Why I'm talking to white trade unionists about racism

Workplace racism is ruining lives – and in the current climate, unions have big challenges ahead if they're to address this satisfactorily.

Stephen Ashe
6 September 2019, 11.58am
Trade union membership is shifting - but are the unions themselves doing enough to reflect that?
Geograph / open source

Why am I talking to white trade unionists about racism? The answer's pretty simple – the latest survey evidence strongly suggests that there are serious problems in the trade union movement requiring urgent attention. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) ran the Racism at Work survey between December 2016 and February 2017. Almost 5,200 people took part. 82.4% of whom were trade union members. 65% of non-white British participants reported that they had experienced racial harassment at work in the past 5 years, while less than half said that they were treated unfairly by their employer because of their race. Equally worrying is the fact that less than one third of non-White British participants who had experienced workplace racism had reported that they had sought support from their trade union. Why?

Recently I co-authored a report commissioned by the TUC, Racism Ruins Lives, based on their earlier survey. Here I want to spotlight the various issues which our research revealed the trade union movement must urgently address, including some of the recurring issues that I have encountered while disseminating this work to various trade union audiences. In doing so, I also want to consider the role that whiteness plays in trade union anti-racism moving forward.

Racism ruins lives – the TUC survey

Answers given to the TUC survey’s open-ended questions highlight a number, often overlapping, reasons as to why non-White British participants do not turn to their union for solidarity. A considerable number of participants reported experiencing racism at the hands of a trade union members/ officials.

“Just before the EU referendum two colleagues were talking and one said, ‘When the vote is out, all foreigners need to go’. He is my union rep. He knew what he was saying.”

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“You would think that being employed by a union this [racism] would not happen. To be honest it does. It is really like 50 years ago when black people could not be a member of a union.”

Equally worrying were reports that trade union members had colluded with managers and employers to conceal workplace racism and/ or sustain racist practices.

“Both employer and union have and still are trying to cover up the issues and concerns I have raised and the union are ignoring requests for legal help and assistance.”

“The trade union reps work hand in hand with the employer and make the racism worse. So who is policing the racist trade union staff? No one. Also the trade union thinks we are animals. They throw Black members a scrap or two over here and think that we should be happy with that. No. It’s disgusting and it’s wrong.”

What is more, a considerable number of people reported that trade union officers were reluctant to get involved in incidents where the perpetrator(s) was also a trade union member(s), as well as being indifferent towards, if not dismissive of, participant’s experiences of workplace racism.

“…paid officials and lay officers can be extremely sceptical about incidents of discrimination in our members’ various workplaces and are often therefore reluctant to support them. Part of this stems from the fact that the majority of officials and officers come from majority communities and understand discrimination only in a textbook manner and part of this stems from the fact that the organisation, with a large and privileged legal and casework department, attempts to find legal solutions where little or none exist, instead of seriously organising under-represented groups and building the necessary power to proactively influence events in our members’ various workplaces. In this context the officials and officers are liable to suspect complaining members of being less than genuine and moaning instead of realising that the organisation has failed to seriously engage with these workers in ways which are not focussed on individual legal remedies.”

In part, these situations stem from trade union officials exhibiting a limited understanding of racism and/or lacking the experience and knowledge required to respond to workplace racism in an effective, satisfactory manner. This included union officials showing a tendency to encourage members to respond to workplace racism using formal legal and procedural approaches when other responses were preferred, such as seeking an apology or being given an opportunity to explain to the perpetrator(s) why certain behaviours or comments were in fact racist. Trade union members also reported that their union did not have race equality/equality and diversity officers in place whose role it is to represent, support and advise members in relation to workplace racism and other forms of discrimination. And they also reported a lack of representation of non-White British trade union members in senior leadership positions, particularly of non-White British women. Survey participants also avoided seeking support from a trade union because of employer hostility to trade unions.

Depressingly, a considerable number of White British trade unionists used the survey to either express racist views, oppose multiculturalism, and criticise any kind of equality work. Not only this, a significant number of white British trade unionists used the survey to voice the same kind of political, media and academic arguments that orbit in and around Brexit with regard to the notion that the ‘white working class’ is being ‘left behind’. As my co-authors and I argued in our report for the TUC:

“Not only do such narratives deny that the working class in this country has always been multiracial and multi-ethnic since its very formation, these narratives also gloss over the fact that neoliberalism, globalisation, deindustrialisation and austerity have had a profound impact on the lives of all working class people…more often than not, neoliberalism, globalisation, deindustrialisation and austerity have had a disproportionate impact on working class people from an ethnic minority background.”

The TUC survey also draws further attention to the psychological and physical toll workplace racism can have. 44% of participants reported that workplace racism had impacted on their mental health, which was reported as leading to stress, anxiety, panic attacks and suicidal feelings. Nearly a quarter of participants reported that workplace racism had impacted on their physical health, while nearly one in five reported that it had resulted in them having to take a period of sick leave. A further 23% reported that workplace racism had impacted on their personal lives.

In light of this, my co-authors and I titled our report for the TUC, Racism Ruins Lives, because we were struck by the thousands of personal statements which detailed the emotional labour and trauma that reliving experiences of racism can entail, whether that be for the purposes of research, in the workplace or during union meetings. As one participant put it: ‘Frankly it’s just too painful. It’s ruining lives’. Indeed, this was often a major reason why many people did not seek out any kind of support, never mind from a trade union.

Racism – not just a problem of the ‘far right’

Since the publication of the Equality, Diversity and Racism in the Workplace: A Qualitative Analysis of the 2015 Race at Work Survey in 2016, I have regularly been asked to speak at trade union events. At these events I have met some brilliant people doing vitally important anti-racist work. This work is primarily being undertaken by people racialised as non-white, sometimes in coalition with white allies, fighting against the kind of odds outlined above. There are a number of things that stick in my mind having attended and contributed to these events.

First, with the exception of the TUC Black Workers’ Conference, there has been a general reluctance to engage with the above criticisms of the trade union movement. Second, when speaking on panels organised to focus specifically on workplace racism, the discussion has all too often been re-routed away from the labour movement and onto fighting the far right. Time and time again I have read reports and heard speeches which reference the trade union movement’s ‘proud history of fighting racism and fascism’. And there have been episodes where trade unionists have played a vital role in opposing both. As Satnam Virdee’s work points out in meticulous detail, Irish Catholic, Jewish, Indian, Caribbean and African socialists have long played a ‘catalytic role in labour movement efforts to secure social justice inside and outside both the workplace and the movement itself’.

So, yes, anti-racist work must focus on the far right, but at the same time it should not distract from the forms of racism routinely articulated across the political spectrum. The growth and normalisation of racist and fascist formations occurs, at least in part, when racism goes unchallenged in society. Racism in society (and in the labour movement and the workplace) feeds into the emergence and legitimisation of the far right. So it’s critical that the trade union movement develops an over-arching, holistic anti-racist and anti-fascist strategy which addresses racism and the far right at the same time, rather than prioritising one over the other.

The voices of people subjected to racism are often ignored. At one event a comrade stood up and told the room that she was ‘sick of turning up to these events and being the only black woman in the room’. No one in the room responded!

White privilege, white allies

I have had numerous quiet conversations with white British people as to whether they can also experience racism. Quite often these conversations lead to the suggestion that racism ‘cuts both ways’, thus diverting attention away from the institutional and structuring capacity of racism. I have listened to people explain the levels of emotional labour and stamina that is required when talking to white trade unionists about racism. This includes feelings of exhaustion and frustration when reliving personal experiences of racism, as well as trying to assuage the emotional reactions of white trade unionists which can range from being dismissive, defensive and sometimes aggressive. And there have been occasions where white people, often well intentioned, co-opted the discussion by performing the kind of ‘white tears’ and ‘white guilt’ that Reni Eddo-Lodge has previously written about.

In the preface to Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Eddo-Lodge re-visits a blogpost written in 2014. In the blog, Eddo-Lodge details the various discursive and rhetorical gymnastics that white people often use to ‘deny or avoid discussing structural racism and its effects’ (p. IX). Eddo-Lodge explains that the original blog:

“…wasn’t a cry for help, or a grovelling plea for white people’s understanding and compassion. It wasn’t an invitation for white people to indulge in self-flagellation. I stopped talking to white people about race because I don’t think giving up is a sign of weakness. Sometimes it’s about self-preservation…”

Time and again I have returned to this passage after attending trade union events. In fact, it has prompted me to critically reflect on Malcolm X’s call for ‘sincere white people’ to work in conjunction with the people subjugated to white supremacy. For Malcolm X, the role of the ‘sincere’ white ally is to:

“…find all other white people they can who feel as they do [and] work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people! ... We will completely respect our white co-workers. They will deserve every credit. We will give them every credit.”

In a recent article, Katy Sian explores the role that white allies might play in opposing structural and institutional racism in the British universities. It seems to me that this may be a particularly helpful way of thinking about Malcolm X’s point, as well as addressing the various issues set out in the Racism Ruins Lives report.

For Sian, white allies must not only identify and critically assess the privilege attached to their whiteness, they must also be ‘aware of their power, yet will use their positioning to support racially marked academics and challenge structures of inequality’. Sian also provides a useful overview of Barnor Hesse’s analysis of Whiteness as a set of ‘action-oriented’ identities, noting that ‘those who identify with whiteness typically fall into the following categories’:

  1. White Supremacist: Preserves, names, and values white superiority
  2. White Voyeurism: Would not challenge a white supremacist; desires non-whiteness because it is interesting, pleasurable; seeks to control the consumption and appropriation of non-whiteness; fascination with culture
  3. White Privilege: May critique white supremacy, but maintains a deep investment in questions of fairness/equality under the normalization of whiteness and white rule; sworn goal of ‘diversity’
  4. White Benefit: Sympathetic to a set of issues but only privately. Will not speak/act in solidarity publicly, because they are benefitting through whiteness in public
  5. White Confessional: Some exposure of whiteness takes place, but as a way of being accountable to People of Colour after; seek validation from People of Color
  6. White Critical: Take on board critiques of whiteness and invest in exposing/marking the white regime; refuses to be complicit with the regime; whiteness speaking back to whiteness
  7. White Traitor: Actively refuses complicity; names what is going on; intention is to subvert white authority and tell the truth at whatever cost; need them to dismantle institutions
  8. White Abolitionist: Changes institutions; dismantling whiteness, and not allowing whiteness to reassert itself.

Sian goes on to argue that if ‘white colleagues are serious about showing solidarity, they must adopt categories 6 – 8’. This, explains Sian, requires white allies to ‘use and critique their privilege as a way to dismantle racism at any cost’. Thus, white allies are required to recognise their own role in perpetuating the structures and institutions of white hegemony, forsake their investment in white privilege (as much as this is ever possible) and commit to undertaking meaningful action. This means walking the walk and not just talking the talk.

Having attended and spoken at trade union events over the last two years, I know that some people will contest the very idea of ‘white privilege’ and suggest abandoning the term because it is likely to ‘get people’s backs up’. However, when I use the term white privilege I am not suggesting that white people do not experience inequality, domination and exploitation. Instead I, like any others, am using the term as a way of referencing the fact that members of the dominant White group are unburdened by the deleterious consequences of racism and the organisation society in ways that structurally disadvantage certain racialized groups.

Sian’s intervention has also prompted me to reflect on the personal statements and testimonies captured by the TUC Racism at Work survey. As I alluded to above, there are a number of reasons white people do not turn to trade unions for solidarity. Indeed, it can be argued that many, if not all, of the examples listed above fit quite neatly into one or more of the eight white identities that Hesse sets out. Perhaps most worrying was the fact that trade union members were not immune from articulating a kind of white supremacist identity which includes feeling entitled to set the parameters and police the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ forms multiculturalism and racial difference.

In the context of thinking through the type of white allyship that is urgently needed in the trade union movement, I also wonder whether a ninth white identity ought to be added to the list above:

White Saviour – essentially well-meaning in their attempt to help, but ends up taking over and assuming control in ways that silence and further disempower ‘racially marked’ comrades, including those white comrades racialised outside of the dominant majority white British group (e.g. white Jewish trade unionists).

This is perhaps most evident in relation to the reports of trade unionists who felt pressurised into using formal grievance procedures when responding in other ways was preferred.

Again, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. There are many people doing vitally important anti-racist work across the trade union movement, including struggles against the far right. However, this should not detract from then need to have a serious conversation about the issues highlighted by trade union members who took the 2016/2017 Racism at Work survey.

The Racism Ruins Lives report shows that the trade union movement has not been immune from broader racist narratives, including those that have come to characterise Brexit. In the midst of the current political-economic crisis, anti-racist education is of the utmost importance. This work must attend to the criticisms outlined above. This work must build upon the vital work that is already being done within the movement. White trade unionists need to get more involved. But when doing so, they must be mindful of the type of white identity they are enacting. More white saviours – who despite their best intentions, ultimately end up hijacking resistance and occupying the conversation with ‘white tears’ and ‘white guilt’, thus further silencing and disempowering those subjected to racism – are not required.

Sincere white allies need to adopt the kinds of white critical, traitor and abolitionist identities that Hesse outlines. Sincere white allies need to carefully listen first before working in conjunction with members who are experiencing racism both inside and outside the workplace. White allies who are willing to do this work must recognise the structural nature of racism and it effects, including the physical and psychological toll that reliving and fighting workplace racism entails. This why I am working closely with my trade union friends and talking to white trade unionists about racism.

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