Systemic racism in L&D

I’ve been writing about the problem of the lack of diversity, the bias we face in L&D, and about racism for years. I’ve spoken about it in public forums, and on recorded media. It is not a bandwagon topic, it’s something which I recognise as being harmful to the profession.

We are incredibly guilty as a profession of fooling ourselves into believing that because of the work we do that we are somehow immune to things like systemic bias, systemic racism in particular, not affected by either conscious or unconscious bias.

I hear professional trainers and consultants and L&Ders make incredible claims that because they focus on the business needs, or because they are taking direction from a client, or because they are not part of the organisation they’re working for, that they can’t be biased, and are in fact free from their biases, and do not act in ways that are directly harmful to others.

If we’ve learned anything in the years and decades of discussing systemic racism, it’s that it is in the defence of the system that we neglect to reflect on the hidden ways others may be impacted by our direct and indirect actions.

So I’m moved to comment about systemic racism in L&D. These are observations. This is not research led. You are free to disagree with my observations, and if you do, I encourage you to be articulate in your response.

Inclusion of voices from people of colour in design

When we are seeking to get SME input into our design and thinking of solutions, how often do we just accept that the SMEs (subject matter experts) are the best people to work with? How often do we look at the names provided and ask – could you provide me with a demographic breakdown of these SMEs? Can you ensure there is diversity of race? If not, you need to recognise that the data I will be using is biased by a homogenous group, and the solution will be biased because of that groups bias.

Delegate list interrogation

When we are ready to run either a digital learning or in-person session, how often do we take time to interrogate the delegate list? Asking similar questions as above? Can you give me a demographic breakdown of the list of delegates? I’ve identified that this group is made up in these ways.

If you’re doing repeat work with a client, what patterns do you notice of the people attending your sessions? I’ve noticed the group are regularly consisting of these groups of people. Could you let me know why? Are there people of colour in your organisation? How are they allowed to attend the training/development available for them? What are you doing to improve the diversity of your workforce?

It’s not my position mentality

This is the most insidious answer. It’s a get out clause. It’s washing your hands of any responsibility for what’s happening in society.

All it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.

Most of us are good people. We treat others with kindness, respect, and appreciation. We build up those we work with. We support and coach and mentor. We do helpful things for them.

But for some reason we choose not to act on topics important at a societal level? Why? Just because someone has the title of Head of Diversity and Inclusion, does not mean they are the only ones responsible for raising important issues and ensuring the system is not racist, or the system is free from bias.

As a professional in L&D, your moral conviction is as important as your professional capability. You can design and deliver great learning solutions? Fantastic. How are you also fighting systemic racism and upholding better societal standards for everyone?

Saying something is important

If you believe that there are bad things happening against Black people, and you are not voicing that thinking, you are complicit. That does not mean you automatically become a bad person, but there is a harsh realisation there that you are upholding a negative in society through your non-action. And it can’t be “well I’m trying to be respectful”, or “I’m trying to be balanced”. Who are you being respectful to? Certainly not Black people, otherwise you’d be making that clear. Balanced about what? If racism is a good thing or not?

Improve the diversity of your network

The amount of times I have heard – but Sukh, there just aren’t Black people in our profession. Wow. Just wow.

You’ve networked so much, that in all your years of connecting with others, you haven’t stopped to think – do I have trusted Black colleagues who I can work with to deliver my work? Not because you have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. How are we supporting Black people to deliver great work if we’re not including them in our proposals, our design thinking, our delivery of the work?

Erasure of people because you’re not looking in better ways is unacceptable.

Actively examine your pool of people

Building on the last point, take the time to really think about who you have in your pool of people you work with that you trust. I’m willing to bet they are majority White. That’s ok, it’s a starting point to recognise that.

Build on it by actively discussing with that pool how they are missing on having Black people in your pool. You don’t have to self-punish over these things. It’s not about your guilt or your shame. It’s about improving the opportunities and options for Black people they may not have otherwise. And it’s not about the point of view of a Black person, or if they can add a diversity perspective. It’s them. That’s it, it’s them being in the conversation. That’s the important thing.

In your tenders and requests for pitching

If you’re an in-house person, and the work you’re requesting is coming from a certain cadre of vendors / suppliers – are they themselves doing enough to include Black people in their solutions with you? Is their account manager a Black person? What about their lead consultant? What about their instructional designer? Their chosen facilitators?

How are you questioning your partners on these things? What are they doing to improve the diversity of their workforce so it’s not just a homogenous group?

If you’re feeling guilty or ashamed, fine, but that’s not the point

The hard thing about understanding systemic racism is that we all play a part in either how we uphold it or raise awareness to combat it. Understanding raises awareness. Awareness can be painful and uncomfortable. Good, that’s important for personal learning and to push through that is important for action.

The discussions you’re likely to have will be clumsy, uncomfortable and people are likely to get defensive. All that is how these things happen in reality. We don’t have enough honest and open conversations about racism and systemic racism. We’ve only learned how to be tolerant, not how to challenge ourselves and others on what systemic racism looks and feels like and what we can do to combat it.

Brilliant ideas, design and delivery

You know what it’s like. You’ve had a brilliant idea. You get in touch with those you know you want to get feedback from. You’re really into the design and working incredibly well with your partner(s). You’re all set for delivery, and ready to deliver a great learning solution.

In any of that, where are the Black people in your network to be included? All of the people who would normally be part of any of those pieces of the overall thing – are they from a mostly White background? What can you do to change that?

I can’t change the system

That’s just not a valid stance. If you don’t want to change the system because it’s hard personal work for you, be honest about that. You are benefiting from a White system, and it works for you, and you don’t want to create change for yourself.

Let me put it like this – a Black person is far more unlikely to benefit from the White system until they are included and accepted as being equal. You may say you’re not racist, but if you’re unwilling to change your practice, how can you confidently uphold that belief? What practical examples of inclusion can you point to in your personal practise that show how inclusive and accepting you are of Black people?

Also, don’t become an apologist for the system. The system – yes all of the systems in society – is racist. Keeping things as they are is upholding systemic racism, and if you don’t want to influence or change that, then you are complicit in it remaining so.

This isn’t about tokenism

First of all, Black people are not tokens. It’s an awful phrase, so don’t use it.

It’s about being anti-racist. It’s about recognising your collusion and complicity and inacceptance of having a better network of people in your life. It’s about understanding that pretty much for your whole life you may have been not racist, and that was never good enough. You weren’t being anti-racist, and you definitely were not being actively inclusive.

Inclusion, genuine inclusion, is about acceptance of your own failures in your personal decision making. It’s not about guilt. It’s that we’ve never really had to examine these things collectively in the way we’re doing now.

If you want to make a change, we can have really good conversations about that. There are hugely positive ways to seek out better diversity in your network, and what you are and not doing to enable that to happen in strong ways.

L&D Thinkers and Leading Voices

You know when you seek to quote L&D thinkers and the leading voices in the profession? How many are Black people? What research have you done to identify which Black people have prominent voices that you could be reading, listening to, and paying attention to? How are you including them actively in your ongoing personal learning, your reading, and your recommendations to you client groups?

I’m willing to bet most of the models, theories, and quoted individuals are from White people.

When I look in the wider L&D space, a lot of the “top thinkers” or the “leading practitioners” are White people. That’s problematic in and of itself right there! Are we really so blind that we can’t see that?

Change is possible

One of the powerful things we’ve seen in recent weeks is that more and more people are becoming alert to systemic racism. That in and of itself is powerful. What I’m hoping to do here in this piece is raise just how systemically racist L&D is itself. We can effect change. We can raise awareness and have incredibly difficult conversations, and when we do and they progress to personal learning and action, that’s powerful.

Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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