Date published: 6 October 2022


#InclusiveHR is a social movement for change to improve the experience of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic HR& OD professionals and colleagues within the NHS. We want to close the compassion gap and advance equality,diversity and inclusion and lead with credibility as a HR & OD profession. In a series of monthly articles we focuson various aspects of the social movement for change, today Amanda Oates, Executive Director of Workforce atMerseycare NHS Trust talks with conviction about the steps she has taken to ensure she utilises her privilege tochange the reality for so many that are subject to every day racism.

Becoming actively anti racist, owning my privilege and changing the power dynamics

Amanda Oates.jpgHello. My name is Amanda and I am a 52 year old white woman. Naively, I thought that becoming actively anti-racist would be easy for me, particularly given my strong personal beliefs and values, my leadership journey, and my pioneering work on Restorative Just and Learning Culture. From what I have learned through the insight and wisdom of people whoknow, this was my power and privilege talking to me; reaffirming that I was doing what I could, when I could, and because I could. This is a privilege that too many of our BAME colleagues don’t have – they can’t pick and choose when they face racism and discrimination, and we hold our own beliefs about how we think they should deal with it. *BAME is the preferred description our network has chosen to use at this time. Before I share my own anti-racist journey, some of you may remember over four years ago, having launched our just and learning programme three years earlier, we released a pivotal YouTube film that changed our thinking and attitude in a number of ways. In that film, I alongside other leaders shared our vulnerabilities and learning about our people processes and the hurt our people had experienced as a result. Whilst, a lot of external colleagues thanked me for our bravery in sharing, I remember many people expressed concern for mysecurity as a people professional, my organisation’s reputation and my own openness about what could have been perceived as a blame culture.

Today, I’m happy to say that my personal and professional journey is built on this important work and is at the forefront of a new way of thinking, not just for our trust, but for the NHS as a whole. Reflecting on our people processes I do however still see examples of systematic racism that continues to exist despite the ground breaking work on restorative just and learning culture. I now find myself having to hold that honest mirror up to myself and my organisation’s practices once again, looking at my own implicit bias, my unconscious knee jerk prejudices that may have subtly guided my behaviour for a long time. However, simply framing it in this way, does not go far enough, and my learning has highlighted that I need to do intentional work on becoming actively anti racist if we are to change things for the better. This is where the really important work has to begin. Part of that work has to accept that some racist beliefs still exist within us all, as well as within me. We may not want to face this as an uncomfortable truth but we have a duty to own it, question it, learn about it and re wire our thinking to constructively see, question and challenge racism more. And we need to do that actively, every day and in everything we do. As referenced in our ‘Restorative Just Culture in Practice’ book, Mersey Care people processes are shaped to take into account cultural sensitivities; yet we cannot ignore the fact that NHS BAME staff continue to be disproportionately involved in formal investigations than their white colleagues – that’s privilege and power right there.

So what have I personally done to reflect on the impact of race on our staff and our communities?

My journey to the beliefs I hold today, have included wideranging research, engagement and many, many conversations with people of colour. These conversations and insights have often left me feeling embarrassed, defensive, tired, challenged and uncomfortable. I have questioned my motives – am I doing this to make myself feel better, to absolve myself of shame? Is this just my ego wanting to be seen to do good or the right thing? Or can I take this opportunity to use my privilege to truly challenge and eliminate racism and discrimination. I have been able to be shown how my behaviours, words, microaggressions and actions might have reinforced my white privilege (See John Amaechi’s explanation of white privilege) and fuelled the white saviour in me. We all carry prejudices, and I am no exception. I have discovered that the real skill is being aware of them and developing the tools to keep them in check. And I can say from very personal experience that this requires constant work and attention. I have started to question myself more, asking why I think that, said that, accepting that at times I have put my white fragility before the marginalised and in doing so marginalised others even more. In simple terms, I now realise that I have put my own discomfort first. What I am even more embarrassed to share, is that following the huge social movement of Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd, I reached out to BAME staff and colleagues to help me, yes help me, to understand the issue and ask what they could do to help? How arrogant to ask those who are suffering to help the person with privilege! At the time I did not think about how that might have caused further pain and hurt. My learning has led me to reach out to those colleagues to acknowledge and apologise for my behaviours and actions and ask forgiveness for any further pain I might have unknowingly caused.

The organisation where I work is now starting to embrace the language of anti-racism. Our workforce function and executive team are undertaking some collective learning and are all being asked to read ‘The Good Ally’ by Nova Reid as part of their personal and professional development. We are explicitly stating that saying ‘I am not racist’ is not just a given; it’s also an expectation, and a very firm requirement. Our aspiration is that everyone working for the NHS should be actively anti racist, we believe most will and do challenge overt racism for example racist slurs or jokes. However, there exists a whole set of covert behaviours and language that is still socially acceptable such as colour-blindness or white silence, which many people might not even consciously realise that they are communicating. It is these behaviours/microaggressions that I think are really important to understand, discuss, challenge and actively prevent.

Moving away from the individual, society reinforces this power dynamic which is why we see white privilege in every area of life. Systemic racism means if you are BAME you can expect: poorer health outcomes; you will have barriers to accessing care; you will be discriminated against because of stereotypes of aggression or inappropriate life choices; you are more likely to live in social housing; you are less likely to be educated at a red brick university; and you are more likely to die in childbirth. Sadly this is not the end of this list and this is something that we should all want to challenge and improve. To be truly anti racist we first have to acknowledge that structural racism still exists in 2022. Being actively anti racist is more than a state of mind, it should be our destination. We need to re wire our thinking and minds to understand, challenge and address racist behaviours if we are to create a more equal, diverse, inclusive NHS with a true sense of belonging and just culture for all.

To be truly anti racist we first have to acknowledge that structural racism still exists in 2022. Being actively anti racist is more than a state of mind, it should be our destination. We need to re wire our thinking and minds to understand, challenge and address racist behaviours if we are to create a more equal, diverse, inclusive NHS with a true sense of belonging and just culture for all. So where do we start? For me that starts within my own profession. As a senior (white) Chief People Officer, I am reviewing how my upbringing has internalised bias, power and privilege and how this has been influenced through my education, experience and even through the history of colonialism we have in this country. I have ripped off the plaster of self-righteousness, and of the belief I held that I am one of the good ones. I have stopped being silent and am now unapologetic in this space. Silence or not taking action is as bad as colluding with the oppressors. This often means that I have difficult conversations not just at work, but with the people I love. As NHS people professionals we must lead by example in tackling these issues. I have already outlined some of my team’s development, I must equally praise the work of Cheryl Samuels and London HPMA regarding the #InclusiveHR toolkit and movement. If HR/ OD departments are not already looking at this, I would ask simply why, in a multi-cultural country, if you aren’t including this in your planning then why not? HR and OD functions are integral to tackling racism and building an antiracist workplace, so we surely have to look at our profession and start leading by example.

We have already completed steps one and two of the #Inclusive HR toolkit which show the challenges our BAME population have in accessing employment in our team and then when people are successful in getting a role, they face disadvantage in work. This month we will be speaking to the BAME staff in my team as we embark on step three. The NHS People Plan and People Promise need to be enacted and that has to start within our own organisations before we can authentically lead our wider NHS to become more inclusive and to foster truly inclusive environments where everyone can feel safe and welcomed. My organisation is currently developing an anti-racist strategy in collaboration with our BAME network, led by my wonderful Organisational Effectiveness team who are driving a behavioural and mindset shift programme of work to build psychological safety for all. This is intense, difficult work, and I am in awe of our BAME colleagues who are supporting this work and holding us to account. BAME colleagues cannot shoulder this alone, and it is for white colleagues to own and use their privilege to drive forward racial equality and justice.

One of the challenges faced by my trust is the language of white privilege, given the populations we serve are some of the most deprived communities in the country. It would however be wrong for us to assume or say that all white people are privileged and indeed that all BAME staff are deprived. This has never been more apparent given the cost of living concerns for many of our patients, service users and staff. However, there is a key differential; a white person’s difficulties are never driven by their race. We are discussing how we appropriately represent our language more, without silencing or hurting those communities in difficultly or other marginalised groups. However, we have to equally ask if we are changing our language in order to make white colleagues feel better, and if we do this, we will be missing the point and therefore simply provide another example of white privilege playing out. It’s a delicate balance, and we have to be mindful of the messages this gives every step of the way. We have a long way to go, but together we are driving towards justice for our BAME colleagues. Justice can take equity one step further by addressing the systemic racism which only serves to reinforce the racism that is entrenched within society. I would say if you’re not feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable in this space, are you really doing the work? I am no longer a bystander, but my aspiration is to be a change maker in this space.

The above interview was taken from the HPMA October 2022 newsletter.