On this episode of Undesign, we discuss genuine racial justice with Fadzi Whande. Fadzi is currently the Senior Programme Officer (Diversity and Inclusion Adviser) at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). She is also the Founding Director of the Whande Group, a consultancy and program development organization extending this work.
- Fazdi Whande on Twitter and LinkedIn: Keep in touch with Fazdi and stay updated about her work.
- Framework for Systemic Racial Equity: Learn about Courageous Conversation’s protocol for effectively engaging, sustaining and deepening interracial dialogue
- Racial Justice Report 2021: Check out the UN High Commissioner’s latest report with its four-point agenda to end systemic racism and human rights violations by law enforcement against Africans and people of African descent.
- Behind the Brands: Read an interview with Fazdi about her experience starting the Whande Group, a premier diversity consultancy and program development organization.
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Thanks! Now let’s jump straight into this week’s interview.
Hello everyone, and welcome to Undesign. I’m your host, Kosta.
Thank you so much for joining me on this mammoth task to untangle the world’s wicked problems and redesign new futures.
I know firsthand that we all have so much we can bring to these big challenges, so listen in and see where you fit in the solution as we go on to undesign the concepts of racial justice, online activism, and active allyship.
It’s been almost a year since our social media feeds were filled with black tiles in response to the death of George Floyd, and more recently other people of color, as a result of racially motivated violence. At once, that little black tile represented so many things to so many people.
In fact, it felt like that more so during a time of social isolation, political protest, and cultural unrest. And while not the first or the last polarizing expression of one’s beliefs in the name of a social cause, our collective act to share or not share a black tile on social media was certainly a flashpoint of sorts. All of a sudden, these little black tiles became black mirrors that reflected something back that was quite different to anyone looking into them.
To individuals, it was at once one person’s first ever political expression on their social media, and another’s reminder of how easy it is to upload a photo and do nothing more. To companies, it was as much an opportunity for them to step into corporate social responsibility as it was a reckoning for those companies whose sentiments have not matched their past actions. To society at large, it was a seemingly lifelong struggle to reckon with questions about what it really means to be anti-racist, and who should be doing what in the name of making society more fair for everyone.
Joining us to untangle this massive issue on today’s episode of Undesign is our guest Fadzi Whande. Fadzi is a Diversity and Inclusion Strategist and Social Justice Advocate, and she is currently the Senior Program Officer for Diversity and Inclusion at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She’s also the Founding Director of the Whande Group, a consultancy and program development organization which extends this work.
Fadzi gives us some amazing tools, from analogies to personal stories you can share with others, that help us rethink concepts like racial equality, diversity, and equality, which helps us reassess our own attachment to these issues.
And not only that — we don’t just talk about the importance of protesting injustice in the streets, or carefully selecting what piece of content to put up on your social media as a show of solidarity. We also talk about the importance of fighting for racial justice in the everyday.
If anything becomes clear from this conversation, it’s that the battlefronts for racial justice exist in all aspects of life, so take the time to think about where you can bring the fight.
KOSTA: From your perspective working in diversity inclusion, has anything changed since all the unrest of last year, whether it’s George Floyd, Black Lives Matter? Or as we’re seeing now more recently, with the shootings in Atlanta of 8 Asian women — is that right?
KOSTA: How has the last year looked from your perspective in that way?
FADZI: I think for me to answer that, I’m going to just recap on the last 12 months and just set an understanding of what we’re actually talking about.
So yes, in the last 12 months, we’ve seen a lot of social disruptions — Black Lives Matter, COVID. And so the world as we thought we knew it changed. But if we think about the events that happened, there’s nothing new in the things that were happening.
We’ve had pandemics before. We have had a lot of activism. We’ve seen it with marriage equality. We saw it with #MeToo. We saw it in the Civil Rights era. So the actual movement in terms of mobilizing people for collective activism, that was not new, and the killings were not new.
African Americans will tell you that this is something they’ve been talking about for generations. Pretty much from the time of slavery, they’re being killed. That in itself wasn’t new.
What I think in my opinion tipped it is, we actually saw White voices right now taking a stand. That’s when people started paying attention.
And I feel like that collective activism of everyone finally coming together and saying racism is wrong is why it became such a big movement, because Black Lives Matter as an organization has been there for some time.
KOSTA: It’s been for a while, right? Yeah.
FADZI: I think that’s what tipped it. Then coupled with the fact that we’re all forced to be at home — and I don’t know about you, but last year for me made me realize that there’s a lot of things that I was doing that were not really important in the grand scheme of things.
People started passing away. There was a lot of trauma to last year. It made you just start considering, have I spoken to the people that really matter?
We were working from home, and you have more time to reflect on the things that are important. When all the activities that fill your day are taken away, and you’re left with, if you’ve got somebody that you live with, a person or a TV screen, or hello, Zoom, as a companion, you then realize just what fills your day.
So we had all of that happening, and then we had in the backdrop of all of this. So I think it was big in terms of forcing us to really consider the things that are important.
And I think COVID was an equalizer, in the sense that it wasn’t about Black, White, Asian. There was nothing like that. Everybody was impacted. And yes, there are some groups that are, I guess, impacted more, disproportionately and all. But in terms of contracting it, it was across the board.
KOSTA: It’s indiscriminate.
FADZI: Right. People were losing jobs, and everyone was impacted because we saw a lot of disruption in the workplace.
So I think, with that backdrop, then we go to the issues that last year raised. And I would like to start by, let’s just define what we’re talking about.
KOSTA: Yeah, please. That was my next question. Yeah, it’s great.
FADZI: So, obviously, what happened last year is in the diversity and inclusion space, there was a lot of emphasis on it. People started looking for… I think in terms of jobs, there were so many jobs that were made available during last year.
But I want to start by defining so that we’re all clear on what we’re talking about. So I always like to describe diversity and inclusion in the process of baking a cake. Now, I’m not a baker, so if I butcher the process —
KOSTA: Neither am I.
FADZI: — of baking, you have to forgive me.
FADZI: But when you’re baking a cake, you have your ingredients. So you’ve got your flour, you’ve got your eggs, sugar, milk, butter, and whatever else you want to put in, depending on the cake you want. For me, those ingredients, that represents diversity, all the things that make us different.
Diversity is about difference. It’s not about sameness. So, in its very definition, diversity is the things that make us different. What are the unique features that we all have? It’s all about difference.
Inclusion is getting that mix right. So if we think about the analogy of baking the cake, when we then mix the flour, eggs, and all of that together, to me that’s the inclusion bit. That’s including everyone so that they’re part of whatever process.
The end product, the cake itself, is belonging, because everyone needs to feel a sense of belonging. And I think that for too long, within our organization, within our communities, we focus on diversity being the destination, and it’s just the start, right?
KOSTA: It’s just the ingredients.
FADZI: One of the things that you often hear in the language of diversity and inclusion is equity and equality. Why can’t we treat people equally or equitably? And then there’s a lot of confusion on, what’s the difference between equality and equity?
So, first of all, when we think about equality and equity, using my analogy of baking a cake… If we are to say equality, then we would be saying that we treat all the ingredients the same, right? That’s what equality means. But both you and I are based in Perth, Australia. So think of putting butter and milk in the pantry on a hot Perth day. What is going to happen to that?
KOSTA: That’s going to melt and curdle.
FADZI: Right. The butter is going to melt, and the milk is going to curdle. It’s going to go off, so we put them in the fridge. Now does that mean that the milk and the butter are more important than the flour and the eggs?
KOSTA: I should think not.
FADZI: No, they’re not. But they’re just different characteristics, and so we put them in the fridge. To me, that’s the equity.
That is looking at the ingredient and saying, “Okay, this has to go in the fridge.” We can’t just throw the eggs around anyhow, because they’re going to crack. So we’ll put them in a casing or an egg box or whatever it is, right?
But we’re not saying that they’re not equal. What we’re saying is we just have to treat them equitably. And so, if we think about us as a community…
If we think about diverse groups of people, we’re not saying one group is more important than the other. What we’re saying is, historically there are some groups that have been disadvantaged, and we just need to understand how we can treat those groups so that we can get the equality that we want at the end of the day.
I think this is where we start to see certain people feel, or as I call it, we start to get into “diversity hierarchy” where because of the systemic stuff that we’ve seen and the social norms, we start to see certain groups have more advantages or more privileges than others.
And so, I think when we correctly define what we’re talking about, we then are able to… First of all, we need to diagnose what the problem is, and then we can start to deal with it.
I think that as a society, we haven’t really defined what the problem is. Because in my work, we’re talking about Black Lives Matter because that was a huge thing. Diversity and inclusion, these are buzzwords, and we’ve seen a lot of movement.
First of all, it was a huge focus on women and gender, and it still is, right? Now, the thing about that is, historically we can see, and we know, and research has already shown, the benefits of diversity and inclusion. And we know that if we look at the historical context, women have been left out of certain places and all of that stuff, right?
The only problem is, if we don’t understand the intersectionality, if we don’t understand that Fadzi, as a Black woman… When I hear this gender conversation — where it’s tended to focus on how can we get more women in decision-making positions, how can we get them on boards, or how can we get them directorships? — that is a conversation I don’t necessarily see myself in. I don’t feel that it represents where I’m at.
I’m coming into the conversation with this notion as, do you see me?
Do you see me as a Black woman? Do you see Fadzi, or do you see Black Fadzi? What are you seeing?
I don’t care about the board and the directorship when I am coming into the conversation. I just want to be seen. I want people to treat me like I have a brain, I am able to think, and not make assumptions about who I am.
For a lot of women, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, trans women, the conversation for us is more on we need you to get past the diversity — the 10% of what you think you know about us, which is the visible aspect — to understand how we think, what we like, and just know a little bit more on us. So I think sometimes the way we pitch the conversations is exclusive in nature.
KOSTA: Right. I’m picking up on things of erasure here in some ways. When we fail to be intersectional, we end up erasing very large parts of anyone’s identity, particularly historically oppressed groups.
Part of what I feel is missing in the conversation there is that, while in certain social structures certain people benefit as a result of just being seen as the default, we are actually all harmed by that mode of thinking, even those who are in privilege in some ways. Is that fair?
FADZI: Yeah. If you think about diversity and what you’re talking about… If I had a room of people and I asked a few questions, the first question would be “How many of you got to choose what color skin you were born in? Stand up.” Nobody would stand up, I’m assuming. It’s never happened.
If I asked them, “How many of you chose who your parents were?” no one stands up. “How many of you got to choose what nationality you were born in?” No one would be able to answer. And then if I said, “Okay, what about sex? Before you were born, were you able to decide what sex you came into the world?”
Nobody has ever stood up when I’ve asked those questions. It’s interesting that when we think about diversity, none of us have actually any control, right?
FADZI: We don’t get to choose it. And the world is diverse whether we like it or not.
KOSTA: Whether we like it or not.
FADZI: But it is the cause of so much social disruption, discrimination, prejudice, you name it. Wars have started over things that we have no control over.
If I flip that, Kosta, and then I say, “Okay, so we’re all in agreement that we couldn’t choose the color of skin, our nationality, all of that, then can people choose their privilege?” Just like they don’t get to choose the diversity that they come into the world, they don’t get to choose a privilege.
But we do hit them over the head with a baton. And at the moment, the people that are getting the brunt of it is White men.
Now, I’m not saying that they shouldn’t use their positions of privilege in an equitable way, in a responsive way where it’s like, “Okay, how can I create opportunities for people?” Most definitely. But we have to understand that they didn’t choose the privilege, and if we’re talking about creating an inclusive environment, it includes those voices.
We can’t say we’re going to exclude this voice and truly have an inclusive environment, community, or workplace. We have to make sure that every voice is heard.
What we should be asking ourselves is, how can we move forward by allowing every voice to participate in a conversation that is going to create the outcome that we want?
KOSTA: Your cake analogy is really apt there in that what you’re speaking to… Because when you were talking about what equity and diversity actually means, diversity, like you said, is defined by difference. Equity is defined by… Would you say that equity is defined by what needs are present as a result of those differences?
FADZI: So, if you think about it…
I think equality is treating people the same regardless of their difference. Equity is treating people differently because of their difference.
FADZI: Because you understand… So, it’s considering, like you say, that we are different. Then now that we know that we’re different, and there’s nothing wrong with it, what opportunities does Kosta need? Because Kosta might not need the same opportunities that I’m giving to this person.
Because, at the end of the day, we want an equal outcome, but an equal outcome might mean that we are doing different things for different people.
FADZI: I was talking about me as a Black woman.
When people were talking about gender equality, framing it about getting more women on senior management, I was still sending out applications just wanting to be employed. Gender equality for me meant that I could apply, and people would at least offer me a job.
That’s all I was thinking. When I was going into these conversations, it’s no wonder that I thought, “Well, this conversation is for White women, because those are the only women that I’m seeing at the top anyway. I’m not seeing women who look like me.” So I’m switching off, because I’m like, “Well, I don’t see how I fit into this conversation.”
KOSTA: I don’t see myself in this conversation.
FADZI: And this is where I think we have to really think about equity in the sense that in everything that we’re fighting for, there’s always a subgroup.
If we’re talking about gender equality, we have to recognize that there are marginalized women even within that conversation. Are we including them? Are we considering what their needs might be to move forward?
I’m a parent, and I’ve got two boys who are completely different in character, in nature, in the things that they like. Same mom, same dad, same household, but they’re different. And so there are certain things that I’m going to do with one child that I won’t do with another.
I don’t love them any differently. I love them the same, because they’re my kids, but I have an understanding of who they are. I think for me, that’s equity.
Sometimes what we want to give people or what we think they need, they don’t need that. We need to stop talking on behalf of other people.
KOSTA: Yeah. I was just reflecting as you were speaking, because I feel like the way we talk about equality, it flattens the playing field too much, so to speak. But what equality should be speaking to is our inherent worth as human beings.
We are all equal in terms of our inherent just right to exist. Equity is about making sure that there are systems in place for people to realize their full potential, as a result of their needs, as a result of their differences, or whatever those could be.
Is that a fair way of putting it, where equity is around structures to make things feasible for people with different needs, and equality is just about “everyone is of equal value as people”? It doesn’t mean our opinions are necessarily the same. It’s not about false equivalents. It’s just that we have the right to exist in the way that we feel we should exist, or we feel we are.
FADZI: It’s interesting because I’ve often tried to consider what comes first, equality or equity?
KOSTA: Sure, yeah.
FADZI: And I feel like, we can’t really have equality without equity. In order for us to get equality, we have to have the equity bit. We have to get to a place where everyone is given the same measure of opportunity, in the same way, in order for them to come out. That might look different for different people.
But I think you’re absolutely right, and it’s just a matter of, once again, how we define things and how we have an understanding. Because what we have to do is, we have to, first of all, define the landscape in which we’re dealing in, right?
FADZI: We have a lot of things now where we’re trying to fix stuff, but we haven’t even defined the problem. It’s almost like going into a hospital. I know today I’m just full of analogies.
KOSTA: No, it’s great.
FADZI: It’s just like, you go to the emergency room, and you see a triage nurse, and they first of all try and define. They’ll ask you symptoms and all, just so they can help the doctor to be able to give you a diagnosis. Once you have the diagnosis, once you’ve seen the doctor, you’re then given a treatment, whether it’s medicine or whatever it is. But they can’t treat you before they diagnose you.
We are trying to treat a problem when we haven’t defined it, because there’s an unwillingness, from what I see, for us to face the past. The past is ugly, but it is the past.
It’s not to say that looking at that and defining the problem doesn’t mean we won’t get a solution. But we have to be able to correctly define it and understand that when you go into a hospital, in an emergency, people are not presenting the same symptoms, so there’s going to be different treatment.
Some people are going to need a bit longer to understand. We can’t tell, I can’t tell you, “I’m giving you two days to heal”. No doctor tells that to a patient and says “I’m putting a time limit on your healing or whatever it is you need”. They diagnose and then they work with you until you’re better.
But what we do from a social perspective is, we have these issues and we’re trying to tell people that you need to get on with it, forget about this, and just move forward. I think that’s a bit unfair. Because if we’re talking about equity as well, we have to recognize that some people in certain situations are impacted more.
The interesting thing is, if we go back to last year and what COVID did, there was a lot of empathy during COVID — empathy towards business owners, empathy towards people. You saw globally how we rallied around, “Who are the most vulnerable groups? We have to make sure we keep them safe.”
Even if we think about the rollout of vaccines as well, it’s like, “We need to make sure the health workers are taken care of, and then who are the marginalized groups?” and doing it like that.
It’s interesting that when society wants to, we actually can come together and come up with solutions where we identify “These people are hurting now. Let’s do something about it.” When it’s something that affects everyone, we’re good at that.
KOSTA: I was just about to ask you, what do you think makes people take that step out of their own circumstances?
FADZI: Because they can see, with COVID, we have seen that it impacts on us to the same, right? Personally, everyone is part of this whole thing.
When we then talk about racism, I feel there’s certain people who don’t see that it impacts on them as much. So if we think about racism, and the fact that it actually has an impact on Black and Brown people or people of color, whatever terminology people use, more than anybody else, then we start making it a numbers game, which sometimes happens.
I’ve been in workplaces where it’s like, “Well, we only have blah blah percentage of people. The majority of people are mainstream.” What does that even mean, mainstream? These terms, when you start describing people, you’re isolating them. You’re telling them that they’re not mainstream. You’re “less than” and othering and all of it.
KOSTA: It’s dehumanizing.
FADZI: So this is the biggest challenge with racism. The thing is, racial anxiety is a real thing because when have we ever been taught how to talk about race?
Nobody wants to talk about race. We all are told, “Race doesn’t exist. We’re all part of the human race.” And it’s true. There’s no scientific evidence to actually justify the existence of race. It’s a social construct. And so, if I’m defining what race is, race is a social construct, meaning that it’s something we’ve made up because it doesn’t actually exist.
However, the making up of the word race and how we classify people… If you look at some of the historical political systems, if we think about the American Civil War era, if we think about that era, there was a dehumanizing of people of color then. If you think about the Founding Fathers, there was reference to people of different races.
This was particular in the sense when describing Native Americans. This whole notion of White was good, and then there’s these other people who are not White. You start seeing the writings then, and there’s a distinction between White and the othering.
In the earlier writings, Thomas Jefferson (the principal author of the Declaration of Independence), in his writings around that time, he wrote that Black people are devoid of intellect. I think his reference was, they don’t have the same intellect and body, or something like that, as compared to White people.
KOSTA: What did they base that on at that time?
FADZI: I think it was just… I mean, this is a period of slavery. So there was already this notion that Black people were inferior.
If you think about that era and then think about the time, you’ve got slavery, you’ve got the dehumanizing of Black people over time, you have the taking of Native American land by people who are in positions of power and influence. So they can make laws that already show that there’s a disparity between the two, in the way that they see things.
Now that shaped a lot of things that came after that. That shaped the civil rights… All of the things that we’re seeing now, you can actually trace them back to that time and even beyond, where there’s this othering, and White are seen as superior and Black are seen as inferior.
Now that is not based on science at all, because it doesn’t exist, race doesn’t exist. But with the social construct of race, we’re seeing the impact now.
If we then go to colonization, which is the British Empire taking over so many different colonies, mainly the developing countries… They brought us education, they brought us religion, or whatever it is, and I’m sure the intent of goodwill was there.
But the impact of colonization has been… A lot of countries are still reeling from that. Again, there’s this whole notion that Native people are backward, they’re barbaric.
KOSTA: Some awful tropes.
FADZI: We see this superiority, all of that stuff coming in. And let’s not even get into how people were dispossessed and how land was taken.
So we’ve got that system, and we can see it now with Brexit, the residue. You can start to see this whole thing of superiority, this anti-immigration, anti-othering —
KOSTA: Very preservationist.
FADZI: Right. And if you look at that, and who are the people or the groups that are impacted the most, you will see that it’s mainly people of color, or people that they deem to be second class citizens. So we see this hierarchy, the social hierarchy there.
Then we go to the White Australia policy, which was self-explanatory in this whole essence of “White is good, and everyone else is not White. Let’s keep them out.” Then let’s go to South Africa and we see apartheid, which means “separate” in English — this whole notion of using a political system to promote prejudice and discrimination on racial lines. So we see this, right? We see that in political systems.
Even though we have a majority government in South Africa and in a lot of these places, the systemic stuff is still there. Because when we talk about systemic structures and all of this, we’re talking about years and centuries in the making. So even though race itself, we can argue and say it doesn’t exist, it does it from a social hierarchy perspective.
KOSTA: It’s different to say something is a social construct. And it’s different to say that this is the social reality that people… This is the construct as it is lived amongst positions of power or people. I find that a lot of conversations get stuck on that part.
Not to interrupt the flow of thought, hopefully this dovetails nicely back in. I wanted to get your thoughts or just some insight into the notion of privilege, and what that really is in terms of defining our terms. I find that as someone who tries to open up spaces to talk about this stuff more openly, particularly if I’m talking to the other young White men, the question of privilege often comes up. It’s a word that attracts a very defensive reaction.
How would you define privilege to people that get stuck in that conversation?
FADZI: Like you talked about, the social reality and the social hierarchies that have been created means that there are certain people, by the very nature of who they are, who don’t even have to think about things.
If we think about… And how I define privilege is, I like to define it using a dominant groups analogy. So, again, my analogy —
FADZI: Imagine a room with an elephant and a mouse in it. The elephant can survive in that room without even knowing there’s a mouse in the room, but the mouse has to anticipate every movement of the elephant.
It has to think about the behaviors, anticipate its every move. Because if it doesn’t, one step, and it’s literally gone. Obliterated, just one step.
The mouse survives by actually watching the elephant and anticipating its movement, whereas the elephant doesn’t even need to know there’s a mouse in the room. It’s not impacted by it.
KOSTA: That’s a really powerful image.
FADZI: This is the dominant group analogy. So in society, we have dominant groups. Dominant groups are the ones that enjoy social power and economic power, in the sense that they set the standard of the status quo for what everything is measured against.
If we think about dominant groups, when we talk about skin color, White would be the elephant in the situation. If we think about able-bodied, it’s able-bodied people versus people with disability. If we think of sexuality, straight people versus gay people. If we think about language, it’s English. Only a certain percentage of the world speak English, but it’s a dominant group. Everywhere you go it’s English, so that’s an elephant.
So there’s all these different analogies where we have a lot of elephants. Can we blame the elephant for being an elephant? Absolutely not. The elephant is the elephant.
No one is saying that it’s wrong to be White, or it’s wrong to be male. What we’re saying is, are you mindful that you can go to certain places and not even know that there are people who are having a “mice” experience? There are people who have to constantly think about stuff. Even just talking with my friends, just going to a shop. If I’m doing window shopping and I decide I don’t want to buy anything, I’m so self-conscious when I walk out that as I’m walking out, if there’s a salesperson or a guard, that they can see my hands and they can see that my pockets are empty.
Now, that is not because somebody has told me that. That’s the conditioning.
So when I walk out of a shop, and that thing beeps, automatically I will go back because I’m thinking “Everyone is going to think it’s me”. Now that is not because somebody yelled it. And people can argue and say, “Well, you need to get over that.” But the reality is that is the social structure.
Privileged, for me, is that there are certain people who are elephants, who never have to wonder what it’s like to be a mouse. I think that is how I would describe it. It’s the lack of awareness about the advantages and the benefits that you have just by waking up and breathing.
KOSTA: Like a lack of preoccupation with even thinking about where the source of your power or just your ability to do things comes from.
Wow, that’s a really powerful example. I’m someone who likes to think I understand it, but that’s just a really simple way of putting it.
Even just that beeping example… Just to share my parallel experience — I walked out of the shop the other day very confident in the knowledge I haven’t touched anything, and it beeped. I just kept walking because I was like, “Prove it.”
But hearing you say that, I’m like, “Okay, that is one just very small example of that sort of privilege and action there.” It’s not like I beat myself up over it, but it makes you more mindful of the experience of others. I guess that’s the desired outcome, right?
FADZI: That’s it. It’s not to say that there’s something wrong with you being who you are, but it’s just having an understanding that there are just benefits that you have.
For me, I always say to people, “Privilege is, just remember that in this situation you’re an elephant, and there’s mice. Just be careful, and be like, oh, there are actually mice in the room.” And when you know that, it’s actually doing something about the fact that you know, and not saying, “Well, if there are mice in the room, they must just get out of the way because I’m not going to change where I’m going to step” or whatever.
This is the thing. Often times there is a defensiveness. And I think it’s also the way we positioned it, because there is a lot of hitting people over the head with the “privilege baton”, as I call it. There’s some people who do have privilege who are idiots too, and it’s vice versa.
KOSTA: There’s plenty of those.
FADZI: It’s not like you absolve people from their behaviors, because just like in people of color, there’s some who are idiots. Let’s be honest. In every society, you have that. But the thing is, you don’t get labeled.
We, as a community of people, if one person does anything wrong… I was talking to members of the African community, and it’s like, if one African does anything wrong, the media talks about “African gangs” or “African this” or “fitting a African description”.
I remember years ago, I remember in Perth, Australia, there was a problem with meth, and young White boys actually had meth, but I never went around calling every single young White kid a drug addict. You know what I mean?
KOSTA: Or being worried of White leaders.
FADZI: Right. But the thing is, when it comes to marginalized groups, we’re so quick to just label everybody. We see that in different parts of the world, where it’s this persona.
My boys are afraid to wear hoodies, because for some reason that’s been associated with being… I don’t know what it’s associated with. If you’re cold and you’re Black and you wear a hoodie, apparently, and you go into a supermarket, that’s a bad thing.
In fact, one of my sons was banned from an IGA because he went in there with a hoodie, and the security guard was following him. He was with a group of his five White friends. One of the guys asked the security guard, “Why are you following him when it’s all of us?”
And then he was like, “I can do whatever I want.”
And they were like, “Well, you’re following him.” Rather than banning the kid who was arguing, they decided to ban my son who hadn’t said a word. So those kinds of things do happen.
KOSTA: Talk about an elephant and a mouse dynamic there.
I don’t look at White people and think they’re all bad. That’s not how I go about it. But the reverse is often true for marginalized groups.
KOSTA: Yeah. Wow. I mean, I’m just staggered that… I mean, it’s naive to say that. Obviously these things are a constant reality for certain groups. But it’s still very staggering to hear just even mini-examples like that. Just such flagrant abuse of power in such small contexts like that.
Would you say that’s why workplace diversity, for example, is important when we’re tackling things like structural racism? There is maybe not necessarily the cleanest throughline between those two things, but how you act in your everyday makes a big difference into what role you’re willing to play in a more civic or socially minded setting. Is that fair?
FADZI: I think it is, and I think workplaces have a responsibility.
There’s this notion we have when we talk about workplaces that, once you get into an office, you become this different person. But the thing is, we bring who we are to work. If your pet died, or if your car broke down, that’s the person that’s going to walk through the door. It’s not like you just forget going through difficulties at home, whether it’s a relationship breakdown or whatever. That’s what you bring to the workplace. And so I think workplaces have a responsibility to tackle these issues.
I know from a Black Lives Matter perspective, some companies who were not based in America, so UK ones and all, were questioning “Do we react to this? Is this an American problem?” I was like, it’s a society problem.
KOSTA: That’s a very interesting…
FADZI: Every single person has somebody that would be impacted. But I think as an organization, you can show that “You know what, we recognize that there are people here who might be impacted by this, and we want to let you know that we’re here. If there’s anything you need, we’re here to have those conversations and create the psychological safety.”
I think that organizations have a responsibility to create psychological safety. That means that I can bring my whole self to work.
And if that’s the case, then we have to then be prepared to realize that a lot of that stems from the fact that we have structures in place that have made it very difficult for some groups to be themselves.
KOSTA: To be themselves. It’s so interesting even… Sorry, talking with you always makes my mind go into overdrive.
What I’m picking up here as well is this idea of erasing emotions from the discussion. And one of the most… There are tropes like the angry Black woman, for example, where emotion is seen as a loss of control, is seen as hormones, is seen as this very hard-to-reason-with thing. On the flip side of that, you’ve got a lot of traditional masculinity, priding men on being stoic, and all these sorts of things.
But the idea that to be… Particularly White people listening to communities of color talking about race, I always hear this thing of, “If they just said it nicely, maybe people would listen to them. If they didn’t raise their voice, or if they weren’t so angry all the time…” They would do these differently.
Why do you think there is this tendency or this desire to remove emotion from the discussion of race? Because I mean, everything you’re saying about coming into a workplace… And you’re right. You bring all of yourself into the workplace. You might act in accordance with a certain set of standards, but you don’t just leave things at the door. You take responsibility to share what you share, but to also to just be who you are with all of those experiences.
Why are we so afraid of bringing emotion into this discussion, do you think?
FADZI: I think it’s because, first of all, we don’t recognize the impact of trauma.
One of the things that I’ve said to people is that I was brought up in trauma. My parents have an experience of racism that they experience, and they also heard their grandparents talking about it.
By the time I came into the world, I was already in a household that was traumatized, and is still traumatized. And so I carry that trauma.
If you don’t understand the trauma, and you don’t understand the experience that people have, you will mistake that for, “She’s angry.” No, I’m going through trauma.
The interesting thing is when we think about people, some people with mental health issues, or if they have drug addictions, we’re starting to understand, “That’s the sickness talking.” That’s what we say. We’re like, “Oh, no, that’s an illness.” Addiction is an illness. When people are under the influence of a drug, or whatever it is, they’re not their whole selves.
It’s interesting to me that we can see the difference of that. But when it comes to trauma, particularly racial trauma that has been experienced over generations, there is no permission for me to express the trauma because then it’s, “She’s angry, and she’s not reasonable.” Half the time is because people don’t understand or they’re not affirming or acknowledging my experience.
So I think that one of the things we have to be mindful of — and this is this whole notion of being an anti-racist, being a non-racist — all of it is really about affirming and acknowledging the experiences of others, knowing that it might be something that you don’t necessarily have any knowledge of, and it’s okay. But my experience is real, and you need to give me the space to be able to express it and to heal.
But the interesting thing, Kosta, is, we are talking about toxic masculinity and this is a conversation that’s been going around. We often do the same when it comes to women. Women, when they’re aggressive, we have another term that we call them. We call them aggressive when they’re trying to be assertive. So [there are] these gendered norms that we’ve got, and then we’ve got language to describe it. But if a man is doing that, he’s assertive. A woman is aggressive, a man is assertive.
When Black people are being very, very vocal and passionate, then it constitutes as anger. Well, maybe that’s just how we express ourselves. In a way, this is how I express myself. But I also feel that sometimes people aren’t listening. And so you find yourself being so passionate about something because people are not listening to what you’re saying.
But I think that this is all this norm of the fact that, as a society, we’re probably not used to seeing assertive, confident, and dominant women of color.
If I think about Serena Williams, and a lot of the discourse around her and how they’ve described her, for me this is exactly what we’re talking about. It’s “She’s a villain.” Is it because we don’t see enough of women like her who are confident, who are assertive? And then it becomes something else.
I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding, but fundamentally it’s about acknowledging and affirming the experiences of people.
KOSTA: It brings to mind what you said earlier, very early in the discussion, about just wanting to be seen. Whether it’s Fadzi or Black Fadzi, or Fadzi and Black female Fadzi, or just Fadzi in all of it.
What I feel like probably gets lost in these conversations is that anti-racist activists are trying to fight for that — for everyone, even those who are in positions of privilege, to be fully who they are. Which is not to abdicate responsibility for one’s access to opportunity or power structures, but it’s actually to see the person for as much as you can in any particular situation.
I guess, that’s the thing that always butts up against me. When anti-racism work is equated with being anti-White or whatever it is, I turn around and say to people, “They’re trying to…” If I’m talking to other White folks around how they’re feeling about this stuff, it’s like, “We’re actually trying to free us from this as well. We’re also playing a role if we give into the privilege of it too much.”
I guess there’s a lot of things coming to mind at the moment. That’s really powerful stuff.
What would you say to other White folks who want to be allies or accomplices — I know that’s a whole other conversation — but who are genuinely concerned about their friends of color or Black friends? Any ways they can hold that emotional space for them, at the very least?
FADZI: I think when we talk about allyship, and we talk about this whole sense of who we are as individuals and how we can show up, I think that it’s important for us to understand that our experiences might be different.
I think when we talk about active allyship and being an anti-racist, it’s really about putting actions to our activism. It’s not enough to just say something. What are you doing about it?
It’s almost like having a strategy with no implementation plan. So I think that this is what people are referring to when they talk about that. And I think that this is something that we have to just be mindful of.
One of the things that I often say is, “An active ally is built for change, not speed.”
KOSTA: Right. Great piece of advice.
FADZI: If you’re an active ally, your outcome is about changing. It’s not about how quickly things get done.
It’s about making sure that I’m putting my money where my mouth is. It’s about making sure that we’ve got actions to implement it. It’s being an upstander, not a bystander. So if I’m seeing behaviors that are bad, am I calling that out? And I know that there’s this balance between, how do I call out bad behavior? Is there a balance between being seen as “This is none of your business” or whatever.
But I think as a society until we are accountable to each other, until we’re actually calling those things out, we’re actually not going to see the actions that we want.
I think that any form of activism, whether it is what we saw last year with the black squares, and Blackout Tuesday and all that… I think that was an interesting thing because we saw a lot of these black squares, and Blackout Tuesday and all.
There were so many people who did that. My question to them was, “It’s great that you’re doing this out of solidarity, but how are you continuing the conversation? And what have you done to this point?”
People were saying “Black Lives Matter” and hashtagging. I was encouraging them, and I was saying, “Can you tell me which Black life matters to you? Who in your community, in your world, matters?” Because until you can identify that and be that ally for that person, it’s so easy to have a hashtag.
I think this was the biggest challenge for me as a woman of color, when I saw all of it and I’m like, “But you’re still behaving the same way. So if this matters to you, how do I matter to you? Because I am right here in front of you.”
It’s one thing for you to just go home and have this little black square, but you’re treating me differently. So how do I matter?
Until you can answer that, until you can look at the people around you and see, “This is what I’m doing, this is what I’m changing. I am not going to say those jokes. I am going to be sensitive. I’m going to call out my friends. I’m actually going to provide people with the opportunity of learning. I’m going to learn. I’m not going to expect to be taught by the people that are experiencing this.” Society often puts the burden on educating the majority on the minority. “I am going to do the work. I’m going to show up, and I’m going to actually commit to the process, knowing that it might take time and not expect the privilege of not having to care and somebody else is doing the work.”
KOSTA: Doing the legwork. That’s so interesting.
The black square, I think of as a bit of a black mirror, in that it really reflected back to a lot of us our own both assumptions and intentions at the same time.
I guess the gap in my knowledge in the legacy of that particular form of online activism, if you want to call it that, or “slactivism”, is just like, “How do we know how far people have actually taken the necessary action as a result of putting that black square up?” just as an example.
From what you’re saying, a lot of that is about knowledge about the people who are doing that. Seeing strangers doing that, I could look at a piece, like someone else posting a black square and not know anything about them. How do I know that they’ve changed? How do I know what action they’ve committed to as a result of that?
Is it about declaring your intention as well alongside that, and using your social media to do more observably anti-racist things as well? Or is it just about getting to know the people that are doing that, and understanding for yourself and making that judgment and not necessarily making a sweeping generalization one way or the other?
I don’t know. I’m a bit of a mess of thoughts there, but I think you understand what I’m trying to get at.
FADZI: Yeah. I say to people, let’s take the black tile. If nobody had posted it, if no celebrity that you follow or somebody that you value had posted that, would you have posted it? And that’s my question. Would you do anything if it wasn’t popular? Or was that, “Oh, so and so’s done it. I need to be seen to be cool. I’m doing it”?
Because I think even active allyship means that there’s consistent things that you’re doing. It’s about not being afraid to call out things. For me that square, it became sociable. It was like this social media thing. And if I didn’t have a black square, then people are going to think —
KOSTA: Oh, my God. I’m so guilty of that.
FADZI: Yeah. So it wasn’t even done for the right motive.
This is where I think active ally is different. Do you actually understand what that square represents? What does that square represent to you, and how does it impact the people that are around you?
One of the things that I say about diversity and inclusion, going back to that, is that we often talk about having a diverse and inclusive workplace.
You can’t be what you’re not. If you’re not diverse at home, and if you’ve got nobody who is different or has a different perspective, that’s what you’re bringing to the workplace. It’s not a responsibility of somebody with the title of D&I or a leader. This is each and every one’s responsibility.
Racism, tackling systemic racism, dismantling those structures — everybody has a role to play because it is about your actions. It is about your attitudes over a period of time that will create these structures. What are you doing?
In terms of the square, it’s like, “Great, that square should have represented for us, we now have an ally.” I’m now going to look at you, Kosta, and say, “You had that square. What have you done since then to educate yourself, to understand what my experience is?”
What are you actively doing? And if you’ve done nothing other than just waiting for the next phase, then how are you an ally to me? Have you actually taken Fadzi out for coffee to understand “What can I do? What is your experience? How can I get involved in being part of the solution?”
I think a lot of people just stopped at a black square, where it’s just a black tile on a social media platform, but there’s no conversation, there’s no education, and there’s no discomfort.
We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We talk about getting out of a comfort zone. But when it comes to race, when it comes to difficult conversations, none of us want to do it.
For us, as people of color, we’ve been uncomfortable for so long. In fact, our whole lives are uncomfortable because we have been conditioned to make other people’s lives comfortable. We don’t want to rock the boat or if we do, “She’s angry, she’s this.”
It’s almost like, “Come on, guys, we all want the same thing.” Because until we recognize we’re on the same team, we’re not going to get the social cohesion we want. When we dismantle this, everybody will feel it because we’ll have a society that’s free of what we’re seeing now — people being shot, at people being killed just because of the way look.
KOSTA: Just because they exist.
FADZI: Now, that impacts society. It’s not just about, “Oh, these guys were shot, so it’s going to impact Asian people” or “If we have Islamophobia…” Our whole society is hurting.
Until we are able to see that we’re not going to create the environment that we want. I feel like it has to be everyone’s responsibility to do that.
KOSTA: Yeah, that’s really hard to argue with.
Actually, can I share an embarrassing story with you? Just regarding the black tile as well, I posted one, and I don’t have a social media following. I don’t really use my social media to speak about much other than just like the stupid things going on in my life and maybe bits about my work.
But I posted it because… There was two reasons. One of them, Erykah Badu posted it, and I used it in the very Blackout Tuesday–specific way that she did as well. I was like, “If Erykah Badu is down with that, then I’m down with that,” because I love Erykah Badu.
And then the other thing that I felt overwhelmingly was the sense of pressure. Not necessarily to bandwagon so much as, “Oh my God, if I don’t post this people are going to think I’m a racist, or something like that.” So I posted it.
And I felt really weird about it because… And then I started to see some of the discourse around like, you’re actually interfering with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, and it’s blocking all these resources. I was like, “That’s the last thing I want to do here, to interfere with people’s ability to organize.”
But it’s so interesting to see others that followed suit because I’d posted it. Because of just what I represent to my own friends as someone that is broadly in the social cohesion space, that tries to do the right thing, and tries to be inclusive and an anti-racist, and generally keeps a very diverse set of friends.
They saw me do that and thought, “Because you did it, I thought, okay, I’m down for that too.” And it was the first political statement they’d ever made. And I’m saying something for the first time about it, too.
So it’s just interesting to reflect on that. I took it down because I’m like, “That’s actually not an authentic expression of my own activism.” I prefer to just try and do the everyday stuff, I checked in with a lot of friends. I wonder how much of that is the same for everyone, or whether it really just stopped there, and that’s what I struggle with.
But it was a really good lesson in being true to yourself in how you express and how you advocate for others, too, because I tried to just do… I tried to just leave those rallies rather than tell people that I’ve got them, and it was a good lesson for that. It was very humbling.
Hearing you say that now is like, you can only go so far but there has to be the action to follow it. If you’re using social media to advocate, then I guess you should also be using your social media to give people a window into the stuff you are doing in your life every day. Is that fair?
FADZI: I think that’s fair because that’s authentic, and it’s vulnerable, and no one is expecting you to have all the answers.
I mean, I’m still learning. Every year it’s a different experience. Every day is a different experience. There’s a lot of learning that happens. But I think we need to be vulnerable and not try and appear like we know, because this isn’t about knowing. You will never know enough. It’s a human behavior. The context, all of that matters.
But I think that as a society, let’s hold each other accountable. Let’s have the right motive in wanting to… This isn’t about a social media experience. These are people’s lives. This is trauma. This is an experience that people have faced. People have moved and left their countries of origin, Black and Brown people, to run away from ethnic prejudice and racial injustice. All of it, this is real.
A family is separated, so we’re talking about people’s livelihood. We’re talking about life or death situations. And so we need to be mindful of that, and treat it in the manner that it deserves.
For some people, this is not just a social media experiment. This is our life.
KOSTA: This is real life.
FADZI: I think it’s about, let’s acknowledge, let’s affirm, let’s educate ourselves. Let’s be willing to learn, have a teachable spirit. Let’s also lead with the end goal in sight.
KOSTA: Teachable spirit, that’s lovely, yeah.
FADZI: Let’s have an end goal in sight. I believe that our society needs racial reconciliation. We need racial justice, and we want to see an inclusive society where everybody has a contribution and can bring their contribution.
That’s going to require every single individual to actually play their part. It’s about checking our biases. It is about diversifying the people and the experiences that we have, so that we can actually see what it’s like to have a different perspective.
It’s going to require bravery and courage to challenge perspectives and narratives, because until you challenge them, you can’t change them. You got to challenge them first. So that challenge is going to have to happen.
I think if we can get into that place, we start to see the outcomes that we want in our world.
KOSTA: Great. Wow, I think that’s probably the perfect place to wrap up.
Fadzi, it’s always so wonderful catching up with you. You’re a dear friend to all of us here and a mentor in so many other respects. Thank you so much for your time, your wisdom, and your generosity with your own personal experience.
If anyone is interested in following your work, do you have any public work or like a public profile that you share? Any social media?
FADZI: Yeah. I’m probably on all of the social media. “FadziW” is Twitter, LinkedIn. You can find me there. I haven’t been as active just because I’m too busy trying to —
KOSTA: You’ve been very busy.
FADZI: — trying to see things, but I’d love to keep in touch. I’d love to hear people’s stories. I think all of us can help create a better world, at least leave it better than we found it.
KOSTA: Amazing. Thank you so much, Fadzi.
FADZI: Thanks for having me.
KOSTA: You’ve been listening to Undesign, a series of conversations about the big issues that matter to all of us. Undesign is made possible by the wonderful team at DrawHistory. If you want to learn more about each guest or each topic, we have curated a suite of resources and reflections for you on our Undesign page at www.drawhistory.com.
Thank you to the talented Jimmy Linville for editing and mixing our audio. Special thank you to our guests for joining us and showing us how important we all are in redesigning our world’s futures. And last but not least, a huge thank you to you, our dear listeners, for joining us on this journey of discovery and hope. The future needs you.
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