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Racism as a hindrance to managing diversity

Racism as a hindrance to managing diversity

Achmat Noor
Divisional Human Resource Manager- Medical Research Council


EDITOR’S NOTE: In the light of the recent conference on racism held in Durban this timely article is presented for you to consider; racism is seldom, if ever, dealt with by designers of diversity programmes, as an intervening variable, that can make or break many efforts to implement the spirit of the Employment Equity Act.

The central theme presented here is that "White Superiority" is at the root of racism in South Africa. I hope that this stance will produce some vigorous debate, and unlike the Durban conference will add some light, and less heat around the topic. Please email any comments to the editor about this article for possible inclusion in forthcoming issues of the newsletter.

# Introduction

Moving away from jargon and rhetoric, what exactly do we mean with the words "Managing Diversity" or "Celebrating Diversity".

There are surely hundreds of different textbook definitions that we can quote. A simple working definition for me is:

>> "Appreciating similarities and differences equally and at all levels of the organisation.’’

Lets analyse this simple definition.

>> "Appreciating’’ means to value.

>> With regard to ‘’similarities and differences’’, we seem to have no problem with recognising similarities, and valuing them in others. After all it is only human to approve of anything that is in our own image.

>> With "differences" its not so easy. This is made even more difficult by the fact that in the OLD South Africa, difference was used negatively. It is through difference that a hierarchy of power and privileges was created giving each of us a place determined by that difference. What we need to remember is that there is nothing wrong with difference; it is the meaning and value that we attach to the difference, which is important.

>> This brings us to the word "equally" in our definition. Contrary to what we were taught in the past we need to give equal value to that difference. We cannot celebrate diversity if we do not believe that differences, in the way others do things, in the way they think, their culture or their colour of their skin is equal to ours. In our rainbow nation all the colours must have equal value.

>> "At all levels of the organisation" This is quite obvious when 87% of the managers in the country are still white.

# Why do we need to manage diversity in our organisation?

Some of the textbook answers are:

+ Cost argument - as organisations become more diverse, the cost of doing a poor job in integrating workers will increase. Those who handle this well will thus create cost advantages over those who don’t.

+ Resource acquisition argument - companies develop reputations on favourability as prospective employers for women and people of colour. Those with the best reputations for managing diversity will win the competition for the best personnel.

+ Marketing argument - for organisations, the insight and cultural sensitivity that members with roots in other communities bring to the marketing effort should improve these efforts.

+ Creativity argument - diversity of perspectives mean less emphasis on conformity and will result in an increase in creativity.

Problem Solving Argument - heterogeneity in decisions and problem solving groups potentially produces better decisions through a wide range of perspectives and more through critical analysis issues.

+ System flexibility argument - the system will become less determinant, less standardised and therefore more fluid. Increased fluidity should create greater flexibility to react to environmental changes.

+ Legal requirement - The Act on employment and occupational equity requires organisations to conduct an organisational audit which includes information on employment, pay and benefits by race, gender and disability.

# If Managing Diversity can bring us these benefits, how do we go about doing it?

Legislation requires that companies use 3 strategies to comply with the law.

++ A Multi-cultural strategy

This does not mean Africanisation of our organisations. It means that our Organisational culture must be a blend of European, African, Asian and even Martian if that is beneficial to the organization. We therefore need to hold on to what is functional in the Euro centric culture, discard what is dysfunctional and add from other cultures that which is functional. The days of recreating the British Empire has come and gone. (Example of chair in BP)

++ Striving towards Employment Equity.

We need to examine our policies and practices. Is everybody treated equally with respect to salaries, perks, opportunities etc? Do we encourage Black people, women, or physically challenged people to join our organisations? Are offices designed to cater for the physically challenged? These are but a few of the issues that we need to address.

++ Affirmative action

As I have mentioned earlier, 87% of the managers in our organisations are still white - with a small % being female. I prefer the Afrikaans term ‘’ Regstelllende Aksie’’ to ‘’Affirmative Action’’ as it describes exactly what needs to be done. Since 1948 we’ve had a very successful affirmative action policy in South Africa. The only problem with it was that it benefited only a small minority of the population.

What I would like to move on to now is what hinders the process of implementing the above strategies. In fact I want to concentrate on the main reason for its failure, or limited success - RACISM.

In my experience as manager and consultant, this, with sexism a close second, is probably the one factor that has cost organisations millions of Rands though unsuccessful implementation of Diversity Strategies.

What is this evil - Racism that I am referring to?

Racism is not just about negative attitudes towards people of a different Race or colour. Racism is also not about just a deep prejudice based on race or colour. What I am saying is that Racism is much worse than those behaviours based on negative attitudes or prejudice.

Racism is rooted in an "Ideology of Superiority" where one group believes they are superior and the other group internalised this to such an extent that both groups start believing in their relative positions to each other.

Experientially, racism is rooted in an Ideology of White Superiority where white is not simply a colour, but rather encompasses a particular Western, European mindset, modus operandi, norms, culture, everything - in fact a complete way of life.

Racism relegates everything that does not fit into the western value system to an inferior position. That is why all cultures other than white Westernised culture becomes "ethnic". All other dress or food or modus operandi or way of life becomes "ethnic" or "traditional" while western dress or food is "normal".

Racism is normally underpinned by the following:

A power relationship built over a long period of time. The consequence of unbroken power by white people over black people. It helps the oppressor to feel good about themselves. It enters the culture of both groups. To some extent it is internalised by both.

It is self-reinforcing.

Racism is therefore a much deeper form of discrimination, and cannot be changed by working only on the level of attitudes and prejudice. The only way we can challenge racism effectively is to constantly contradict the Ideology of White Superiority. Please note I did not say reverse it, but said contradict it. We do not want to replace this ideology with an Ideology of Black Superiority!

Does this then mean that Black people cannot be racist? No, not at all. Remember the hierarchical structure of power and privileges that was firmly put in place in the Old South Africa with the White group on top, Africans at the bottom and the rest in between?

This formed the basis of our existence where everybody strived towards white norms. Coloureds and Asians knew that they were not white but they also believed, through their power and privileges, that they were better than Africans. Nobody ever applied for a ‘’Dom Pas’’ but there were many Coloureds who applied for white ID cards.

Racism has, therefore, affected all of us. I also believe that it not an either or situation. You are not either racist, or not racist.

I believe that the degree of our personal racism can be measured on a continuum with Racism at the one end and non-racism at the other. All of us is somewhere on that continuum depending on our stage of development at any given point in time.

I do not believe however that we can move positively unless we admit to our racism, much like being an alcoholic. The positive side to this comparison however is that racism is not an incurable disease. Racist behaviour has been learnt and therefore can be unlearnt by constantly contradicting the Ideology of White Superiority.

Now what has all this got to do with the organisation? Remember that the Ideology of White Superiority has affected more than 87% of managers as also Coloured, Asian, or even African managers can buy into this ideology. These are the very people we expect to carry out our fancy affirmative action strategies and implement the Diversity Programmes.

Their thinking and therefore their decision making will in some way be affected depending how much they are still locked into the ideology. The degree will also determine how much one Deficit Model thinking when decisions have to be made about Black people affects.

If you believe you are superior based on your colour, Black people will always be inferior to you and will never be able to do your job. A further implication is that, despite how nice the black people are, they will never be ready for a job on your level.

Bringing them into the organisation will automatically lead to lowering of standards. Ironically the converse of this is true as black people, and women will bring in skills unfamiliar to the organisation and therefore should enhance the standards.

It is because of this very reason that I have doubts about bridging programmes for black people. I believe that unless applied to all, this feeds the ideology rather than contradict it. This is a form of ‘‘benign’’ racism where the intention is good, but the result is racist.

In most cases in organizations, black people are now experiencing this kind of racism. Although the intention is different, the result is still the same as old fashioned racism.

Because of all of the above, I am convinced that managers cannot be effective in managing diversity unless they have been educated on Racism and other forms of oppressions like Sexism and Classism.

Training on these topics with benefit managers in many ways of which the following are but a few:

>> When managers behave in less racist, sexist or classist ways, they become better in managing diversity. This means they make better decisions about the development and deployment of human resources.

>> When organisations use human resources more wisely, productivity increases. Managing diversity therefore has a direct impact on increasing productivity.

>> Managers will become less blind to unconscious racism and become more aware of the implications of such behaviour.

>> It also produces a manager who is able to learn from people with other cultures and thereby enriching his or her own experience.

>> It frequently energises a manager through an increased sense of integrity and self - esteem.

>> It also creates a raised interest in learning as it normally involves a reassessment of general values which results in more conscious decisions about such matters as gender roles in the home, community involvement and work-family balance.

>> It also enhances a manager’s chances of becoming an effective role model for others behaving in anti-racist and anti-sexist ways.

In conclusion I wish to reiterate that managing diversity has tremendous benefits to the manager and the organisation, but without training in understanding racism and other forms of oppression, it will have little chance of succeeding.

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


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