In a recent poll of its community, Race Equality Matters (REM) found that as few as 24% say their leaders and managers are comfortable talking about race.  

Perhaps this is because the polarising commentary we increasingly hear around race inequality can make for uncomfortable listening. But in heeding the call from this fourth year of REM’s Race Equality Week, we must be prepared to listen if we’re to drive action that delivers change.

Here’s what I heard before taking my first of the 5-Day Challenge on microaggressions, and why I’m still comfortable talking about it.  

Dossing about with microaggressions 

According to Psychology today, a ‘microaggression is a subtle, often unintentional, form of prejudice. It often takes the shape of an offhand comment, an inadvertently painful joke, or a pointed insult.’ 

83% of members polled by REM say they experience microaggressions at work. Mark Lomas, Head of Culture at Lloyd’s (a headline partner of REM) describes these aggressions “like death by 1,000 cuts” that accumulate across weeks, months and years. 

Only last Wednesday, The Times led with an investigation into government spending on microaggression training. 

Rolling your eyes is a microaggression, civil servants told’, despite the eye-catching headline, is a relatively balanced piece on the merits and problems in addressing this insidious form of prejudice. 

While noting there is scarce research into the field, editor Dominic Kennedy cites preliminary work from Kelly Watson of US-based Orange Grove Consulting. Watson suggests ‘moral awareness’ can help determine those who are open to change or feeling antagonistic. 

But the story drew some aggravated reactions. The Times’ own restaurant critic, Giles Coren, responded with the column ‘I’ll fight for the right to be microaggressive’. In the Daily Mail, John O'Connell, from the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: 'Taxpayers are bound to realise that this is another opportunity for civil servants to doss about on their dime.' 

The tip of the racism iceberg 

Included in that taxpayer bill is £18,304 in training for the Department for Education (DfE), of which £4,576 was spent on training four individuals from the Education and Skills Funding Agency. Aside from the expense, the main question here appears to be whether training only a handful of civil servants can truly have an impact? 

An alternative question could be why it is needed? Here we can turn to an investigation by the Guardian in 2021, where schools across the country reported more than 60,000 racist incidents in five years. The incidents ranged from overt racial abuse to ‘unintentional’ racism. 

At the time, these figures were viewed as ‘the tip of the iceberg’. This is because back in 2012, the government ‘advised schools that they had no legal duty to report racist incidents to local authorities.’ 

Could earlier training in microaggressions have led to alternative policies requiring schools to collect more data? 

Whether small or unintentional, microaggressions are themselves only the tip of the iceberg of racist abuse, which is itself part of an institutionalised or systemic racism. We know the United Nations has raised concerns about systemic racism in this country. But we’ve also seen the Sewell report on race and ethnic disparities in the UK, which concluded there is no such thing.

Doing better to create belonging 

Whether we agree or disagree about the impact of microaggressions, few, if any, believe they are racist. 

After all, we live in a society where 'mixed' is the predominant ethnicity in the average classroom today. Contrary to what Enoch Powell believed, I call these bundles of joy, our ‘Rivers of love!’ 

But that any form of racism is present within this demographic suggests that, as far as we’ve come, there is still some way to go to change attitudes and behaviours. As historian David Olusoga recently said in a talk to me and my colleagues, “demographics are destiny”.  

The Sewell report notes there are ‘certainly a class of actions, behaviours and incidents at the organisational level, which cause ethnic minorities to lack a sense of belonging.’ As future, more ethnically diverse generations come into the workplace, surely, we can do better to improve their experience.  

During Race Equality Week, we can play our small part in turning the tide by taking the 5-Day Challenge.  

Maybe you’ll roll your eyes? You might even find it a doss.  

I truly believe that like the 80% of respondents who experienced the previous 5-Day Challenge, you’ll see how it can make an impact in tackling race inequality at work.  

Having completed the first of the 5-Day Challenge for Race Equality Week 2024, Sat Dayal describes why we must heed the campaign’s call to #ListenActChange