Power and racism in the workplace

Power and Racism in the Workplace - Nishani Ford
Blog by Nishani Ford, Lead People Partner, Human Resources, Oxfam International
Published: 12th March 2022

Assaulted and kicked out the door once they had ravaged what they wanted. Extreme as that may sound, it is how racism mixed with the seduction of power translated into in my life during my first job.

With naive innocence I entered the workforce, expecting that it would bring my lived and professional experience together. I also hoped that I would be empowered and enabled. Quickly, I learned that there was no congruence between what the organisation said to the world and how I experienced this personally, and instead I experienced racism and power structures, which created unhealthy politics.

My first encounter was being a witness to an act of power abuse, it was my first team meeting and I felt like a deer caught in headlights. In the meeting, I saw a woman who had recently joined the organisation taken down and bullied in front of her new team. After the incident her humanity was continuously dismissed no matter how brave she was.

This was raised to the highest power, and it was “humoured” and “tick boxed” and quickly swept under the carpet accompanied by an excuse of how busy everyone was.

The weight of the voices of the South

The incident really broke my heart, and the impact and scaring on me was traumatic. Still, I was asked to do my job and deliver what the organisation required of me. I knew instantly what task I was facing, and that if I failed, I would fail all brown girls and voices of the south.

I felt a huge sense of responsibility, which I brought upon myself and to make matters worse, no resources were allocated to the task I was faced with, nor funds or team. Of course, it didn’t help that my own line management changed six times in twelve months. Yet, I made no excuses. I knew how to harness the necessary resilience and do what needed to be done.

And I did, I de-siloed teams and brought them together, went in and addressed unhealthy politics whilst calling out the elephants in the room. Essentially, I did what I was convinced would benefit the entire organisation and not just the teams I collaborated with, and I did it! Despite the weight of responsibility and the brown girls I would want to walk in my footsteps. Wow, what an amazing feat to accomplish in a short space I thought to myself and honestly commendable considering I had to overcome power struggles, racism and being set up to fail.

But let me tell you, there were no pats on the back, no accolades, or notes of appreciation. Instead, once it was done and they got from me what they wanted, they declared that my work needed to be made redundant before they booted me out the door. Redundant – no longer needed or required by the dominating powers, even though my work was still needed within the community. But this was no place for collaboration or listening. All voices were silenced, and the people in power made the final call.

They got what they needed, and before they shut the door on me, I’m told to make sure my timelines will secure the end product they wanted.

Born into racism and apartheid – still, I rise!

There I lay, ravaged and “no longer required”. I bleed even now from the attacks I suffered during that time, and the attempts they made to reduce me to being nothing at all. I wept silently, grateful that I could switch off a zoom camera. This is what racism feels like to me. Silent tears cried on mute behind a camera that no longer sees my face.

It diminished my identity and humanity. It shattered my self-esteem and self-worth. I became quieter and invisible. Ashamed on every level and started to believe that I deserved this, that I had asked for it. Maybe it was the dress I wore or way I walked. I second guessed myself at every turn and felt useless. Nameless, exhausted, and hopeless.

Still, I rise!

I will not and won’t ever give in to your attempts to dehumanize and exploit me. Despite this racist assault and the trauma it caused, I will continue to declare my truth whether you decide to hear me or not. I may be exhausted, I may be weary, but I am not without breath, and as long as I have breath, I have life, and I won’t be quiet. My experience is not only my own, but of so many before me and I will carry on speaking out, for this injustice of racism and power must be brought to light. Enough!

I understand that my story will fill your day with discomfort, but I make no apology for that. I was born into racism and apartheid, and these are real stories lived over almost five decades.

I am done with tip toeing around this topic. Listen to me as I tell you what racism feels like in my bones, my bones which ache for justice and humanity. My bones, which are rattling now with fire to be heard.

“Power without Love is reckless and abusive - Love without Power is anaemic and weak.”

Martin Luther King Jr

Power – the great enabler of racism

We cannot talk about racism without talking about power. Racism is an act of dominance that typically arises within asymmetrical power dynamics, where the perpetrator occupies a more powerful or dominant position in relation to the survivor. Do we realize that injustice and inequality of every kind is an expression of power or a symptom of power structures?

The fact is that power lies at the heart of human relationships. So, when we try to change people’s lives, or tackle the injustices of racism that we face, we are trying to change the power equation.

We have all seen power and can usually recognize it when we experience it ourselves or witness it happen to others. But these experiences, when power is so easy to see, is only one form – or face – of power. In fact, power has three faces: visible, hidden, and invisible. It is important for us to recognize all the three faces of power if we want to advance anti-racism.

Hidden or indirect power, sometimes called agenda-setting power, is about who influences decisions or sets the agenda behind the scenes and whose voices are heard or consulted. We see hidden power between political leaders and religious leaders, private corporations or drugs or arms traders with whom they have close, but hidden, links. This means, that these actors can influence political decisions and policies without any visible power or right to do so.

Donors and foundations similarly exercise hidden power when they dictate what the best routes to social change are, or what social change should look like, and therefore indirectly control what social change organizations prioritize and work on – and what they can’t work on! This hidden power will also influence how money is allocated.

In organizations it’s who’s got a seat at the table in decision-making forums, who writes papers that can be positioned with senior leadership, who has influence to get matters signed off at record speeds and without any respect for processes. It is about who mentors who over dinners and social events. And boy oh boy – if you are not of the right colour, you can forget ever getting a seat at that table.

Those power circles are tight and conditional. They work like elite packs ready to take whatever they wish. They have the capacity to influence people’s opportunities, access to resources and rights indirectly, without giving direct orders or having any formal right to do so, and without being visible and thus hidden, or agenda-setting, power operates in both the private and public realms.

Invisible power is in many ways the most problematic of all the faces of power – precisely because it is invisible – until we know how to look for it and where to find it! And because of this, it is often the most difficult form of power to challenge and confront. Invisible power is the power to shape the way people think and feel about themselves. It is the force that creates racist attitudes and biases, and the way our desires and needs are influenced.

Assaulted by racism, hear my voice

One of the problems we face is that we think power is something that must be changed on the outside, in our societies or communities – not within our own structures and organizations. We rarely reflect on our own use and abuse of power, or we tend to think of ourselves as saints and saviours who are above power abuse. But to be real changemakers in the world, we must begin with ourselves or own organizations.

We cannot ask others to think and act differently if we are not willing to do so ourselves. We cannot ask others to change their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour if we are not willing to change ourselves. We can’t achieve real change nor racial justice without first analysing our own relationship to and with power.

Real change requires real money. Not countless workgroups or work streams where organizations ask the traumatized and impacted individuals to do more work for free, to champion the cause. We, the traumatized people, are already exhausted on every level and now we are expected to volunteer to champion this within the organization? And to add insult to injury, no real power nor mandate for decision-making sits in these workgroups.

Unless the time comes when we dismantle workgroups and put resources and funding behind anti-racism, we will always just be an illusion, a screensaver. The invisible power structures will continue to thrive and that leaves the leadership accountability a plain joke.

Frankly, if you are blind to the impacts of racism and claim unconscious bias, then please take a look at yourself in the mirror and own your responsibility in choosing ignorance as your tool of oppression.

Matters of racism fester in the undercurrents of abuse of this invisible power and until we are completely brave enough to make this connection, we will continue to just touch the surface of racism as a human rights issue. It is time to dismantle the power structures that enable this to damage organizations and societies from the inside and out.

Can leaders please stand up and lead? Can we stop asking traumatized victims to keep sharing their stories and putting the responsibility for change on the victim’s shoulders? It is not the responsibility of a traumatized victim to enable change. That lies with leaders, brave leaders who are willing to be set apart from the power cliques. Do you realise that when a person is unseen and unheard it silences their stories?

I need you to hear me. To really listen. Our human race is at a juncture. George Floyd could not breath. I cannot breathe. Now you have heard me, and my words will rise no matter how many times I am assaulted by racism. My name is Nishani.