Institutional racism: what are you doing in your sphere of influence?

In the past couple of weeks, the world has said enough is enough when it comes to racism. There have been protests around the world since the killing of #GeorgeFloyd.

Following the global uprising against racism and protests in a number of cities, systemic changes have began including redistribution of funds from police departments to community organizations, housing projects in, at the time of publishing this post Minneapolis, L.A and Seattle. While those big picture changes feel good, there is still a lot that needs to be done and those changes do not absolve us, neither collectively nor individually to do something particularly within our sphere of influence.

In my 20 years in Canada, I have found racism to be one of the most difficult conversation topics to have, particularly in the professional setting. A lot of people of colour and particularly black people have experienced and continue to experience both overt and covert racism, and yet it is so hard to address because there is such a disavowal and unwillingness to have these discussions. While our neighbours to the South may get a lot of flack for the current state of affairs, Canadians often pride themselves in being better than the US in many things including health care and racism and yet racism still occurs both systemically and in targeted ways against BIPOC - Black, Indigenous and People of Colour.

Why is it so hard to talk about racism in Canada?

I honestly don't know the answer to this question, but what I do know is that it is very challenging to resolve what you are not yet willing to identify as a problem. I stumbled upon this graphic on twitter and it helped me understand where folks may be with respect to dealing with and fighting against racism particularly in Canada.

It explained so much to me and helped me understand that individuals and institutions were mostly in the fear-zone and that at least put things into perspective. How do you go from being fearful to actually being proactive in being anti-racist in your sphere of influence?

Here are some areas for you to start:

1. Have an honest look at the employee equity groups in your organization

Does your work place have statistics on the employee groups represented not just anecdotally but officially? How does this compare to the proportions in the general population? This would be a good place to start so as to establish the make-up of your staff compared to the demographic of your city/town.

Why is this important: In order to address any systemic race issues, it is important to have the data to support the situation. For example in the US it was quite clear that COVID19 has a much larger impact on African Americans thanks to data to support this. Without this data in Canada we cannot establish whether COVID19 affected all Canadians equally. Policy makers cannot therefore come up with solutions that target those who are unfairly affected groups. If you organization doesn't yet collect this data, it is important that it start doing so, so that it forms the basis for change. Statistics Canada will now collecting data on race-based job data from July 2020.

2. What types/level of positions are occupied by people of colour and particularly by black people in your organizations?

Once you know the diversity of your staff, explore the types of positions that your black staff occupy in the organization. How do the positions occupied people of colour compare to their education and/or competencies? How many people of African-descent are represented in higher levels of management.

Then ask yourself: What can you /are you doing to improve this?

A lot of immigrants and particularly black people are forced to take positions far below their competency level because they are not able to break in to the system. The answer is not to deny these people these roles but to explore how to nurture them into positions that better reflect their skills, abilities and training. Also, people often network and mentor those that look like them which means if you have few black people at upper management and you're mentoring those you look like you, then you will not be supporting career development of these employees. Rather than hope this happens "organically" which often means through nepotism, how can you proactively encourage career development for people of colour who would otherwise not be included in the natural forms of networking.

3. How is unconscious bias preventing you from diversifying your hiring pool

Several studies have shown that the names on resumes have an impact on who gets called for an interview and eventually hired. In 2019 a study analyzed data from 97 field studies and found that visible minitories in Canada are more likely than those in the US to face discirmination during hiring. You can read the full study here. Unconscious and conscious bias is preventing organizations from seeing potential in black employees particularly those without Anglo-Saxon names.

Now before you come at me with not just adding people because of their racial back ground. There are many examples of incompetent leaders, mostly white males who are occupying positions of influence. Competencies are often only talked about when discussing the need for more women and/or people of colour in positions. Secondly, there are several competent, I dare say over-qualified black employees who ought to be occupying higher levels of employment including management but who are shut out due to systemic racism. It is as much a disservice to black employees to be considered affirmative action quota for the organization, they are often not only qualified but very competent and not just brought in to fill a diversity quota. If you haven't found any, have you made a call for these employees? I am NOT saying hire black people for the sake of having "diversity" in your organization. I am saying ensure that systemic racism and bias is NOT preventing you from seeking out competent qualified employees who happen to be black. If it is the latter, see how to cast your net broadly so you are able to find the quality candidates of diverse backgrounds because they DO exist!

4. Are there any covertly racist hiring policies?

Building upon hiring practices, in Canada, employers often insist on "Canadian experience" as a basis of hiring. For new immigrants and even those who have been in Canada for over 10 years, this becomes a catch 22 because you can't get a job particularly in your field, because you can't get a job. For those early in their careers or who have recently arrived in Canada particularly of African descent, it is challenging to get an interview let alone a job offer. In order to sustain your family, professionals with multiple diplomas are forced to get low-paying jobs either at call centres or Tim Hortons or McDonalds to get food on their table. They then end up trapped in this cycle where they can only get the same type of job and are unable to break into a professional job that matches their competencies. This affects not only their finances but also their mental health. If you keep hiring those who look like you, then you will not be able to diversify your work pool. Networking is often talked about as a way in, however, if you only network with those who look like you, then how will those who don't look like you get the opportunity to get in.

We are not asking for special treatment or free jobs, just a fair chance like everyone else to prove our competencies - Career Slay Mama

Another vicious cycle particularly to black Canadians is that the challenge of not having mentors or networks in organizations compared to other visible minorities who are more represented in the Canadian workforce particularly in higher levels of management.

How can your organization break this cycle? Are there bridging programs that allow newcomers to leverage their international experience? The Federal Internship for New-comers Program is one example of such programs, but much much more is needed both in the public and private sector. Diversity training is not enough.

Organizations need to pursue ways to proactively create opportunities to allow immigrants, people of colour and particularly black people to have a chance at a foot through the door - Career Slay Mama

5. Are there any overtly racist policies

One of the key ways in which black people in Canada and particularly immigrants experience systemic racism is through employment and education. Canada is a blessed country that welcomes people from all over the world to immigrate and settle here. We are here because this country has promised and in many cases delivered on a better life for ourselves and our children and for that we are grateful. That being said, the lack of recognition of education taken on in other countries constitutes a HUGE systemic barrier for immigrants. It is one of the first tangible rude shocks experienced once in Canada.

Professionals who were doctors, lawyers, engineers, pharmacists, chartered accountants and other groups arrive in Canada only to find out that their education is not recognized. Even when they go through arduous and costly process of verification of diplomas, these efforts often prove futile. There are more than 2000 internationally educated doctors who have passed all the required Medical Council of Canada examinations BUT who because of systemic racism are not accepted into residency postions that go unfilled year after year. This is not just a myth: the Quebec Human Rights Commission found that foreign- trained doctors endured discrimination based on the ethnic origin when it comes to practising medicine Canada in the report released in 2010. Everyone knows of the shortages of family doctors in Canada. Since then nothing has been done to address this issue.

Engineers, for example, are forced to return to school and get a trades certification and even then, they still have challenges getting jobs. It is dehumanizing, demoralizing and unjust. This issue is particularly close to my heart as we have experienced it directly in our household. If there is an area that required systemic reform, it is in employment opportunities for people of colour particularly those who have training from outside of Canada. While professional standards need to be maintained in many fields, a clear path that is attainable needs to be charted as the whole of Canada will stand to benefit from more professionals contributing to the Canadian economy in a meaningful manner.

Following the global uprising, the availability of information and awareness, there really is no excuse for being in the fear zone except that you choose to be there. A lot of people and organizations are slowly getting to the learning zone and this is still a scary place to be especially if its the first time you are venturing beyond denying racism exists to educating yourself about race and structural racism. Rather than release press statements that only appear to pay lip service to this very important issue, I am challenging both the private and public sector and individuals of influence in Canada to back these statements with real systemic change.

SoundCloud audio version coming - this weekend - its been a busy week y'all.