Earlier this month, we outlined how we at the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) have been reckoning with the racial crisis currently plaguing communities in the United States and around the world. Our starting point has been to listen, reflect, and learn – from our Allies, from advocates and changemakers, and from the communities that are most deeply affected by racial inequality and injustice. But what seemed to be missing was a focus on listening, reflecting, and learning from each other and our own lived experiences of racism as individuals.
WBA’s team is made up of over 60 individuals located across 12 countries around the world. And while we come from varied cultural backgrounds, represent different geographic regions and hold diverse political perspectives, we share a deep personal conviction in the importance of the SDGs as a framework for ensuring prosperity for people and planet and in the role of business in moving us towards a more sustainable, inclusive and just future.
The following stories represent a few personal reflections on what this moment in time means for us, and why it’s struck a chord. We realise that these stories are likely overdue, but change starts at home. As an organisation, we’re contemplating how best to move forward in a way that feels meaningful, while also shedding light on perspectives that may not often be heard. That means confronting the hard truths about the various ways in which racism affects us all, in the hopes that we learn, grow, and act – together.
Living institutionalised racism
Samantha: “Born towards the end of apartheid, I grew up in a transition period in South African democracy. South Africa has two faces. One is Mandela’s rainbow nation. The other face is one of systemic racism, disadvantage, and white supremacy. On average, a white South African earns more than three times the monthly wage of the average black South African. Racial inequality and white supremacy are not new experiences for me nor are they new for many other people of colour around the world.
Watching the BLM protests unfold, I understood the pain, anger and fear that drives individuals protest for a better world. Another reaction I had was disappointment in reactions of shock and confusion from individuals who wondered “where is this suddenly coming from?”. For those who had been paying attention to the growing tensions, there was nothing sudden about BLM. Rather, it is the result of a series of actions spanning from as far back as the slave trade, all the way to the firing of Colin Rand Kaepernick for taking the knee and the murder of George Floyd.
For me, racial inequality goes beyond BLM, beyond signalling by companies and individuals, it is a fact of life. To address it, society will need to be willing to be open to being vulnerable, learning some uncomfortable truths and put in the work needed to eliminate it.”
Shamistha: “Where are you from?” he asks me. “Australia” I respond. After a brief pause, he asks: “No, where are you really from?”. Confusion crosses my face for a couple of second before I realise that he is asking this question because of my skin colour – I can’t possibly be from Australia because I am not white. As a person of colour born in Australia, racial microaggressions became my new normal from a very young age, from being asked where I am “really” from to being used as the “poster child” for diversity and being told to use a “easy to pronounce” name by former employers.
Although freedom from discrimination on the basis of race was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights over 70 years ago, is not a freedom that I, and millions of people globally, have been able to fully realise due to the systems and structures that are in place that fail people of colour. The reinvigoration of the BLM movement has brought to the fore the need for urgent change in order to address systemic racism that pervades society. While governments and companies have a critical role to play in combatting racism, so do we as individuals – we need to listen, we need to learn, and we need to act.”
Challenging cultural stereotypes
Pratik: “The Indian-American success story is often rooted in the idea that hard work and ambition are the sole drivers of the great fortune that we, as an ethnic group, have experienced in the United States. From data on the higher-than-average education and wealth levels, to the ways in which we have begun to pierce the American cultural landscape (i.e. dominance in Spelling Bees, hotel ownership, medical degrees, etc.), Indian-Americans have attained a “model minority” status that perpetuates stereotypes, entrenches preconceived notions, and allows for “otherizing.” Nowhere is this more reflective than in the attitudes of Indian-Americans towards other minorities, including black people. Inflammatory comments about black people being “lazy”, often-repeated warnings to children about not bringing home “BMW” (black, Muslim, or white) spouses, and unfounded fears about the dangers of black neighbourhoods are only some examples of the deep-seated cultural narratives that permeate Indian-American families.
As a result, the murder of George Floyd has set off fierce discussion and debate – often intergenerationally – about the need to reckon with our prejudices, and to force uncomfortable conversations about the ways in which perception has overshadowed reality regarding our success as a community. Indeed, we often forget that our ability to live the American Dream is due to the struggles of previous generations, including black Americans who fought against Jim Crow. The Immigration Act of 1965, which itself laid the way for the influx of Asian immigration to the United States (including from India) would have been impossible without the powerful influence of the civil rights movement, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And the freedoms granted through these pieces of legislation are a direct result of the pain, suffering, and death that others – especially our black brothers and sisters – endured on our behalf.
Education and awareness are important steps to reckoning with our past, but our ability to rise above our biases as a community must be rooted in a deeper understanding of the interconnected history we share. As we work to combat racism in the United States, let’s not forget the sacrifices of those who came before us.”
Melinda: “I know that I am privileged. As a white woman that grew up in a predominantly white suburb in the United States, I consider myself fortunate enough to have been part of a desegregated busing program and attend an inner-city elementary school. Some may be wondering why I consider that to be my source of privilege – perhaps in paradox with the white privilege from which I have also undoubtedly benefited – but it’s clear to me, especially today. I got a glimpse of American blackness that consisted of Kwanzaa, Boys & Girls Club, Langston Hughes and so much more. Black was so beautiful. Then at age 10 the busing stopped, and I was thrown into a segregated world where I was often confused. I didn’t understand why I was the only white girl on the step team. Or why family members shockingly asked my mom “did you KNOW that she was dating a BLACK guy?” It was particularly perplexing when it was explained to me that black boys date white girls because they see it as “marrying up”, given that the only multiracial couples I knew personally were white men with black women. I was simply told that all these couples were the “exceptions”. I feel privileged because my exposure to the ugly stereotypes that so many of my white peers and family members had succumbed to was delayed, even if just a little, so that I could more clearly see racial discrimination for what it is – paralyzing, infuriating, disgusting. In light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, I wrote to my elementary school bestie – who is fiercely advocating for her fellow black Americans – to thank her spunky, smart, beautiful younger self for choosing me. Now the real work begins as I use my privilege to become a better ally.”
Kaibin: “Born and raised in China, racism or racial inequality was actually not a familiar term for me before I started to live abroad. This topic was not widely discussed in the country, although other forms of discriminations can be found there, such as regional discriminations, reverse ethnic injustice and so on. Reflecting on the experience since I started living abroad, I found that the shadow of racism shaded me, not only through personal circumstances, but also, often by the media in these countries.
Especially, in this strange time of COVID-19, being Chinese feels like another challenging task to take on in addition to fighting the pandemic. This is also the case in the Netherlands. In February, as the pandemic was about to hit Europe, a DJ at Radio 10 sang a song during his program which used insulting language to defame Chinese people by linking them to the virus. This incident generated a rage among Chinese groups in the Netherlands, and people quickly signed up a petition to stop the discrimination and seek legal allegation against this racism. However, in June, Dutch authorities made a decision that this incident will not be prosecuted because “it’s a type of artistic freedom and is not unnecessarily offensive”. This case together with many others, has raised questions on the definition of speech freedom (including artistic freedom) and its boundary between attack, insult, and racism. A clear answer is needed, otherwise racism and racial inequality would just exist under many sugarcoats. Apparently, this still has to be worked on by all of us. From this point, BLM is a starting point for all of us to reflect on racism and racial inequality from all different angles.”
What should we do? What should other organisations do?
These stories are only a drop in the ocean of people’s experiences of racial inequality and white supremacy. However, they are personal, and represent a reflection on what this moment in history means for us as individuals and for society more broadly.
Organisations around the world, now more than ever, have a responsibility to think deeply about what actions they should take to address racial inequality, both within their organisations and in the wider world. WBA is not exempt from this, and we have begun thinking about how to listen deeply to different perspectives on racial inequality so that we can set the right standard for ourselves internally, and also how we can mobilise companies to take action to address inequality, including racial inequality, through our social transformation.
If you are interested in participating in our workshops on the social transformation in August, or would like to input into WBA’s thinking on a potential ‘inequality transformation’, please contact us at email@example.com.