Black and People of Colour. The brave few who will front up and do the deep strategic work.

If you are in a position to do better and be better, than we challenge you to dismantle and decolonize your thinking to be more inclusive and act with integrity and transparency to create an equitable playing field.

In order for equity and equality to be reached we must shift how we view support and ask ourselves who we are truly supporting in this climate? Who is missing out?
The world is ready for First Nations, Black and People of Colour Leaders.

And, we are ready.

Will you be among the few brave enough to be true allies?

I know this work is uncomfortable, difficult and challenging. If you would like support please reach out. I’d like to help.

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