Why Equity and Diversity Programming is a journey, not a destination

Over the past Civic Holiday weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in the annual Caribbean festival. With its roots in the Caribbean, and founded during the enslavement area, this festival is the largest of its kind in Ontario and Canada. My family’s history in the festival stems from before I was born and will continue with our future generations. After two years of the global pandemic, this was the first year the festival emerged since 2019. The Caribbean festival began during enslavement as a way to protest the experiences of slavery. The enslaved people were only permitted to gather on these particular days. During this time, they wore masks and costumes to cover themselves in hopes that no one could distinguish who they were. In future years, the festival continued as a protest against European rule and occupancy. It was the one day that we could become free and independent. It is also timed well with Emancipation Day in Canada, and in many countries throughout the world.

The Experience at Hotel X

I had the pleasure of staying at Hotel X. A new, modern hotel located in the heart of the Lakeshore picturesque area in Toronto, and resort-like amenities. It was my third time staying at the Hotel, and also my select destination for overnight stays in Toronto. When the parade was announced in April 2022, I booked my stay immediately with one of the Hotel X reservation staff team members. She was great and walked me through the process. I knew that this hotel was the best space to enjoy the festival and the city.

One the day of the parade, the Hotel was barricaded with city fences that marked the parade route. We left the hotel early to meet our fellow mas players. I remember “chipping down the road” and reflecting upon a sign on a building that stated, “Black Lives Still Matter”. It’s funny because by mid-day, I was reminded that in fact, racism is not over.

“I remember chipping down the road, and reflected upon a sign on a building that stated, ‘Black Lives Still Matter.’”

— Nicole Perryman

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

At about 4pm, I returned to the Hotel to see my sister and her family waiting for me. The guest reception provided us key cards for the room I reserved, and we were on our way up. As we were speaking with the receptionist, another staff team member approached us. Let’s say his name Jake. Without introducing himself, he immediately asserted himself in the conversation stating, ‘that we can not receive wristbands, and we could not have guests come to our room’. I looked at him shocked. Earlier that day, my other sister/make up artists was in our room helping us prepare for the day– and the day before, we had friends come by to visit us and was welcomed by staff. Annoyed by Jake, I quickly dismissed him and stated that he asserted himself in our conversation and we were going upstairs.

In a managerial perspective, Jake was doing his job– he was limiting the use of the facility to non paying guests, he was reaffirming policy, and he was asserting authority. In an equity perspective, Jake’s presentation and insertion mirrored and reflected anti-Black racism.

Anti-Black racism Anti-Black racism is prejudice, attitudes, beliefs, stereotyping and discrimination that is directed at people of African descent and is rooted in their unique history and experience of enslavement and its legacy. Anti-Black racism is deeply entrenched in Canadian institutions, policies and practices, to the extent that anti-Black racism is either functionally normalized or rendered invisible to the larger White society. 

Benjamin, 2000, pg. iii

Let me break this down… When my sister, the receptionist and I were talking, we shared similar identities and interests. The receptionist was kind and accommodating, and she was “doing her job” with excellence. When Jake approached us, he saw Black people– whom his ancestors once referred to as, “animals, inhuman, enslaved” and more. He did not see us as people. When he approached his colleague, he did not see her as human but rather, “the help, the servant”, or even “the slave”. He embodied a concept, Resmaa Menakem describes as “white bodied supremacy” (Menakem, 2015). He approached us in a way where he felt and acted as though he was superior than us. He did not need to greet us, he did not need to share his name, and he did not need to share his role. As members of the Black community, we responded in our own flight-fight-freeze response when approached with lateral violence from Jake. My sister, as the effective lawyer she is, fought back. The receptionist froze and literally put her face down. And, myself, equity consultant and expert, took the opportunity to flee.

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion is a journey

Since 2020, the emergence of equity work has helped organizations to prioritize their efforts on ensuring that racism and inequity is addressed for communities that continue to experience oppression. We see public displays where organizations commit to reciting land acknowledgements, post anti-racist statements, participate in PRIDE events, and include quotes in their email signature. Some organizations have hired DEI team members, hosted committees within the workplace, and took steps to change organizational culture. However, these initiatives are just “steps” in the direction towards equity. It is important for organizations to understand that we are all embedded in “whiteness” and “white supremacy”, and thus, we need to continue to take daily, actionable steps towards significant change. It is not a workshop, an occasional conference, and definitely not an email signature. It is a life-long process of undoing, unlearning, and change.

Equity work in practice includes the following actions

If Jake was working within an organization that practices equity work, Jake would have participated in regular workshops and conferences to enhance his understanding of being an agent of change, equity, inclusion, and diversity. As an organization, the managers would consistently work with equity consultants to ensure they are practicing the principles. Prior to the Caribana event, the managers and staff team would receive a refresher on anti-Black racism, and creating a safe space for Black customers and team members. Jake would also spend time creating space and listening to his team members who will consistently experience anti-Black racism on a daily basis.

Prior to approaching us, if he was using an anti-oppressive approach, he would have actively engaged in self-reflection while working towards achieving the goals he had set out to accomplish: a positive experience for a Hotel X customer.

Actionable Steps:
  1. Guests should have been informed that there was a rock concert across the street on the night of July 30. I appreciated that there were notices about Caribana, but no notice that there was a rock concert. Rock concerts land differently on me, as Caribbean festivals may have on white people.
  2. When Jake approached us, he should have taken an internal survey– “why am I approaching them? what are my perceptions about what was happening? how can I demonstrate empathy and understanding? how can I build relationships? what are my perceptions about Black people?”
  3. When Jake sees his colleagues speaking with us, he should have also assessed– “do I trust my colleague? is she building relationship with this customer?” and also consider, “if I jump in, how would this impact our relationship? will she see me as helpful or harmful?”
  4. When Jake approaches any Black person or anyone of colour, it is important he also assesses, “how am I feeling? what thoughts am I reflecting upon and why? will my actions be harmful or helpful” am I embodying supremacy? how can I change my affect?”
  5. When the conversation was not going well, Jake should have considered, “what did I say? how can I make them feel comfortable? how can I convey respect?”
  6. After the conversation, Jake would reflect with his colleagues, “what could I have done to improve my approaches? what can I learn from your feedback? what did I do well to engage the customers?”
  7. The next day, the Hotel would follow up with the customer to understand their feedback and hear from their perspectives. The hotel would work collaboratively with the customer to address any steps they would need to take to address the situation and reduce the harm.

Equity experts may elect a different approach in addressing situations which may occur, and it is important that each organization takes the opportunity to truly engage in the journey, and to truly unlearn their practice. Hotel X was one of many organizations this weekend that needed to engage in equity practices, and to truly “show up” for Black and racialized customers who have experienced the worst outcomes due to the global pandemic and racism. This was a clear opportunity to do better, and many were just unable to do so. It’s okay— journeys keep going, and the work does not stop.

In closing, at this special time of year, I just want to be seen. To be in a space where I am reflected, respected, and loved. In the “mas”, there is no judgement, no restrictions, and no hate– we are there to love, to celebrate freedom and independence, to enjoy the culture, the music and the food, and to “free up ourselves”.

written by: Nicole Perryman

To learn more about equity initiatives and practices, follow this page and review my articles.

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