Institutional racism: Why we need to view this issue in 3D

Lubna Haq | 3 May 2023

I couldn’t believe it when I switched on the radio to hear Mark Rowley claim that no police force in the UK has any form of institutionalised racism; yet another senior leader from a high-profile organisation refusing to accept that institutional failings and biases exist.

It’s genuinely baffling why so many people have a problem with acknowledging the idea of institutional racism.

Decades of research on discriminatory practices as well as at least two independent reviews by Baroness Louise Casey recently and Sir William McPherson 25 years ago prove that racism is a reality.  Accepting this does not label all the people working within an organisation as racist, homophobic, or misogynistic. It does, however, have a devastatingly detrimental effect on the lives of black and ethnic minority people by denying and ignoring the impact of these behaviours. And, denying its existence leaves no room for progress.

So, why is it so difficult to acknowledge? We have had 30 years of dancing on a pin head over this topic.

This week, in a moment of clarity, the penny dropped for me. I believe we are dealing with a three-dimensional problem from a two-dimensional point of view. Let me explain…

If I am a senior leader in an organisation and I ask myself the question, “am I racist/misogynistic/homophobic?” and the honest answer is, “no”, then I don’t believe on a personal level that I contribute to the problem. If I am then asked the same question about my organisation, my automatic answer would too be “no”. You see, as a senior leader, so much of my identity and how I think about myself is tied up within the organisation I am in I become the embodiment of the group consciously or unconsciously. Therefore as I have already established that I am not racist/misogynistic/homophobic, ergo, institutional racism does not exist within my organisation..

Senior leaders are unable to separate criticism against the organisation (i.e. the policies, procedures, processes and behaviours), from criticism about themselves on a personal level. The area that they are failing to factor in to allow them to see things more clearly is their choosing to ignore independent reports confirming that institutional discrimination is a reality in their organisation. This is a personal emotional response. However, on an intellectual level, they may feel able to accept that institutional racism happens in other areas where they don’t have ‘skin in the game’ or put the blame on a few ‘bad eggs’.

This wilful ignorance cannot see that institutional racism and individual racism can exist simultaneously but must be dealt with differently.

For example, I can provide an individual with anti-racist training and talk to them about unconscious bias and the impact of micro aggressions to help them to change their personal behaviour. But this does not tackle the way that institutions were formed and how, from the outset, people not like ‘us’, (largely white, male and privileged) were treated differently and less favourably.  All our structures need to be reviewed in an intentional, non-defensive proactive way.

Only by doing this can we begin to genuinely create psychological safety and engender a workplace where people feel a sense of belonging.


Lubna Haq is a Director within the leadership consulting team at NSCG.

Learn more about Lubna here.


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