Karima-Catherine Goundiam is the founder and chief executive officer of digital strategy firm Red Dot Digital and business matchmaking platform B2BeeMatch.
When someone does physical harm, it’s often easy to prove. But when the harm is caused by systemic racism, it’s difficult, because people will say, “Are you sure it’s really racism? Maybe it’s just you.”
With systemic racism, Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour (BIPOC) don’t get offers, promotions, mentoring, the support they need or the projects they want. All these things are very sneaky and not always easy to identify. In the corporate world, BIPOC encounter two kinds of organizations. In the first, they don’t want to talk about racism, and you’re the one with the problem. In the second, they want to talk about racism and you’re still the one dealing with the problem.
Systemic racism places the victim in a difficult position where they are isolated and second-guessed. This can then have a ripple effect where the person may start to second-guess themselves, too. This can bring everything to a halt if the victim doesn’t have strong self-esteem or support or if they ‘re not a fighter.
So what can be done about it?
Let’s start with a key decision you need to make as a person experiencing systemic racism in the workplace.
To fight or not to fight?
Every time I’ve been discriminated against, I had to choose whether to accept it or fight it, knowing the fight would not be easy.
Neither option is always right, and neither is always wrong. It’s a question of where you want to put your energy in.
There was clear systemic racism in one of my past workplaces, to the point where I almost sued them. Both of the lawyers I consulted said it was plainly racism, but they asked if I wanted to spend the next five years suing a company. Given my life plans, I decided to move on and do something else. I filed an internal complaint against a problematic director. Nothing came of it, but I felt at the time like I at least did something.
Later I learned that my complaint opened the door for other departments to say, “We can fight this person too,” because this director was awful in various ways to everyone. The director was eventually fired. It was too late to directly benefit me, but I learned that even a small act of resistance can make a difference to the people who come after.
I also learned that often systemic racism enables individual racism. A system that’s not actively striving to eliminate racism is often (perhaps inadvertently) fostering the conditions that allow it to persist. And in a complacent system, individual bad actors can thrive because there are no roadblocks to stop them. The roadblocks are placed in front of BIPOC employees instead.
Placing responsibility where it belongs
Systemic racism is exhausting. In coping with it, I’ve learned that I have a massive survival instinct and am equipped to fight. But I also realized it’s unfair of employers to ask me to use these skills in order to just do my job.
With that in mind, I don’t want to educate someone who is a victim of racism on how to cope with racism. You no doubt already have your own stories and are already figuring out what coping skills do and don’t work for you.
What we need to do is educate the people in positions of power on how to help in those situations. Don’t feel like you’re supposed to put on your Superman cape and solve all the issues. It’s an employer’s responsibility to create a safe working environment and a culture that prevents discrimination.
So let me conclude with a few words for employers.
I’ve written other articles about specific ways that employers and business leaders can take action. Beyond my writing, there are many great resources to help you get started or continue your journey of allyship in the corporate world. Right now, I have a simple message.
Discrimination wastes everyone’s time
As author Toni Morrison once famously said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
If you bring it down to economics, racism is a waste of time, resources, money and talent. To be an efficient manager, put a stop to it.
If a person breaks their foot, don’t take your time figuring out whose fault it was, just help them. If you’re a manager, watch for differential treatment of any kind, but don’t waste your time figuring out whether something is racist or not.
Just fix the problem.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.