Amanjit Uppal, Trainee Solicitor at Anderson Strathern LLP
October is Black History Month (‘BHM’). The theme of BHM 2023 is ‘Saluting our Sisters’, which seeks to emphasise the vital role Black women have played in shaping history, inspiring change and building communities. It is also an opportunity to pay homage to Black women whose ideas and contributions have been appropriated or silenced.
It is important to take time, during BHM and beyond, to reflect on how we may improve ourselves and the accessibility of our environments when it comes to the inclusion of Black people and, in line with this year’s BHM theme, Black women.
The purpose of this blog post is to encourage the reader to think about how they can support those around them, particularly Black women, in their everyday environments. For SYLA members, this may be at college, University, in your place of work, or in social settings. It is of vital importance to recognise that, despite progress in the equity and inclusivity sphere, very real issues are still being faced by ethnic minorities every single day.
This is readily demonstrated by a recent Employment Tribunal case - Ms A Cox v NHS Commissioning Board. The Claimant was a senior nurse employed by NHS England and based in Manchester. Ms Cox, a Black woman, brought claims of discrimination, victimisation, and harassment against her employer due to incidents that occurred between 2019 and 2021.
Ms Cox’s manager was said to have excluded the Claimant from team events by booking them when she knew the Claimant was unavailable. On one of these instances, the Claimant’s manager booked a team event when the Claimant was attending a national conference for ethnic minority nurses. It was found that the Claimant’s manager could not have been unaware of this conference and so had booked this team event with the intention of excluding the Claimant. By excluding the Claimant from team events, Ms Cox felt excluded from a large reorganisation that was happening within the team at the time, and was left at a disadvantage.
The Claimant’s manager also discussed the Claimant’s mental health with other members of the team and encouraged team members to report any concerns that they had about the Claimant. However, the Claimant’s manager failed to take action in response to concerns raised by Ms Cox.
Accordingly, it was held that the Claimant’s manager had created an intimidating, hostile and humiliating environment for the Claimant and had “went to some length to circumvent the claimant and had intended that the claimant would not be involved, without any good reason”.
The Tribunal overserved that “very little discrimination is overt or even deliberate” and that discrimination may not necessarily emerge from the act in question, but from the surrounding circumstances, previous history or “a pattern of incorrect behaviour” (in this case, towards the claimant, and no one else). Unconscious bias or sub-conscious discrimination is also prohibited (and has played a significant role in the analysis of previous judgments of this nature).
This 2022 case highlights that there is much still to do. A company or organisation is the sum of its people; and those people are the individuals who create the culture inherent therein. In supporting our people, and as employers, colleagues, friends and acquaintances, can we truthfully consider ourselves allies in every walk of life? Do we assist in strengthening barriers and biases via our apathy, or do we refuse to fall into complacency? Are we looking inwardly, to ask how we might improve the spaces in which we operate?
There are practical and effective ways in which we can support the Black people, and specifically Black women, in our lives. First and foremost, it is important to open up the conversation to ensure people feel comfortable raising concerns where they think someone is being treated unfairly. If something doesn’t look or feel right, say something. Even if the issue turns out to not be an issue at all, it is always better to take that step to eradicate that possibility. It is always better to know you supported someone in some small way as opposed to leaving that individual to weather the storm alone. Collectiveness must rest at the forefront of our minds in the journey towards achieving diversity, inclusion and equity.
Following this, any concerns raised should be addressed and investigated and – if it is found that someone is being treated unfairly – action must be taken. It is necessary to appreciate that discrimination is not always obvious or overt, and know that there should be focus placed on the impact of unfair treatment that has no credible explanation. Finally, and above all, it is imperative for organisations, and those working within them, to be actively ‘anti-racist’. It is not enough to simply be ‘non-racist’.
Join us in Saluting our Sisters, and striving for a more equitable profession and society.