When we say safe spaces, what does that really mean for an ethnic minority individual in 2022?

Ethnic minority individuals, two women sitting at a table on laptops, diversity

Article Dawn Whyte, Director of Business and Advancement Strategy at The Network of Networks (TNON)

The emotions that Black communities, all over the world, have felt in the past 18-months has been at points overwhelming.

As a Black woman, I have felt it deeply and have been unable to escape the constant news coverage, social media posts and online conversations, both positive and negative.

And as we turn towards a new year and a new chapter on our collective mission to eradicate racism and advance ethnic minorities in our workplaces, we all must look back at the trauma in the months gone by.

From the Covid-19 pandemic that disproportionately took the lives of ethnic minority individuals, to the public murder of George Floyd, these events are a painful reminder that racial and ethnic inequalities are at large in our societies and public institutions.

As I watched these tragedies play out on my phone and laptop, I grieved. The difference with experiencing this in a lockdown was that I could go through my emotions alone, behind my laptop screen, with my video turned off when I didn’t want to be seen.

I, like many others, was able to process what was happening around me without having to wonder what my white colleagues would say or how I should act to make them feel more comfortable.

Without this mask or filter, I was able to dig deep and have real and honest conversations with others. So many of my Black friends, family and peers have talked about never feeling like they could really show their full selves when something like this happened.

So, I started to heal. We healed with supporters and allies from The Network of Networks (TNON) community who took it upon themselves to personally reach out to their Black colleagues and friends. We began to heal through sessions that spoke specifically about #BLM and George-Floyd. And, we are healing together by openly talking about what’s next and what needed to happen after everyone posted their Black square on Instagram and all the companies made their pledges.

In spaces where we see and hear people who look like us, we are reminded that we are allowed to feel, to express our emotions and, perhaps most importantly, are validated.

As I write this, I am on my sofa where many of these conversations were had. I feel safe but for how long?et

With more of us returning to the office, how do we continue the conversations we had in the comfort of our living rooms? How do we ensure that what has happened over the past 18-months does not remain an anomaly when it comes to driving racial equity?

Why is it important to create safe spaces for ethnic minority individuals?

This is the truth: Ethnic minorities, overall, do not feel that they have the freedom to bring their authentic selves into the workplace.

Study after study has proven this to be true, and many ethnic minority individuals feel they must mask part of their identity around their colleagues.

Sadly, we live in a corporate system that was not built for ethnic minority individuals. It is a system where many turn up to work dreading the consequences of being themselves and covering up their difference, their history, their uniqueness, and as a result, their voice.

This is the product of a lifetime of structural racism which generates stereotypes towards those considered to be other. If businesses gloss over this bias, there is little challenge against group think and we will end up with change that barely moves the needle – or worse still, slides back.

In fact, a study concluded that previous exposures, or awareness to, discrimination has a snowball effect, of attacking an individual’s sense of self and potentially of personal safety. As a result, this produces symptoms such as anticipatory stress and hypervigilance to a possible future racist encounter.

Consequently, that person learns from a young age how to perform, how to be and act so as not to appear too confident, too loud, or too angry. Many readers from ethnic minority backgrounds will know of ‘the talk’. The talk that your parents have with you to say that you need to work 10x harder, be 20x smarter and act a certain way to make it in life. I was told that I could never act like my older male cousins otherwise I would be the angry Black woman.

As you read, think about how those who are in the minority at work might have acted if they had experienced the past 18-months at work – amongst the majority and in a system built against them. Silently, maybe. Alone, likely. Authentically, I imagine not.

Perhaps they would have been invited to share their thoughts and feelings in a space with their seniors, or maybe they would have booked out a meeting room in a bid to seek some form of psychological safety.

No matter which, it’s likely that their grieving time would have been restricted – 30 minutes in a meeting room perhaps, before they push their feelings in a bid to get straight back to work.

We will stifle progress on the racial equity agenda if this issue is not addressed.

There is no blanket approach in creating safe spaces

Thankfully, many businesses have committed to the deep work it takes to solve big problems. Those who have integrated or are looking to integrate safe spaces into their workplaces have already taken a positive step to create different outcomes for ethnic minorities in the workplace.

Psychological safety and permission to talk freely and openly about experiences of inequality and discrimination are essential. In fact, those in the minority of their workplace may have never had the opportunity to discuss their past experiences in a safe space with like-minded peers.

However, in looking to help heal those who experience racial trauma, there are, unquestionably, limitations in trying to create a safe space in an environment that already feels alienating.

Essentially, it would be naïve to assume that just because those in the majority have the privilege of feeling safe and seen in any group, that persons in the minority do too.

As I reflect on the 18-months gone by, the trauma experienced and the methods I and others like me have used to heal, we must acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits all approach to creating a safe space. Indeed, there is no playbook that says this is what it takes to move the needle on the race agenda, but there are always invaluable learnings.

So, I advise you; actively listen to your ethnic minority population and act on what they share. Actions speak louder than words. Hear their thoughts on this, and act on what they share with you.

Drive change with genuinely safe spaces

When ask myself, “What did I do to create real change?”, I’d like to say that, at a time when we needed it most, I helped leaders to be bigger, braver, and bolder in their ambition to create a space of belonging for ethnic minority people.

I would like to honestly know that I helped to continue our mission for racial equity and moved the needle forward.

And so, I’d like to pose the same question to you.

What will you say when someone asks, “How you did you create real change?”

You may not have the answers now, but I urge you to go and find them. Do something today. Have that courageous conversation with your Black, Asian or Ethnic Minority colleagues. Help someone else feel that they no longer need a mask and can speak freely knowing that they are safe.

Remember, representation matters. Actions speak louder than words.

About the author

Dawn Whyte is the Director of TNON, leading the business’ client advisory offering with an emphasis and talent advancement. She is responsible for business development and client success, product ownership, planning and successful end-to-end delivery of the business’ advancement portfolio which includes offerings for ethnic minority professionals, network leaders and the wider organisational ecosystem. In previous roles, Dawn has led the strategic execution of in-house Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (‘DEI’) programmes within financial services, legal and higher education.

Within her current role, Dawn has partnered with global clients across various sectors and geographies to create high-impact offerings to target the employee lifecycle of ethnic minority professionals as well as the wider ecosystem. Promoting deeper partnerships with current and new clients, Dawn’s work enables organisations to progress their journey to creating lasting cultural change.

Dawn has a Bachelor of Science degree in Geography. She is passionate about sustainability and educating others on the impact of global climate change, particularly in the Arctic, Africa, the Caribbean, small islands and Asian mega deltas. Committed to supporting the next generation of professionals, Dawn is an active mentor for students and recent graduates on strategic career planning, network mapping and leadership. 

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