By Timothy Arden
More than five decades have now passed since American civil rights activist Martin Luther-King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., the political heart of the United States.
In his native USA, his impassioned cry for racial equality, and undaunted bravery in promoting that message, helped usher in a new era of greater tolerance and acceptance. But his words also carried around the world, in turn inspiring others in their own fights for civil rights and social justice.
King paid the ultimate price for his vision of racial harmony, being gunned down in 1968 by a white supremacist, and while there has been significant progress between then and now, the truth remains that racism still persists. Worse, it now seems to be regaining momentum in tandem with the growth of far-right ideology.
Since the turn of the decade, the number of race-related hate crimes recorded in the UK year-on-year has more than doubled, with a particular spike since 2016 and the Brexit referendum. According to the latest statistics from the Home Office, there have been almost 79,000 incidents reported to the police in England and Wales in the period 2018-19, compared to approximately 36,000 in 2012-13.
The publication of Colour Matters? The Truth That No One Wants To See, then, couldn’t be more timely. With a truly global outlook, it explores the varied cross-cultural dynamics that can impact the way that individuals are perceived and treated based solely upon the colour of their skin.
For the harsh reality is that people across nations readily pronounce judgements, confer privileges and are influenced on the right to love, hate, embrace, protect or kill others merely based on their skin tone. As a woman of colour, this is something that author Anuranjita Kumar, an award-winning HR professional and diversity equality campaigner, knows only too well.
Raised in India but a global citizen who has worked in many different countries and cultures, she has been upon the receiving end of racist judgements across her 25-year career, and has served as a mentor to hundreds more with all-too similar experiences.
Kumar has worked determinedly to “get ahead in the corporate race in a multi-ethnic environment”. It is undeniable that her talent and tenacity have paid off: she is currently the Managing Director and Head of HR – Hubs at the Royal Bank of Scotland and was named among the ‘Most Powerful Women Leaders’ by Fortune India in 2013 and as ‘HR Professional of the Year’ by ABP Star News and HRD Congress in 2015. More recently, in 2018 she was selected by the Economic Times as part of their ET Women Ahead list, detailing the top 50 women in business, and in 2019 was deemed to be a role model and inclusion leader in Asia by House of Rose, a leading diversity and inclusion organisation based in Singapore.
Yet, as we learn, this has not been without many additional challenges that simply don’t exist for her white colleagues. “I won some battles and I lost some while contending with skin colour,” she says, admitting that on occasion this left her fighting not for further advancement but merely to “salvage my respect and dignity”.
In Colour Matters? she enquires why this should be so, not just for her but for all people of colour, assiduously deconstructing racial prejudice to expose the utter irrationality at its core, and providing in its place an informed celebration of diversity and its many proven benefits within the workplace and wider society.
Equally importantly, she highlights the difficulties of being a minority in any given nation. Having worked across the world, she is well aware that racism is as rife in her native India, where it is compounded by the caste system, as it is in the UK, the USA or China. The only thing that differs is the race or races that are subjected to this discrimination.
In the book’s introduction, ‘Reflections’, Kumar notes that society’s rules are “only visible to the minorities in any environment”. To those in the majority, such as the white population in the UK, it may not even be apparent that certain attitudes, presumptions or expectations are built upon concepts that are, when fully considered, prejudicial. Drawing not only upon her own experiences but a wealth of real-life case studies of people from multi-ethnic, multi-professional backgrounds, Kumar lays bare these invisible, unspoken codes and presents an uncomfortable yet necessary account of what it is like to be an outsider within a society, even when born there.
Racism is such a wide-ranging and multi-faceted subject that no writer could hope to tackle it effectively without some form of underlying structure. To this end, the book—which has just been published through Bloomsbury—is broken down thematically around the word ‘COLOUR’, which stands for ‘Connect’, ‘Openness’, ‘Love’, ’Objectivity’, ‘Unbiasedness’ and ‘Resilience’.
For each section, Kumar begins with a short dialogue between herself and her children that covers, in brief, the principal ideas that will be covered in that chapter. She then proceeds with her investigation, complementing her insights and analysis with references to relevant episodes in history, wide-ranging academic reports and illustrative case studies.
Some of these testimonies are deeply shocking to read, such as the account in the chapter ‘Openness’ of ‘James’, a talented black engineer whose initial delight in relocating to India for his job was forever soured after he was beaten by a mob, simply because of the colour of his skin. When questioned by police, his attackers replied that, “These black people are all criminals; they are scary, they take drugs and spoil our country.”
This is an extreme case, but it highlights two things. Firstly, that the root of racism often lies in a flawed and sweeping generalisation and, secondly, that whether the assault is physical or psychological, immediate or sustained over a period of time, the injury to a person’s self-perception and beliefs is significant. Kumar sums this up succinctly in closing James’s account: “The physical wounds would heal, but the emotional scars would remain”.
With each section, the author offers constructive advice on how racist attitudes can best be countered. While it is not within the scope of this review to list all these valuable lessons, the central message is that each of us needs to work continually towards a “colourless” future, questioning our own irrational preconceptions, and those of others, and learning to embrace people for who they are, not for what they look like. Kumar does not pretend that this is always easy, perhaps more so for those not exposed to a multi-cultural environment, and is clear that it takes conscious effort, at least at the start. As she writes…
“I feel the experience of living in different cultures across different continents has helped me tide over diverse and complex human interactions. With each diverse connect or conflict, my understanding of human dynamics grew. It made me think harder and look for signs, which did not include colour”.
But the reward is more than worth the endeavour, bringing with it greater productivity within companies, as countless business studies have shown; new friendships and relationships; and tremendous personal growth. Not for nothing does Kumar proudly attest that “I take pride in saying that I am a citizen of the world!”
The author says that discussion of racism is too often treated as a taboo subject—those in the minority being uncomfortable raising it for fear of reprisal; those in the majority uneasy with challenging their own privilege. As such, Kumar should be commended for daring to break the silence, giving a voice to all those who have been subject to its pernicious effects.
As a member of the UK’s white majority, reading Colour Matters? has been profoundly rewarding and inspiring, bringing with it a deeper appreciation of the challenges that minorities have to live with.
Irrespective of one’s race or colour, however, readers will come away with a renewed sense of courage to stand up and fight against racism wherever it is met, including within themselves. As Martin Luther King once taught, and Anuranjita Kumar so fluently reminds us, this is a battle that can only be won through objectivity, solidarity and the most universal of human traits: compassion.
Exclusive Q&A Interview with Anuranjita Kumar
We speak to Anuranjita Kumar, author of Colour Matters? and an award-winning HR professional who has been recognised as amongst the ‘Most Powerful Women Leaders’ by Fortune India in 2013 and as ‘HR Professional of the Year’ by ABP Star News and HRD Congress in 2015. In this exclusive interview she discusses her own experiences as a woman of colour, what drives racist behaviour, and how we combat racial prejudice within society.
Q. What motivated you to write Colour Matters?, and what do you hope to achieve through its publication?
A. ‘Colour Matters?’, for me, is a story of my experiences from around the world that I wanted to narrate to my children, who are now heading out into other parts of the world with their education. Having lived across many countries, they are naive when they think they belong to the world when the world around them may not be as reciprocally accepting of them. The approach to this book has been my advice to them through stories and experiences of people I have encountered, to help them and hopefully many others.
Usually, topics like ethnicity and racism have been ignored in our daily lives or they are uncomfortable to acknowledge, let alone discuss openly—thereby legitimising such behaviour for the oppressor and the oppressed. I have found very few experiential learnings that point at collectively working towards a solution. I wanted to make a humble attempt to enable us to, at least, share thoughts and invite reactions through the book. Colour of the skin offers us a coloured view of the world around us, and it’s important to step outside these biases into the real world out there.
Q. Just how important is the colour of skin in the defining of identity?
A. It shouldn’t be of any importance. You should be valued for who you are and what you bring to the table, and what value you create. Your ethnicity and colour of skin should have no bearing on any of these.
Why should the colour of the skin define identity at all? Life is about choices that finally define us. However, no one chooses their colour, ethnicity or race. It is a given and the world tends to define us by that, irrespective of what lies beneath. There are several instances, experiences, and learnings that have unfolded in my path. There were times I felt elated; other times I felt isolated and then vindicated. As I have engaged with colleagues, friends, mentors and support networks all around the world, I have found that each person sees this defining of themselves differently. Some have worn it as a badge while others have lived it to their advantage. But in each case, there has always been others who have acted as a catalyst to their personal journeys.
Q. Why do you believe that talking about racism openly is still socially taboo?
A. In most cases, we live in a self-denial mode, both as a society and as individuals. For instance, in the case of Colour Matters? I remember some of the top publishing houses were surprised and asked me the question, “Does racism and colour-led biases exist?” when I took my manuscript idea to them. There were also several friends and close colleagues who tried to push back. I went ahead because the organisation I work for supported me and because I believed there was a reason to speak about it.
Tolerance is one of the biggest roadblocks to stepping out of identifying and solving the problem. In most cases, individuals fear being singled-out if they speak. The fear of being a social outcast is much greater as much as being considered a problematic person. I am brown and very early in my global career I decided to speak up and stand up when I needed to. Of Course, it came with its own set of challenges, but it also ensured a new-found respect that is undeniable.
Finally, racism is about power that is a relative construct. For someone to be superior, someone else has to be inferior. Colour or race is the easiest way to achieve that. Over time, this differentiation has been met with disdain, hence it persists more covertly today than it did in the past.
Q. As an Indian woman who has worked across the world, what have been your own experiences with racism?
A. My career journey of 24+ years has taken me to several countries. Being brown-skinned always set me apart in some ways that were not always comfortable. But I also learnt quite early in life that prejudices of the mind are not generalised. They are restricted to individuals who are led by their upbringing and lack of exposure. Some of the best people I have encountered and, to date, are my support and companions are all from different ethnic backgrounds.
Q. What do you believe are the main drivers of racism within societies?
A. Racism is a problem. Unfortunately, not too many people in the majority wish to acknowledge it or recognise it as a ‘problem’ and that usually is the biggest issue. The unwritten rules, or biases, within a society are usually only visible to the minority.
My findings through the research for my book began with this thought. I considered those who think to themselves, ‘I am not racist; somebody else is. I have never experienced it, but I believe that it exists’. In other words, racism becomes about someone else. It’s always the ‘I’ who is standing outside the debate. These people are ashamed that they are operating with these biases, operating at such sub-conscious levels that they do not acknowledge they exist. On the other side, some of us know these biases exist but take it for granted, stating that this is the way the world around us operates. Thereby we have legitimised, or normalised, racism and that’s an even larger problem.
The journey beyond racism starts with the self, even before we bring it to the workplace. I mean those little interactions that happen, even if it is with a shopkeeper down the road who thinks he is superior to me because he is white skinned and I am dark. These are all fictions of the mind. The colour of the skin is not stating anything other than reflecting a misguided learning that someone may have imbibed very early on in life and then clung onto it because of lack of exposure to diversity. Alternatively, because the media presents things in a certain way. The idea becomes so embedded within a person that every action or reaction gets governed by it.
Q. How can these be best addressed at a societal level?
A. Accept that there is a problem- both inward sand outwards. The way we accept what we should not offers legitimacy to a person’s worst behaviour, so stand up and speak up.
Being aware is equally important. We often fail to notice actions arising out of some of the most inherent biases, simply because we consider it ‘normal’. Normalising such behaviour can be dangerous to society and for all the generations who are to follow us.
Q. How can those directly affected by racism best respond?
A. Accept yourself the way you are. Black is beautiful; brown is beautiful; white is beautiful. That acceptance is extremely important. If you don’t like yourself then that lack of confidence will exude in your interactions. Who is to say what is superior and what is inferior? We need to acknowledge that our perceptions on ethnicity are socially imbibed, and that it is for us to break out of that mould.
Once you have found personal acceptance, display zero tolerance to racism. If there is any behaviour which I feel I am subjected to because I am a brown person then I will speak up and push back. I have found that this behaviour then doesn’t happen as often. The number of times I have seen people of colour tacitly accept racist judgements amazes me. You shouldn’t have to learn to ‘live with it’.
Also be accepting of others. While you push yourself out there, you should be open to accepting people at a neutral platform and not reacting to others as if they are superior or inferior to you.
Q. Based on your own insights, and those of the many people from around the world whose personal stories about racism are shared in your book, how would you define the common experience of belonging to a minority within a society?
A. Fear of being singled out and not being accepted is the one single reason why people do not push back. When you walk into a majority group, there is this feeling of intimidation, a beat of a self-doubt, a bit like, ‘I know what is right or wrong but will they listen to me or will I be discarded even before I speak?’ Nobody likes that rejection and, because of that fear of rejection and intimidation, people do not speak up. But look at the dissonance we live with. We are also living with double consciousness, in my view. We know what needs to be done but we do not do it, fearing the consequences of how we would be treated because of who we are. It is a conundrum where fear and rejection have a huge role to play.
Perception is another issue. For instance, in Europe there is a perception that South Asian brown people are a bit loud and uncouth; a bit pushy or aggressive. So even before I speak up I have assumed that the white person across the counter thinks about me like this. And maybe I am overcompensating for it by becoming somebody I am not. I may not be who the other person thinks, but I may also not be the person I project. So, there is a thin boundary around the place you wish to operate. Again, because of fear of rejection from this person, I will be what I think he likes me to be. And sometimes, we start wearing these personas which are not who we really are. Over time, these create a significant dichotomy in our minds.
Q. Again, based on those personal stories, how far do you think we have come in becoming a more inclusive world?
A. One might think that given the dawn of the new century and the digital age, and the way that the media has approached inclusion, the world around us should be very different. The UK has an ethnic minority population of 14%. Now look at the college population: over 34% of UK university and college students are BAME, of which 22% is workforce ready. Of this, 10-12% are at mid-levels but only 6% get to board rooms. Only one in every 16 companies within the FTSE top 100 companies have a person of colour at the top. So, unless we consciously strive and work towards changing attitudes, these numbers are not going to change.
Whether it be addressed by leaders or HR, let us first start with acknowledging that we have a problem, but one that can be resolved constructively. I still believe we do not see a lack of inclusivity as a serious enough issue. We mistakenly think that corporate policy frameworks and meeting diversity targets are enough. Efforts are focused around scrambling to comply with these strictures but to bring about a grass-root level change, there must be strong messaging from the top.
10. Inclusivity and diversity within a society confers many benefits. What would you say are the most significant of these?
A. Often, the diversity and inclusivity debate revolves around the discussion of minority and majority. These is a general sense that to be inclusive of a minority group, the majority group must cede privilege or control. It is perceived to be a zero sum game and hence tends to create resistance from the majority group as they feel at a loss.
In fact, diversity and inclusion is not a zero-sum game. Being more diverse and inclusive means that we, together, become ‘more than the sum of our parts’ (Gestalt theory). A new, brighter narrative emerges and together we elevate our potential and productivity to a much higher level. We expand and multiply our energies giving rise to new ideas, better productivity and move forward with better pace.
Some key benefits are:
- Creativity and innovation. Different groups think differently, thereby creating new solutions and orientations to challenges.
- Connecting and understanding reduces friction and makes the world a more peaceful place to live in.
- Diversity and inclusion bring us all opportunities to learn from others and grow.
By working with people from different backgrounds, and with different experiences and working styles, we learn and get another view. Diverse views make for better decisions, and thus drive a high-performance culture.In my mind, the benefits of diversity are clear and unarguable. But this does not mean that embracing diversity is always easy. That is why we all need to show leadership and hold ourselves to account.