Stephen Ashe: Why Russell Howard is wrong about workplace racism

Ben Wray

Stephen Ashe, co-ordinator of the Racism at Work project, looks in detail at the many-fold examples of workplace racism in the UK recent surveys have reaveled, and argues that comedian Russell Howard’s attempt to laugh at a booklet aimed at tackling this is borne out of ignorance about the extent of the problem

ON 31 OCTOBER 2017, Business in the Community (BITC) published the Let’s Talk About Race  booklet, in direct response to the findings of the 2015 Race at Work survey. Authored by Sandra Kerr OBE, the booklet was produced precisely because 63% of all people who took the survey “were not comfortable talking about race”.

So the booklet was designed to attend to this by providing “people with some simple do’s and dont’s to help break down barriers between colleagues who might otherwise feel uncomfortable asking questions or bringing up conversations about [race].”

To promote the booklet, Sandra appeared on ITV’s flagship breakfast show Good Morning Britain. A strong, perhaps even polarised, debate ensued. What is more, you only have to look at the responses to the debate on social media to get a sense of the different forms of support for, and opposition to, the booklet.

A few days later, the booklet became the subject of comedy when the comedian Russell Howard used his prime-time Sky television show, The Russell Howard Hour, to express his incredulity that “a booklet has been made telling white people how to talk to ethnic minorities” containing “insane” and “pointless advice” that “nobody would ever f*****g need”.

Howard’s three minute sketch drew attention to three items in the BITC booklet: 1) the question, ‘where are you really from?’; 2) asking women questions about their religious clothing; and 3) white colleagues touching Black women’s hair.

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Some 24,457 people took part in the 2015 Race at Work survey, with more than 5,000 providing personal statements. All told, these statements amounted to tens of thousands of words which catalogue the nature, extent and scale of racism in workplaces across the country. When analysing these statements we found that a considerable number of Muslim women had either been asked to and/or felt pressurised into removing religious clothing at work. The wearing of religious clothing was also often used to assess whether Muslim women were suitable for particular roles. What is more, Muslim women who did not wear hijabs, niqabs or burkas were often accused of being ‘fake Muslims’.

The findings from the Trade Union Congress’ (TUC) 2016/2017 Racism at Work survey adds further weight to the argument that the BITC booklet is necessary. 5,911 people took part in the TUC survey, with some 4,833 participants providing personal testimonies documenting their encounters with workplace racism. This amounts to more than 10,000 words capturing not only racism, but also sexism, homophobia, transphobia and disablism.

Being asked “where are you really from?” was a common experience for many TUC survey participants, with everyday workplace interactions reinforcing the idea that Britain is a white – rather than multiracial and multicultural – country.

A considerable number of survey participants also provided examples of workplace situations where their colleagues positioned them as belonging outside Britain’s borders. In fact, during such racist interactions it was frequently suggested that Black and Asian workers belonged to places characterised as ‘dirty’, ‘wild’, ‘savage’, ‘uncivilised’ and ‘backwards’. This was most evident in the racist suggestion that Black people belonged either in the ‘jungle’ and/or in a ‘zoo’. Such expressions of racism were also expressed alongside the idea that Black people are ‘subhuman’ and/or intellectually inferior to white people.

“African men told to sit and eat separately, as one man asked ‘why are we being treated this way?’ the depot manager said ‘if I wanted to see monkey’s eat I’d go to a zoo’.”

“Colleagues swearing at me…asking me to go back to Africa to jump on the trees or eat some bananas with my monkey friends.”

“A manager asking a black person if they had seen automatic doors in the ‘jungle’…implied a Black African chef would have only experienced cooking people or mud.”

In relation to religious clothing, the TUC survey also gathered a vast number of examples similar to those collected by the BITC survey. The most prominent examples related to the idea that hijabs, niqabs and burkas were either antithetical to ‘Britishness’ and/or a symbol of radicalisation and extremism.

“I work at law firms: insinuation I am a terrorist because I wear a hijab.”

“Stories I hear from my female friends who wear the hijab who are told to ‘go back home’ or ‘we fought for freedom so you do not have to wear that thing on your head’.”

“Been addressed by only my religion other than my name. Having been asked insulting questions about my religion and wearing a hijab. People trying to take my hijab off.”

Colleagues trying to forcibly remove a Muslim womans’s hijab also has some similarities with the forceful, if not violent, forms of workplace racism encountered by many of the Black women who filled out the TUC survey.

A substantial number of Black women reported that they had felt pressurised, if not explicitly forced, to conform to white aesthetic norms such as having to “straighten” their hair. A number of Black women also reported that white colleagues deemed it appropriate to touch or “tug” their hair, usually without their consent, and often to ‘check’ that their hair was ‘real’. The examples below provide insight into the everyday manner in which this type of racism continues to play out in the workplaces across the country.

“Having my hair (box braids) repeatedly pulled, quite hard because my colleagues are fascinated by it.”

“I have been touched and petted like an animal by complete strangers in the workplace. Made to feel like a curiosity.”

“Hairstyles for black women – pressure put on them to conform to ‘white’ stereotype for ‘neatness’.”

Across most racial and ethnic groups, women were more likely to report “unequal treatment” because of their “race”. In fact, Asian women were slightly more likely to report that they had been treated unequally because of their “race”.  Across all groups, women were also more likely to report that workplace racism had a serious impact on their work and/or their personal lives. Almost 20 per cent of women from a non-White British background reported that they had left their job as a result of racism. Not only this, a significant number of women reported that workplace racism had an impact on their physical and mental wellbeing. Across all groups, around 20 per cent of women reported that workplace racism had resulted in a period of sick leave.

The many and cumulative effects of workplace racism is powerfully captured in this statement by provided by one of the TUC survey participants:

“I’ve had three workplaces where I’ve had to bring grievances that were race related (racist in nature)…You can never absolutely prove it…It’s insidious. The ignoring you is as bad as the shouting at you…I ended up on anti-depressants and suicidal. It makes you forget who you are, your strengths, your abilities. I’m a skilled intelligent woman who’s worked for 35 years and I ended up barely able to send an email. It’s like the perpetrators don’t realise. Leaves you powerless. I’m having to leave my job and take a 10k wage reduction for a short-term post instead of my permanent one. It’s either that or my life. My children/family have insisted. They want me alive.”

Returning to Russell Howard, he may well think the world has “moved on” and that the BITC booklet is not necessary. However, it was wrong of Howard to position himself as judge and jury on the nature of workplace racism in twenty-first century Britain. Howard is so bemused and incredulous because the everyday reality of the workplace racism is not his reality. He benefits from the privilege that his whiteness and masculinity provides. He has little or no understanding of what it is like to be a Black and/or Muslim women in a white dominated workplace. He is spared the realities and consequences of everyday, institutional and structural racism. Howard’s reaction is typical of the kind of white offensive which tends to shut down any serious discussion of the pervasiveness and consequences of racism in the workplace. Mockery and derision in the name of banter is exactly the kind of reaction which makes so many people uncomfortable talking about racism at work.

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Whether you agree with the content or style of the booklet, the depth of evidence gathered by the BITC and TUC surveys confirms that such a booklet is absolutely necessary. We cannot shy away from the fact that a substantial number of survey participants used both surveys to oppose anti-racism, ‘political correctness’ and various equality and diversity initiatives, as well as to express racist views.

Rather than treat workplace racism as the subject of banter or comedy, perhaps Howard should take a leaf out of Russell Brand’s book and enrol on a degree programme where he can better educate himself on the history and contemporary nature of racism in this country. Perhaps Howard could take the time to read BITC’s Equality, Diversity and Racism in the Workplace report.  If he’s too busy, perhaps start his journey to a better understanding of workplace racism by listening to one of Brand’s Under the Skin podcasts on the historical nature of racism. Perhaps after doing so, Howard could apologise for his ignorance. Imagine the headline: ‘White comedian uses his platform to challenge workplace racism’.

Business in the Community has recently launched an updated version of its 2015 Race at Work survey. The current Race at Work survey is open until Wednesday 2 May 2018. To take the survey please click here.

Stephen Ashe (@sd_ashe) leads the Racism at Work project. He is co-author of the Equality, Diversity and Racism in the Workplace report. His new co-authored report Racism Ruins Lives, based on the TUC’s 2016/2017 Racism at Work survey, will be published later this month.  

Picture courtesy of Isabelle

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