When office banter becomes racist

It may seem innocuous but it can still be harmful, says Above & Beyond's chief executive.

Diversity issues are again making headlines: the chief executive of one of the most world’s most disruptive firms is ‘removed’ for misogyny and a tech investor resigns following harassment claims; gender balance is top of the subject list in my own industry too with lengthy debates and discussion on how to bring more women into advertising. 

While I welcome discussion, and agree with post-event reactions, talk and punishment are temporary fixes and don’t create long lasting fundamental change. The recent stats about the percentage of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) employees in my own industry are a good, albeit depressing, example.

In the past three years, as the talk about the lack of BAME employees in advertising has become a whisper, the percentage of BAME employees in the industry has fallen and stands well below the population as a whole.

This is an issue close to my heart as I am not only one of the few people in advertising from a BAME background, but also the partner of an independent agency currently thinking hard about the culture we want to create.

I believe that the best culture delivers the best teams who in turn deliver the best ideas. I think this is true for any sector but seems especially pertinent for the ‘ideas’ industry. However, being an Arab in an industry which is encouraged to push boundaries has left me in a quandary – I truly believe that political correctness can stifle creativity but what happens when that close-to-the-bone banter which is embedded in the culture of so many agencies, becomes racist?

I have spent years laughing along when the racist joke was on me and now I wonder whether I should have spoken up sooner. 

My doctor parents came to the UK from Baghdad in 1970 and made sure that I integrated fully into British society – a public school education was followed by Cambridge. But racism has always been part of my life – at Cambridge one angry British Asian nicknamed me ‘Coconut’ on account of my ethnic looks and white middle class upbringing. I wasn't a ‘real Asian’. Society just assumed I would absorb this ‘banter’ and I did - I’ve even referred to myself as a ‘coconut‘ in order to play with people’s PC levels.

My tenure at one agency coincided with getting married and, on my work stag do, I was pressured into wearing a Guantanamo Bay orange boiler suit. I stomached it – stag dos are meant to be humiliating, right? And part of me thought it was funny. But part of me was offended – the joke that all Arabs are terrorists was hurtful and uncomfortable. Now I wonder if stereotyping to be funny had darker, longer lasting consequences. When I left that agency (which coincided with me becoming a dad) I was given a baby’s high chair complete with brown baby doll in an orange boiler suit. Again, I stomached it - these people couldn’t be my friends if they were racist, right? 

Then there were the tiny insults – being asked if (as someone of Arab descent) I was a ‘gold lover’ and whether my car’s alloys were painted gold. These were always delivered with a matey chuckle and I laughed along.

Now, as I build my own conditions for success and creativity, I’m interrogating my own standards and range of acceptable behaviours and expectations. Was stomaching the banter a form of affirmation? If I had protested, would they have questioned themselves? Could this then have helped reverse the slow onset racism that now seems prevalent?

There is one thing I am sure of – values and acceptable behaviours cannot be left to an HR team, they need to be part of a company’s DNA. Beliefs about equality and representation need to be at a company’s core and needs to feed down from the top otherwise centuries-old biases will surface for a cheap laugh.

The advertising industry is, of course, creative and funny and disruptive and clever but I truly believe we can be all of those without reverting to stereotypes. I don’t want to stop the jokes but I fundamentally believe that a joke based on a person’s skin colour, gender, sexuality or socio-economic background is lazy, anachronistic and dangerous. Do we really need to mock to be creative? I don’t believe so. We’re better than that.

 Zaid Al-Zaidy is chief executive of Above & Beyond. This article was first published by Management Today.

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