Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

5th Oct, 2022

Victoria Sartain
Victoria Sartain
Job Title
Senior Content Writer

Black History Month is a time to revel in the culture, history and achievements of Britain’s black population – a celebration of identity and a remarkable contribution.

The event originated in the US as ‘Black History Week’ almost a century ago thanks to Carter G Woodson, aka the Father of Black History, who dedicated his life’s work to promoting black history in schools. It expanded in the 70s, with the month of February officially chosen as America’s Black History Month in 1976.

In 1987 the first Black History Month was celebrated in the UK, marking the occasion thereafter in October. It’s a time that encourages acknowledgement of black Britons’ contribution to society, and, through various community events that will take place nationwide, to discover more about the journey of black people in this country and the colonial history; recognition of significant achievements; and cultural aspects from food to literature and music.

The theme of this year’s event is ‘Sharing journeys’, an exploration of the lives and stories of the people who came to Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries and who laid the foundations of today’s diverse black British community.

And as stated on the International Black History Month website: “Black History Month exists to tell these stories in our own voices. It’s our chance to shine a light on individuals who aren’t featured in the mainstream and whose contributions would be forgotten without Black History Month UK. It's a time to celebrate black Britons who are making history now too.”

A snapshot of the UK workplace in 2022

How does this translate to the world of work – a world which still struggles with diversity issues? More than two years on from the brutal public death of George Floyd in Minnesota, which triggered a global focus on racism, organisations have endeavoured to address the issue in all its forms. In that time, diversity policies have been dusted off, reworked and reinvented – but how much progress has been made?

In August 2022, the TUC launched a report investigating their findings of racism in the UK labour market, offering insight into the insidious way in which this racism undermines their lives, livelihoods, and life chances. The polling was based on 1,750 black and ethnic minority workers who cited the most common types of harassment that they have experienced at work in the past five years: racist jokes or banter (27%); being made to feel uncomfortable at work due to, for example, people using stereotypes or commenting on their appearance (26%); being bullied or harassed (21%); racist remarks directed at them or made in their presence (21%).

Only 19% of those who had experienced harassment reported the most recent incident to their employer – and shockingly, only 29% of reported incidents were followed up with anti-harassment action from the employer.

With 44% of those polled in this survey citing ‘not being taken seriously’ for why they didn’t report a racist harassment, it’s an indictment of the treatment ethnically diverse communities have come to expect.

The consensus is there’s a long road ahead, and that “employers need to collect the information to assess how institutional racism impacts their policy processes and practices; BME workers need to be confident to raise the problems they face”. However, we’re not starting from scratch – much is being done to address diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Reed Area Director Bukola Odofin shares her personal experiences of working life through the years, from when she began her career as one of only a few people of colour.

Bukola Odofin image

Q: What do you consider the most positive recent changes for black people, and those from other ethnically diverse communities, in the workplace?

A: For the ethnically diverse workforce, pleasingly, the needle has visibly moved. What stands out to me the most is how organisations have aspired to have more diverse workforces and create a more inclusive workplace culture. This is encouraging and the right step forward for black people, as the more visibility, recognition and acceptance of how different cultures can work alongside each other will lead to better business results. It is a huge step as it does not follow the narrative of ‘being seen and not heard’.

As a black person in the corporate world, the employee experience has significantly improved; I feel supported and valued when all my abilities are seen and celebrated. An awareness of day-to-day microaggressions is a huge achievement for black people. No one wants to be dealing with daily toxicity – the multiple mosquito effect is real!

Q: Do you think there’s more lip service than real action taking place across UK companies?

A: Companies do need to stop saying Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is a business imperative and start treating it as one. Sadly, hope is not a strategy - the push towards a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture will continue to be met with resistance. Based on this, if we don’t have clear goals on what we want to achieve, be it numbers, participation or outcomes, we are flogging a dead horse.

Q: Do you feel more comfortable about being yourself in the workplace than when you first began your career?

A: When I started, I could count on one hand how many black people worked in proximity to me – we all knew each other, as we were the only black co-members who always turned up at events. This is no longer the case; it is pleasing to see how diverse the company is becoming.

Unless you walk in the shoes of ‘othered’, it’s hard to understand the magnitude or occasional loneliness that you can at times experience. Whilst this is unintentional, I noticed sometimes that black people stick together. Is that because they feel they will naturally be accepted with no judgement? I don’t know – personally, I am confident enough to talk to anyone.

I feel quite strongly about being able to bring your whole self to work and can confidently attest to working for an organisation where this is encouraged and supported. Having said that, I am equally aware that this is a point that some do not understand.

Q: Do you think Black History Month could do more to celebrate black lives and culture in the UK, to make it more prominent and accessible to everyone?

A: From a personal viewpoint, I want events like this to be normalised, so we don’t have to celebrate black people just one month a year.

Black History Month serves to remind us of our individual duty to call out racism wherever we find it and push our employers and colleagues to do better. We know that racism doesn’t go away when ignored in the street or quietly wrapped up by the HR team. Only through wholesale organisational change can we hope for improved understanding, empathy, and respect for individual differences.

Many businesses wonder if, and how, they should approach Black History Month, anxious that they might get things wrong and upset people. The truth is, work needs to be done long before the event. To be effective, employers need to first take the time to understand systemic racism in all its forms in order to shape policies around improvement and change. Ultimately, diversity needs to be seen and heard in workplaces to prevent marginalisation. If nothing else, Black History Month should be a positive reminder to employers to keep a sharp focus on inclusion.

If you’re looking for a talented professional, or your next opportunity, find your nearest Reed office and speak to one of our specialist recruiters.