These are the lyrics of a key song from Avenue Q, the hit Broadway show characterized by puppets and human actors interacting as they work through various social issues with considerable ironic humour.
But is this all a fictional portrayal of society, or is there any truth in the sentiment?
According to NatCen, Britain’s largest independent social research agency, there may well be. Their authoritative British Social Attitudes Survey, published in the Guardian in May 2014, shows that the percentage of British people who admit to being racially prejudiced has risen since the start of the millennium. Three in ten British people described themselves as being very or a little racially prejudiced in the survey conducted in 2013 (The Guardian 27th May 2014). This is a sharp rise in just a short time since the London Olympics which seemed to have a positive impact on racial prejudice.
It is notable that the same survey indicates that while racism has taken a step backwards since 2000, attitudes towards same sex relationships and sex before marriage are becoming increasingly liberal. Thus we are not becoming uniformly less tolerant or less progressive as a society.
The NatCen survey does not indicate what might be the causes behind the increase in self-reported racism but there are some clear political issues which may be influencing changing attitudes: the rise of Islamophobia spurred on by the war on terror, an omnipresent news item and political staple, leading to all kinds of misconceptions and untruths about Islam and what it represents. Secondly, the growing hostility towards immigrants. The survey data is from 2013, so well before the current migrant crisis that we see today. But hostility was already evident in 2013 as a result of free movement within the EU and a perceived threat to work opportunities and pay that migrant workers represent in some communities.
These trends are perhaps best reflected in the unprecedented rise of the UK Independence Party, who actively campaigned against immigration and EU Membership and succeeded in gaining the third highest number of votes at the 2015 general election, after Labour.
What does this mean for employers? Is racism something that should be expected or that is inevitable in the workplace?
If we go back to the lyrics of Avenue Q, there are some words which can be applied to the workplace environment:
“Look around and you will find that no-one’s really colour blind.”
The very instant we meet other people we are unconsciously taking in their appearance, including their racial background – as well as their gender, age, appearance etc. It’s automatic, a reflex reaction to meeting someone for the first time and not something that we are in control of or should be ashamed of. What matters is what we do with that information and the judgements we make about people based on their physical appearance. This is where the control element enters and where we have to take responsibility for our own (re)actions. Even being aware that you may make snap judgments based on somebody’s race is a step in the right direction.
“Ethnic jokes may be uncouth but you laugh because they are based on truth!”
Humour is a tricky line to walk. If you attempt to stamp out all humour, borderline or otherwise, you risk alienating staff and forcing it to carry on underground – onto email and social networks rather than in an open office environment. It’s better to take a proactive approach in educating staff and managers with diversity training which will make clear the acceptable workplace parameters when it comes to office humour, among other things.
“If everyone could stop being so PC, maybe we could live in harmony!”
Being overly PC can in itself lead to mockery and derision and does not portray an image of positive or credible business leadership. But certainly, there is an important place for managing diversity issues with the correct level of sensitivity and using appropriate language and terminology. Training your staff, and in particular, your managers will give them the confidence to tackle diversity issues as they arise and to avoid making any diversity gaffes themselves.
Although the puppets have injected some humour into this topic, racism is no laughing matter. It’s important to take home the message of the musical: the satirical humour doesn’t trivialize or mock racism but pokes fun at those who claim to be morally opposed to racism but come to realise their racial prejudices through discussion with others – and laugh at the irony of it all. It’s about encouraging self-awareness and reflection and breaking down racial stereotypes by talking about it with others rather than brushing it under the carpet. There is a lesson in there for all of us. Perhaps that is why the musical was such a hit?