Since the horrific killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police officers, outrage around persistent and systemic anti-black racism has hit fever pitch, sparking Black Lives Matter protests all over the world. Here in the UK, long overdue questions are finally being asked about racial inequality in systems such as health and education – and, on the 2nd of June, Blackout Tuesday swept social media sites, with users posting a black square in protest of racism and police brutality.
Big brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Yorkshire Tea have been praised for their stance, while the statements of others have been accused of being box-ticking PR exercises that fail to acknowledge deep-rooted problems in those businesses.
But some companies have chosen not to say anything at all, leaving employees feeling equally let down. VICE News spoke to three people who have either quit or are seriously considering quitting their jobs because of their employer's response.
Alex, 27, was the digital marketing officer of a UK university when he made the decision to resign. After asking multiple times for the university to release a statement regarding the BLM movement early on, and being reprimanded for posting in solidarity from the university’s Instagram account, a statement eventually appeared across all of the university’s social media channels without his knowledge.
“It didn't mention Black students at all. It didn't mention Black staff at all. Or Black people in general,” Alex says. “I was so angry, because it was just insulting to students that it took a week, and this is what they thought solidarity was.”
Alex's frustration was shared by many students, who felt the gesture was not only late, but hollow. “Students were raising issues they’d faced and experiences of racism at [the university], so my guess is that they didn’t want to highlight the fact that, actually, they weren't doing a good job of supporting [Black] students and staff,” he says.
Other universities have also come under fire for their messaging around solidarity, which Twitter users have been quick to point out has been contradicted by their actions. There is a major difference between posting a black square on social media and actively engaging with anti-racism; unfortunately, Alex believes his employer’s actions were simply performative. “I don't want to work in a place that will only support those who are being discriminated against because they want to make themselves look good,” he says.
While BLM is predominantly led by Black individuals, its desired outcomes also rely on non-Black allies, like Alex, using their privilege to stand up against racism: “I want to be the person who did listen to our students, listened to what they were saying, and supported their voice. It was simply not something that I could have ignored, because if I had ignored it and turned a blind eye I would have been complicit in it myself. ”
Tia*, 19, works for a large national food outlet and is disappointed by the sheer lack of response from her company and colleagues. “To be honest, [the silence] really hurts, because I feel like I’ve put a lot of energy in,” she tells VICE News. Tia's company has a large online following – over 1 million across its social media platforms – and she is frustrated they haven’t used that platform to speak in support of the BLM movement, saying: “[The company] has a lot of Black supporters, including team members and customers, but they couldn’t say anything on Twitter, Instagram? They couldn’t say anything at all? They talk about the pubs opening and littlest things, but they couldn’t talk about how they’re supporting us through Black Lives Matter?”
Tia is the only Black person at her workplace, in a front-facing job in which she’s experienced racist abuse. The silence from colleagues and bosses makes her question if she can continue working there. “[Colleagues] haven’t said anything horrible, but they’ve also not said anything supportive,” she explains. "White silence is violence" has become a recurring chant at BLM protests – the phrase recognises how failing to speak up allows white supremacy to persist. For many Black women, like Tia, the silence of their peers during this time has been deafening.
The ascent of the BLM movement has taken place amid a global pandemic, which has seen deaths in excess of half a million, as well as huge economic decline and catastrophic job losses. Some may question the decision to leave a job in the current climate, but for 26-year-old Kayla*, a mixed-race customer service assistant, there was no other option after her company wilfully ignored such an important issue. “I was concerned about finding another job, but it got to the point where I just thought, ‘I need to leave. They don't support me as an employee,'” Kayla says. “The silence just felt really wrong.”
Her workplace, which has active social media accounts and took the time to craft an NHS mural in one of its windows during the coronavirus outbreak, has yet to acknowledge Black Lives Matter either publicly or privately. Kayla tells VICE News: “I expected my boss and my colleagues to say something in acknowledgement, solidarity, just something… anything. But no one said anything.” This, Kayla felt, could not be overlooked. “I felt like I wasn't really being seen – it was almost like the elephant in the room. I know they knew about what was going on. So the fact that they're choosing still not to say anything is denying my identity and my experience.”
With the energy of the BLM movement showing little sign of fading, only time will tell what tangible change is brought about – but the strength of feeling around the issue means it’s very possible we may see more people putting principles above a job.
* Names have been changed