Sanjiv Lingayah: The charity sector needs to come to terms with racism and equity

While racism erases people’s history, humanity, their possibilities and their lives, charities should be working to heal and restore wholeness to society

Sanjiv Lingayah
Sanjiv Lingayah

Last month Acevo and Voice4Change England released the report Home Truths: Undoing Racism and Delivering Real Diversity in the Charity Sector. Readers have been drawn to some of the report’s stark survey findings. For example, in the survey nearly 70 per cent of black, Asian and minoritised* ethnic charity people had either experienced, witnessed or heard stories about racism in the charity sector.

Our recommendations have garnered attention too. These include the need for charities to have meaningful internal diversity, equity and inclusion targets on “race” and ethnicity, and for consequences to follow when these are not met. We also argue that mainstream (ie “white-led”) charities need to integrate racial justice goals into their overall strategic objectives.

However, every bit as important to the report are its concepts. If the charity sector is to play its part in transforming society, it needs to come to terms with two key words in particular: racism and equity.

On racism

Despite the term racism being in wide usage, it is surprisingly undefined. In the Home Truths report our core definition is that racism is a chain reaction. It is built on a belief system based on racial difference and hierarchy that informs the actions (or inactions) of organisations and decision-makers in ways that cause harm to black, Asian and minoritised ethnic people.

This definition has a number of implications for the charity sector (and wider world). Four are particularly worth pointing out.

First is that, scientifically, there is no such thing as “race” and it is a nonsensical way to organise life.

Second is that racism has consequences. For instance, when a black person stands up against racism or for their own ideas inside a charity, senior figures at the organisation might, drawing on ideas in the racist belief system, decide that said person is “angry” or “difficult”. They can then be excluded from key decisions, denied opportunities and/or be more formally sanctioned.

Third, people who are racialised and minoritised should be allowed to decide for themselves when they experience harm, and the charity sector needs to listen to and respect these testimonies. Also, harm is different from “offence”. Too much of the public conversation on racism is about whether black, Asian and minoritised ethnic people are offended by one thing or another. The word offence puts the blame on the “offended” party and trivialises what is actually going on.

Fourth, racism is not (by and large) about intention to harm. In the charity sector we can make the mistake that “meaning well” is the same as “doing well”. It is not. Despite good intentions, the sector can (and does) have racism threaded through it (as well as sexism, classism and so on) because as a sector we are part of society, not above it.

Despite the evidence of the impacts of racism, we should stress that black, Asian and minoritised ethnic people are not helpless victims of racism but active agents in living their lives and changing hostile contexts. But progress means that we as a sector also have to come to terms fully with the pervasiveness and power of racism. When we do, we can stop being afraid of it and start dealing with it. And this is where equity comes in.

Equity, not equal opportunities

The principle of equity recognises that some populations are disadvantageously situated in society and emphasises the need for actions that correct these distortions and end built-in group disparities.

The implications of equity for charities are profound.

It means that equal opportunity approaches might not be enough if the sector is serious about having more employees and senior employees from black, Asian and minoritised ethnic backgrounds.

Equal opportunity processes try to be “race-blind” and eliminate discrimination through the stages of recruitment. However, in doing so they ignore the multiple ways in which race and racism can shape the lives of candidates in the moments prior to a recruitment process.

Therefore, equal opportunities in hiring will tend to lock in the advantages of well-positioned (male, heterosexual, middle and upper-class) white candidates whose lives have been largely unimpeded by discrimination.

In practice an equity-based approach to recruiting and promoting black, Asian and minoritised ethnic people in the charity sector is an exercise of reimagining and redesign. It means:

  • Taking into account the context of candidates in recruitment processes to compare applicants more fully and fairly;
  • Redefining what is understood as excellence, and redesigning jobs and requirements accordingly;
  • Genuinely noticing and valuing the skills, knowledge and specialisms that black, Asian and minoritised ethnic and other marginalised people already have;
  • Selecting candidates with the potential to help hiring organisations to grow and develop rather than choosing those most similar to existing staff and sensibilities;
  • Ensuring that charities become radically inclusive environments so that black, Asian and minoritised ethnic people no longer feel that they have to tone down their behaviour in order to fit in within the sector.

But an equity-based approach does not begin and end with who works in a charity. It must extend to charity work itself. Charities need to integrate race equity and undoing racism into their external strategic objectives.

For example, across a range of causes from anti-poverty to health, charities should look at ways in which race and racism show up in the issues about which they care. They should then explicitly seek to eliminate racial disparities through their work, as well as lift outcomes for all people.

A restorative and healing charity sector

Tumultuous times bring with them transformative possibilities. But the resistance to change can also take hold in the form of “fight, flight or freeze“ responses. Change is within reach, but it does require charities and charity leaders to be capable of facing uncomfortable truths and committing to long-term action to build a radically inclusive and equitable sector.

This is challenging work. But surely this is what the charity sector should be about. While racism erases people’s history, humanity, their possibilities and their lives, charities should be working to heal and restore wholeness to society.

Dr Sanjiv Lingayah is the lead author of Home Truths: Undoing Racism and Delivering Real Diversity in the Charity Sector. The report’s co-authors are Kristiana Wrixon and Maisie Hulbert from Acevo

*We use "minoritised" rather than "minority" ethnic in our version of BAME. In doing so we wish to indicate that the issue is not that one part of the population is in the majority and another in the minority. For example, blond-haired people are in the minority. Rather, the point is that people outside the category of "white British" are subject to differential and disadvantageous treatment that can marginalise and constrain them.

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