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Racial Profiling and Unconscious Bias

The seemingly innocuous question of, where are you from? came under the spotlight recently highlighting how a line of questioning could amount to indirect discrimination.

Buckingham Palace hosted a reception event inviting various charitable organisations to attend a grand reception attended by the Queen Consort herself. Rather embarrassingly, the event became the centre of a media storm due to comments made by another attendee of the royal household, Lady Susan Hussey. The event was held to bring attention to gender-based violence.

One of the attendees included that of Ngozi Fulani, the founder of Sistah Space, an organisation that supports women experiencing domestic violence.  The incident unfolded when the now former lady in waiting Lady Susan Hussey repeatedly asked Fulani, ‘where she came from.’  For context, Lady Hussey had been a lady in waiting for Queen Elizabeth II for over 60 years and was an established member of the royal household.  Unfortunately, Hussey got more than she bargained for.

Firstly, the conversation was awkwardly preceded with Hussey moving Fulani’s hair out of the way so she could read her name badge. Hussey then asked Fulani a series of questions of her origin. Fulani stated she was from Hackney and was a British citizen multiple times, yet Hussey kept pressing for her ‘true’ origin knowing she was from African descent.  Fulani as a result of the intrusive line of questioning publicly denounced her treatment at the palace event and described her encounter with Hussey, ‘as abusive’ and an attempt by Hussey to make her denounce her British citizenship.

Hussey has since resigned and has been publicly condemned for the comments. Although the incident was swiftly acknowledged by the Palace, the damage was done with Prince Williams own spokesperson stating, ‘racism has no place in our society.’

Some of the questions asked do indicate an example of racial profiling, a disturbing example set out below:

No, but where do you really come from? Where do your people come from?’

The above question had obvious overtones made by Hussey that in some way a black woman cannot really be a British national due to her skin colour. The question is arguably micro-aggressive and as Fulani pointed out made her feel like she did not belong in her own country and was in some way an alien.

This is further compounded by referring to her ‘people’ when she clearly and repeatedly identified herself as British.

What has come to light from such as exchange is why Fulani’s answer was not accepted in the first instance and what does it show us in the workplace. We first have to look at the wider question surrounding diversity and inclusion.

The way the questioning was presented was a mixture of both indirect and directly discriminatory. Often indirect discrimination can be subversive and difficult to identify within the workplace and can be well embedded into toxic work cultures. This becomes entrenched overtime when leadership fails to recognize or act upon behaviours that could amount to discrimination.

In addition, it is reported that this is not the first time a similar incident occurred with Hussey pointing to unconscious bias.

What is unconscious bias?

Where we can automatically make quick judgments and assessments. They are influenced by our background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context. In this case, Hussey arguably made a typical assumption that Fulani was not British based on her name, dress and possibly hairstyle.

So, what can we learn from this?

Well, the obvious takeaway from this is, if Fulani was a white woman named Caroline, would she have been asked, where she really came from or where her people were from? The common-sense answer is no, of course not. Therefore, the assessment must be made on how to address the unconscious bias prevailing within individuals; this issue should not be simply viewed under through the lens of just racial profiling either, as unconscious bias transcends and stretches forth over many areas of protected characteristics including, sex gender, orientation etc.

Employers must be more aware and proactive particularly as the UK has a diverse workforce of many nationalities and of individuals who are not typically Caucasian but are nevertheless British citizens. The leadership of any business should be looking at this example of systemic racial profiling and meet it head on with training and strengthened internal policy.

Particularly in light of the conversation between Hussey and Fulani, there should be dedicated training towards diversity and inclusion particularly around those of different race and nationalities.

Quite often employers do not consider the effects these types of conversations can have on an individual and how it impacts their ability to see themselves as part of the wider culture. Therefore, surveys and regular feedback sessions are vital for any business to cultivate and nurture an open and collaborative workplace environment. As an employer, being proactive is critical to evidence the steps you have taken as a business to educate and mitigate risk of discrimination in the workplace.

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