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The status quo needs disrupting but the road to systems change is rocky

A crowd of people protesting against racism at a Black Lives Matter march. The people are wearing masks and holding cardboard signs
Image: Livvy Adjei. Black Lives Matter protesters in London, June 2020

Covid has shown up for racism. It has prized open the inequities that exist in so many spheres of life, especially employment and education.

The death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter, protests coinciding with the early months of the pandemic, created space for deep reflection.

Questions were asked. Can I accept my privilege and not feel defensive? Can I be unblinded to the racism stitched into our social fabric? Can I unlearn years of toxic conditioning that leaks through the air from the playground of my youth to my Facebook feed?

For people of colour such questions are baseless. Racism isn’t optional. This kind of soul searching is a form of privilege. For people of colour, the most important question is ‘What next? How do we achieve equity and hold those responsible, accountable?’

You cannot simply wake up, then hit snooze.

Problematic systems

I work as a researcher for McPin, most recently on the Black Thrive Employment Project, which McPin are evaluating. The project is led by Black Thrive and seeks to improve employment outcomes for Black people with long-term conditions through systems change. Broadly, systems change refers to an intentional, radical journey to permanently change a problematic social system. It involves disrupting and transforming all elements of a system; values, attitudes, relationships, behaviours, power dynamics , policies, processes and resource flows. People involved in systems change believe racial narratives, including biases about people not ‘like us’, represent the hardest element of systems change work. That’s because they are historically and deeply embedded in many aspects of our cultures and societies, living under the radar of conscious awareness, yet shaping our world views.

Here is an example of racial biases at work. An assumption that has been made of me on a number of occasions: ‘I bet you can handle really hot food!’. This kind of statement makes me really hot under the collar, and not because of my relationship with chillies. It is invalidating and grossly misrepresentative; caricaturising my personality based on one aspect of my identity, my ethnicity.

It also highlights a collective ignorance of the complicated interplay of discrimination, ethnicity, migration and empire.

Colonial appropriation

Modern racism has a complicated, convoluted history. Much of the racism we feel today can be traced back to colonial exploits of the empire. Used to justify various practices and ideologies, such as profiting from the commodification of Black bodies to the ‘civilisation’ of the world by White saviours, these socially constructed beliefs still permeate our modern lives. Visible in institutional practices such as the over-policing of Black people to the subtlest microaggressions of day to day to day life.

The Vindaloo, a famously fiery curry dish, is an appropriation of European colonialism. It is not originally Indian! Brought to India by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, the dish was adapted by the Portuguese Catholic community that settled in Goa, using local ingredients. Red chillies were also an import to India, thanks to the Portuguese travels in the Americas. When the British expanded their hold of India in the 1800s, Goan chefs were in high demand because they did not have to conform to dietary restrictions related to Indian religions, or social restrictions embedded in the caste system of Indian culture. Vindaloo’s rising popularity eventually came full circle. The dish made its way into English curry houses, billed as the hottest thing on the menu!

Initially I found this story of cultural exchange and evolution tantalising. However, bring in the context, the bloody history of European colonial expansion and the pallet quickly sours. When you fully absorb the atrocities of the past, you find that most flavours of contemporary life are tinged with bitterness.

Mental shortcuts

In my Black Thrive work, I have had numerous informal conversations with colleagues about the kind of racism we have experienced in our work journeys. Most are subtle yet leave a deep impact and can really set the tone of your career path.  I think some of the most harmful, insidious forms of racism are when people cannot see it in themselves. The unconscious ones. Racist sentiments spread within self-inoculated bubbles of declared innocence: ‘I’m not a racist, but….’

As this happens in my own family, I feel the need to understand it. One possible explanation lies in the psychology of heuristics and biases. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that make life easier. Working under the radar of conscious awareness, they help us to navigate routine decisions and judgements such as what to wear or how to drive down a familiar road. Saving cognitive effort on this ‘easy stuff’ frees up mental space for the stuff that requires discipline and control, such as parking in tight space or arithmetic!

The first type of thinking is intuitive, fast, automatic, effortless, emotional and associative (in that it links perceptions to memory and ideas).  It is sometimes referred to as System 1, for example, in Daniel Kahneman’s well known book Thinking Fast and Slow. It was especially important when our early human ancestors needed to make snap decisions about what was lurking in the trees to avoid being eaten by large predators. However, despite it still being useful in helping us make sense of the world, System 1 is prone to errors, or biases. According to Wikipedia, there are 175 known cognitive biases. Kahneman states System 1 is impossible to control, we cannot change it or stop it. The famous Muller-Lyer illusion is a classic example. Even when you are made consciously aware of the optical illusion, we cannot help but see one line longer than the other.   

So, if we accept this theory of how our brains work, can racism happen without our awareness? Could one of those 175 biases, known as affinity bias, explain aspects of modern racism? This is the bias that makes us favour people who share the same social background and who look and sound like ‘one of us’.

Disrupting the status quo

Could stereotyping (another bias) explain why Amy Cooper, in the early days of lockdown, called the police when a bird watcher who respectfully asked her to follow the guidelines and put her dog on a leash in Central Park? “There is an African American Man recording me and threatening my life. Please send the cops. Immediately,” she yelled. Emotionally and without much hesitation, it seemed, she leapt on a prejudicial judgement about Chris Cooper. Was this the work of System 1? Creating quick associations between what was happening in the moment and connecting it to what she may have heard and seen many times in the media, in history books or certain political arenas? The message that Black men are dangerous. Was the collective conscious, priming her individual, perhaps, unconscious racism?

I’m not sure. It was recently in vogue for employers to engage in unconscious bias training under the banner of equality and diversity. Such training may foster greater self-awareness, but it can also remove a sense personal responsibility; ‘I can’t help what my unconscious is doing’. It also begs the question: What next? What is awareness without action? 

Black Thrive’s Employment Project is attempting to provide this action by taking on racism at multiple levels. Working with the council, local employers including the NHS, Black-owned businesses and the local Black community to improve job prospects for Black people with long term health conditions in Lambeth. The path is spikey. The enthusiasm for wholesale change to happen ‘now’ within the civic sphere is met with stagnancy and tokenism among certain elements of larger institutions. Do these powerful organisations really want to disrupt the status quo? What meaningful changes can be achieved in the two-year lifetime of the project is a question all invested stakeholders, including us as evaluators, wrestle with. But these kinds of attempts are what is needed if are systems and society are ever going to become more equitable.


To read more about the Black Thrive Employment project, please visit the project page here.