About racial harmony

Lindiwe Mkhondo
Lindiwe red 2 (2).jpg

Why should we keep talking about racism, at home, socially and in the work-place? Working towards racial justice, fairness and equality is a moral imperative.

Racism is a complex and emotional subject. Introduce the word “racism” and ask business people what emotions it evokes. The emotions that often get shared are anger, hurt, pain and frustration. Racism and its impact is an elephant in room, people struggle to engage with it. Despite the discomfort we need to talk about racism because many people today still experience the heel of oppression.

The impact of racism runs very deep in the veins of every South African: racism left an indelible mark and wounding. The pain is suppressed out of awareness. Racism wounds have no narrative, no voice, they are unsharable and they got plastered in band-aid and buried in a hole of secrecy. These emotional wounds are the roots from which current racial tensions breed. Do emotions and narratives of our past have platforms in our organisations?

Make no mistake. Blatant, overt, conscious racism declined since 1994, but unconscious forms persist and these are no less devastating. While we claim that “everything is normal” we run the risk of maintaining the status quo.

It is a good thing that racism and inequality have been on our lips a lot during the past six months, through many incidents such as the Fees much Fall, The Penny Sparrow “black monkies” jibes, the Chris Hart “entitlement” debacle and many more. The question is what conversations have these incidents sparked in our boardrooms?  

In committing to end the cycle of racism there needs to be broad understanding and acknowledgement of all manifestations of racism in organisations:

·      Interpersonal: Do subtle unintended words and actions tend to create racial tensions in your organisations;

•        Internalised biases:  Are there manifestations of internalised inferiority or superiority which become breeding grounds for racial dynamics?

•       Institutional: Does your organisation continue to have entrenched cultural assumptions that do not reflect diversity?

•       Structural: Does your organisation continue to have persistent structural disparities between blacks and whites?  What messages does your organisation portray about the different races?

The fact that 70% of top management positions filled by whites versus 30 % by blacks in South African organisations, continues to perpetuate the lack of potential of black people.

Organisations need to remember that racial outcomes do not require racist actors. They need to constantly introspect whether they perpetuate racism through certain acts of commission or omission.

Racism is a noxious weed and must be rooted out in organisations. This is a systemic challenge that requires a paradigm shift in leadership, individuals, teams and the organisations.

Leadership challenge

Ending racism in organisations is a leadership challenge. Leaders need to be change agents for building racial harmony in organisations. Change starts with them. They need to test their own assumptions about racism, acknowledge their own blind spots and heighten their awareness about race dynamics. They need to be proactive and able to take the lead in dealing with race issues. Organisations need to develop courageous leaders who can facilitate courageous dialogues and create new levels of engagement about racism and transformation.

Leaders should have a clear vision and strategy about racism. They need to pronounce zero tolerance to all forms of racism, be willing to do culture reviews and employee surveys. Leaders have a responsibility to communicate new narratives that reframe the transformation agenda as a means to redress rather than an anti-white racist agenda. Do organisations really hold leaders accountable for building racial harmony in the organisation? Leaders should imagine what would happen if their organisation stopped everything for a day and stared the elephant in the room “racism” in the face. Do leaders have the courage to take this stand?

Team challenge

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” It is a strategic business imperative for organisations to build cohesive and high performing teams. Teams can be safe platforms for crucial conversations about racism. Team members can share personal stories to get to know each other on a deeper level. Teams can build their Racism Intelligence by learning how certain behaviours and statements make others feel. This is an opportunity for talking constructively about racism and its impact, not to personalise things, to listen, understand and be understood. This is an opportunity to rehumanise each other, acknowledge, build compassion, authenticity and trust. There is a definite leadership challenge to ending racism in organisations.

Individual challenge

There is also an individual challenge to achieve racial harmony in organisations. This starts with willingness for self-discovery and transformation.  This personal journey requires introspection and mindfulness, ability to identify our own unconscious biases, beliefs and stereotypes about people of other races.

As individuals, we need to develop consciousness about our own hurts, fears, needs, defenses, and entrenched inferiority or superiority. We should be open to seek and receive feedback from others around us so that we can break old habits, attitudes, and behaviours. Personal transformation requires vulnerability and courage.

Organisational challenge

Wholehearted transformations are not just about numbers, but about creating the right environment for true diversity to flourish. Organisations need to continuously introspect and be challenged on their unconscious biases and practices which continue to perpetuate inequality and racism. Who brings this objectivity in your organisation?

Talking about racism and acknowledging racism is the first step toward doing something about it. Organisations need to create such dialogue platforms.

Blacks and whites need each other to work towards racial harmony. Talking about the painful emotions and narratives of racism offers an opportunity for learning, for growth, for change.

This quote by Brene’ Brown reminds me of the emmense possibility for realising racial harmony and justice in our organisations: “If we are going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage the light.”



Lindiwe Mkhondo is a practicing psychologist and Executive Coach at Change Partners (www.changepartners.co.za). Should you require services to address racism in your organisation, you can contact her at Lindiwemkhondo@change.co.za.



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