We need to talk about racism: Elevate discussion highlights next steps

The latest Elevate Meet-Up focused on the need to identify and address racism.

The Zoom panel discussion was hosted by Elevate co-founders Melissa Noakes head of sponsorship and events at Santander and TEN6 Creative commercial director, Max Fellows.

They were joined by panel speakers, Shereen Daniels, managing director of HR consultancy HR Rewired, Priya Narain, co-founder of Event First Steps, Aliyah Hasinah Holder, a curator, writer, cultural producer and filmmaker, as well as Melissa Wills, innovation and technology specialist at Nestlé and founder of Women Like Me.


Shereen Daniels.

Originally, the discussion was going to have a different focus, however: “To put it bluntly, we need to talk about racism and what’s been going on around us and within our industry,” said Fellows.

“The last 10 days have busted any myth that racism isn’t an issue anymore, or that it ‘doesn’t happen here’. We know that this can be a difficult and uncomfortable topic to discuss. But that’s exactly the reason we need to discuss it.”

Around 100 industry professionals joined the call to hear from the guest speakers and to educate themselves and their businesses on racism and how to become better allies to the black community.

The issue

Shereen Daniels kicked off the discussion by sharing her experiences as a black woman. She highlighted some of the major issues the industry needs to tackle in order to support black colleagues and what the industry can do educate itself on racism.

“If you aren’t surrounded by anyone that looks like you, it’s a very lonely and isolating experience,” she said. “When you’re aware of that difference, you spend most of your life trying to fit in.”

Daniels explained that she has been invited to speak at events and on occasions has been completely ignored until she’s on stage. “When I step up and do my thing, that all changes. People go ‘oh my god, you’re really good, I didn’t expect you to be that good’ and ‘you’re really articulate’.

“But nothing had changed, I’m still the same person I was when I walked into the conference.”

Daniels pointed out that culturally, as a nation we “can’t get past our British ‘politeness’ to stand up for our black colleagues or our black neighbours or our black friends.”

“We are too worried about saying the wrong thing, we’re too worried about people coming for us because we’ve used the wrong terminology. We’re too worried.”

Being too worried or feeling uncomfortable, Melissa Wills explained, is something we need to overcome as a nation and an industry.


Melissa Wills

“What’s worse than feeling uncomfortable is actually having to live through and be the victim of racism and sexism at the same time.”

Each of the panellists urged the audience to have difficult conversations about racism and acknowledge their white privilege if they possessed it.

Aliyah Hasinah Holder delved into examples of systematic racism including slavery, eugenics and apartheid, to illustrate that “we have to look at our history in order to know what the ramifications of it are that we’re dealing with today.

“All these microaggressions and these things that we see within our work culture, really come from a deep place and they really come from not only the history of eugenics and institutionalised racism but one of white people not being racialised.”

Wills added that it is not black peoples’ responsibility to educate white people about racism or to draw up strategies on how to tackle racism within a company.

“If you’re not living it and if it’s not your reality, people do wonder ‘how do I learn about these things?’. In this past month I’ve had a lot of emails about ‘please can you educate me, how do I learn?’ and I think it’s a lazy response.”

Doing the ‘micro-work’, Wills explained, is important in tackling racism. “How can you stop racism from existing in your everyday actions?

“If you’re aware that you have power and influence, do the right thing and use your platform to create good.”

The problem with diversity and inclusion policies

While diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the corporate world is seen as a step in the right direction, Daniels explained that the D&I strategies already implemented don’t work because the industry hasn’t started deep enough.


Aliyah Hasinah Holder

“Nobody has stepped into a boardroom and gone, ‘before you start with your diversity and inclusion, let me just give you a history, let me just show you Aliyah’s TedTalk LINK’. What they’re doing is focusing on gender or whatever they feel comfortable with.”

Daniels asked the audience to put themselves in black peoples’ shoes and imagine that “the only way that you can get companies to take your experiences, your skills and your capabilities seriously is if they package it as ‘diversity and inclusion’.”

What can you do?

Do more than virtue signalling

“Don’t post a black picture on social media and then go back to living your life like normal. If you’re at an event and you see a black person standing on their own, but you don’t go up and talk to them because you think they’re unapproachable, you haven’t done your part. Inclusivity is something we build together, and we have to start together.” – Melissa Wills

Have uncomfortable conversations

“We need to have uncomfortable conversations with people feeling a bit awkward. Before any movement to go forward or for any change to happen, if we weren’t having these conversations now, nothing would happen, nothing would change.” –  Priya Narain

Employing black people isn’t a trend 

“Until you care, like actually care, I don’t want you to bring black people into any kind of toxic situations because we will continually be gaslit in a space to make you feel better and these are some of the things that white people have to look at and discuss and dissect within themselves before we can have productive conversations and look at how we change strategy, policies and company culture.” – Aliyah Hasinah Holder

White people, take a step back

“Black people, take up space. White people, learn to take a step back. I know that’s going to be very hard but please do it. It’s going to be worth it and then we’ll see the change we need to see.” – Melissa Wills


Priya Narain

Tokenism isn’t a solution

“[At events] the main thing that stands out is your speaker panel. If you’re on a panel discussion, what speakers do you have on? Look at the diversity of that. Don’t just have the token black person, actually do the research and get the right person. As a white ally, if you’re asked to talk on a particular panel, I think it’s really important to ask who else is on the panel with you.” – Priya Narain

There’s no ‘perfect way’

“We need to not look at it as there’s this perfect way of doing it because that’s how these [D&I] policies were created. You have to take things on a day-to-day basis but there’s definitely space to change policy, there’s space to imagine.” – Aliyah Hasinah Holder

Is your team on the same page?

“You first have to look in your own house, meaning look in your own business because not everybody is going to want you to change. Your whole board might not want you to change, all of your employees might not be pro-Black Lives Matter, pro-fixing systematic inequalities and racism. It’s well-meaning but naive to think that everybody’s wanting the same change as you.

“Before you do something that people can see externally, you have to temperature check your own business and decide what you do about the people who aren’t on the same page.” – Shereen Daniels