Examining The Workforce Diversity In Bermuda Cultural Studies Essay

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Bermuda is located 640 miles east of North Carolina in the Atlantic Ocean. As this self-governing British overseas territory celebrated its 400th anniversary of settlement in 2009, it finds itself at a veritable crossroads within the context of being a maturing democracy. Since its historic election in 1998, the Progressive Labour Party (PLP) has proposed policies and enacted laws specifically designed to promote and protect the interests of Bermudians, specifically blacks. In doing so, however, the PLP has lost a significant degree of faith in its governance by exacerbating underlying racial tensions, as well as fostering unease among the international business community. In regards to diversity, we must first look to the past before we can move forward in the present.

Discovered in 1609, Bermuda's earliest settlers were white. The first people of color were brought to the island in 1616; Black and Indian indentured servants, who were to dive for pearls. While they were not considered slaves, slavery would soon come. The first hint of concern about a growing black population came in 1623 when an Act was passed preventing blacks from engaging in business without prior consent from their black masters. Thus, Bermuda's first White Affirmative Action law was passed.

For more than 100 years, the effects of White Affirmative Action remained deeply entrenched in Bermudian society. Laws and policies were passed to "protect white interests, deny blacks basic freedoms, ensure that slaves were utterly powerless, and free blacks were controlled, and subjected to injustice after injustice" (Jones, 2004, p. 106)). Post-segregation laws were passed to continue to prevent blacks from voting, by making it as difficult as possible for them to register. Policies were instituted to encourage white immigration in attempts to increase the number of whites living on the island, to ensure power stayed with the status quo. All of this, systematically and efficiently, allowed many white Bermudians to accumulate wealth, property, influence, employment, education, travel and all the benefits that go along with a power position in society. Even when integration came to Bermuda, it was one-way integration. Black Bermudians, at last free to go into any store they chose, began to patronize white stores and businesses and as a consequence many profitable black businesses failed.

Today, blacks make up 65 per cent of Bermuda's population, and whites 34 per cent. Despite blacks being the majority for centuries, desegregation came much later in Bermuda than in many parts of the world. Racial discrimination was widely practised in the churches, the school system and the employment sector well into the 1960s. Blacks in Bermuda found themselves "excluded from any and every opportunity to participate in real political or economic power" (Hodgson, 1998 p. 256). Like the majority of western democracies, the post-Second World War period would have a profound effect on the development of modern Bermuda. This era would give rise to the "end of largely tolerated segregation, the introduction of universal suffrage, the creation of political parties, the first elections, and the establishment of labour standards and workers' rights" (Jones, 2004 p. 205). Key elements of what would become modern Bermuda would emerge from this defining time in its history.

In spite of these advances in racial equality, to talk about racism in the 70s, 80s and 90s in Bermuda was considered racist. According to Lynne Winfield, president of Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda (CURB) a common saying around these times was "after all we are all equal now; those people are just stirring things up". If you talked about racism you were immediately labelled as playing the 'race card'. Teachers who attempted to bring in African or Black History lessons were told it was irrelevant to the curriculum and a waste of time. In fact, it can be said that it is a bit of an oxymoron to have a Black History Month in a country with a majority black population. However, students are taught "Discovery to Democracy" (L Winfield, personal communication, March 24, 2010) from the white and colonial perspective. This has lead to a great gaping hole in the history of Bermuda and in its education. How can Bermuda look at diversity and reconcile as a people when so much truth from the past has been denied, overlooked, omitted and ignored?

Despite the progress that has been made since Bermuda desegregated, some 50 years later there is still equity disparity based on race. Black Bermudians "hold far more BA degrees, MBA degrees and PhDs than white Bermudians" (Bermuda Employer's Council, 2008) but they do not hold as many executive and senior management positions as white Bermudians. They also do not earn as much as their white Bermudian counterparts. It must be understood that through cross generational effects, it is evident that the cumulative effects of discrimination still resonate in Bermudian society.

White Bermudians are also struggling with the changes occurring in their society. With the election of the PLP, black Bermudians now for the first time in 350 years are behaving like the majority they have been for 200 years. And white Bermudians for the first time are beginning to experience what it is like to be a minority and, as with any change, it is resisted because it is unknown, unsettling, confusing and frightening. Many white people on the island believe race relations have grown worse, yet according to a 2008 racism survey carried out by CURB, "for every white person who thinks race relations is worse, twice as many black people think that race relations is better". How can they live so close to each other and work together but have such a different picture of reality?

The white community lives in a safe cocoon that insulates vital truths from their collective awareness. They live with institutionalized racism and benefit from white privilege, but they do not see the benefits it gives them and often deny its existence. They choose not to notice that a statistically vast majority of people catching buses are black; that the majority incarcerated are black; and that the legal system hands down harsher penalties to blacks than whites for similar offences. Black people know this, but disinterest and cognitive dissonance is rampant in the white community, and there is a failure to recognize that the social problems experienced today, most of which are occurring within the black community, are intertwined with the legacy of racism and the resultant economic disparity. Even before the economic downturn, the economic disparity between the races had been growing. In the United States "the rich were getting richer, and the poor were getting poorer." However, in Bermuda that translates along racial lines and its associated social problems. This economic disparity is most evident in the dominant international business sector.

Attracted by Bermuda's absence of restrictive regulations, low tax liability, stable governance and good infrastructure and communications, international business developed steadily from the 1970s. Largely composed of off-shore reinsurance and tax-exempt corporate operations, this sector eventually surpassed tourism as the main foreign exchange earner by 1995. By the time the PLP had assumed power in 1998, the international business sector had cemented its position as the pre-eminent pillar of the economy.

The international business community, accustomed to operating under a white minority UBP government, found itself experiencing some anxieties with the election of Premier Jennifer Smith's PLP government. Having inherited a large contingent of white expatriate workers, the PLP quickly acknowledged the "integral role that industry played in the socio-economic welfare of Bermuda" (Duffy, 2004, p. 405). While the PLP government initially conceded that the international business community was a necessity to sustaining a prosperous economy in Bermuda, its actions towards this community has grown increasingly unfriendly. The PLP government has framed such legislative and policy initiatives as the establishment of six-year term limits and the Workforce Equity Act as genuine efforts to preserve and protect its island community. However, they have instead created unease in the international business sector, as well as trepidation among foreign workers.

The PLP government, which is more representative of Bermuda's racial composition, slowly began taking steps after its election in 1998 to redress White Affirmative Action policies enacted in the 1600s. These policies were driven by the fear of "losing political power" and designed to restrict the affluence and progress of blacks (Riley, De Shields, 2008, p. 3). The creation of the Workforce Equity Bill of 2007 personifies government's strongest move to date in regards to black hiring initiatives. Essentially, the bill encouraged employers to take reasonable measures to ensure that qualified black Bermudians received fair opportunity to reach whatever levels their ability and qualifications could take them.

The reaction from the international business community in regards to this legislation was mostly negative. It was argued that any equal opportunity employer, in meeting the terms of the Bermuda Government's Good Corporate Citizen policy, would have been carrying out these practices anyway. Moreover, the Association of Bermuda International Companies stated that "punitive legislation mooted by Government is not the way to achieve the desired promotion of Black Bermudian executives" (Riley, De Shields, 2008, p. 6). Many of those in the international business community saw this policy as a threat and not part of a good business model.

The main issue with this piece of legislation and many others that address White Affirmative Action is that the international community does not want to be forced to behave socially responsible, especially by a government they feel continues to sow racial unease. However, they are starting to realize the importance of diversity training and understand that in order to be successful, they need to look at new ways to foster harmony and promote inclusion in order to create a successful business model in today's ever changing global economy.

Today, many international companies in Bermuda have been involved in workforce diversity training. They understand that in today's global environment a diverse workforce creates a focus on new markets, new ideas and increased productivity, all of which lead to higher profits: the very reason a company is in business. Therefore, it makes good business sense to employ diversity training for reasons ranging from profits, to protection from lawsuits and to the more altruistic reason that in diversity there is strength.

While diversity training makes good business sense, international companies need to focus on more than that. In Bermuda, where a majority of the population is black, "companies need to understand the importance of the difference between the diversity perspective and the racial equity or racial justice perspective" (C. Riley, personal communication, March 29, 2010). Diversity training's perspective is on awareness and appreciation of different cultures, with a resultant hoped-for harmony in the workplace. Focus on organizational change is through the important but limited perspective of looking at hiring practices such as job descriptions, newspaper advertisements and revisions to personnel practices. With regard to racism, diversity training views it primarily as the result of individual action; such as personal prejudice, stereotyping, racial slurs or jokes, and intentional acts of discrimination by individuals.

A racial equity or a racial justice perspective includes these individual dimensions but "places a much greater emphasis on structural racism and broadens the definition to include racism as a defined set of institutional, cultural, societal beliefs and practices that, unknowingly and regardless of intent, gives benefits to one race over another" (C. Riley, personal communication, March 29, 2010). Structural racism shows how beliefs, history, values and attitudes can and do impact education, health, employment, housing, criminal justice and the environment.

The fact that racism is still a worldwide reality shows how much structure, organization and planning it took for over 400 years to ensure that it continues alive and well today. Racism is not going to just give up and go away. No longer overt, it has morphed in Bermudian society into something else; changing to fit into today's more polite and politically correct society. Insidiously, it has gone underground, melting into local businesses to rear its head in outdated hiring practices, stereotypes and so-called cultural misunderstandings.

Every time a company allows its 'comfort zone' to interfere with its interview or hiring practices, and a white candidate is chosen over a black candidate because they have a 'feeling' that they will fit in better, they maintain the legacy of racism. Every time a private school allows alumni's sons, daughters, siblings, etc. to fill up the spaces available they perpetuate a system of racism. Yes it is history and yes it has always been done that way but why? Because it was part of a system, put in place by people long ago to ensure that unwanted people would not be allowed in. So why does Bermuda continue to blindly follow such antiquated and unfair practices? The excuse that 'it has always been done that way' no longer cuts it.

Business in Bermuda is run on the "white business model"; go anywhere in the world and you will see companies being run in a similar way, whether they're in New York or Paris; Johannesburg or Tokyo. The reasons behind this range from 400 years of immigration to the New World; centuries of colonialism; or today's modern day equivalent: global expansion and a global, migratory workforce. As a global society, diversity in the workforce is now a Bermudian reality, and from a company perspective diversity training encourages staff on an individual level to change their perspectives about people of different culture and color. However, in Bermuda diversity can fail to look at the dominant (white) organizational norms, cultures and structures; nor is it understood the way black Bermudians have had to adapt to these cultures and societal pressures, while still managing to hold on to their own culture. Yet somehow they have managed to do so, creating a duality in their lives, which many would find overwhelming.

Diversity training is very important for developing a greater appreciation for each other, and is needed as organizations, companies, schools and governments grapple with employees' diverse attitudes and perspectives. It is a boom industry in largely western societies, and as such audiences are predominantly white, and by definition an underlying focus is to encourage white employees to change their consciousness and develop a greater appreciation for, and understanding of, people of color. This is another oxymoron when you consider that Bermuda is a majority black country. With so many guest workers employed on the island, many companies use diversity training to help their overseas staff adjust to Bermudian life. It is an important step in personal growth and understanding, but it is the first step. In Bermuda they must have the courage to go beyond diversity in order to understand the racial inequities and injustices that continue to plague their people. Bermuda needs to educate their guest workers not only to the cultural elements of its society, but also the segregated socio-political past, which they are working to overcome. By reducing race to one element of diversity, all we end up doing is addressing symptoms rather than the roots of Bermuda's social problems.

When we refer to organizational culture in Bermuda, we must look to evaluate the existence of structural racism within companies. It cannot solely be about working towards individual enlightenment. Instead we need to analyze how structural racism, often unknowingly and without intent, is perpetuated by organizational culture, its norms, its beliefs, practices, policies and procedures. In Bermuda they have failed to study the way race was and continues to be structured in their society. Accordingly, structural racism has gone unnoticed, un-challenged and misunderstood, and continues to surreptitiously sustain the inequalities in the workforce. Bermuda needs to transcend the legacy of racism, reduce the racial inequities that continue to exist in their society and take part in affecting social change in their community.

Bermuda needs to focus on internal change. This change can be accomplished by accepting and establishing racial equity as a central tenet and operating principle in their workforce to improve outcomes in their internal work environment. For example focus not just on improving outcomes for all but also on reducing racial gaps. Focus not just on diversity in the workplace, but also on racial equity in opportunities for advancement and leadership. The primary focus of employers is hiring the right people for the job, at a fair wage, whilst trying to ensure they develop a diverse and culturally competent staff.

Companies need to realize that being cognizant of diversity is not enough in a country which suffers from a legacy of racism. It requires companies to be vigilant, and to ensure they have a broad understanding of the historical, social and cultural background of the environment in which they work. Companies must take a proactive stance to ensure their staff not only understands the complex nature of structural racism, but also how the legacy of racism continues to affect the community, and by example and action encourage staff to understand its implications and to work actively against it. It is only by education and mutual respect that bridges, and not walls, will be built. Through this, successful management of a diverse workforce might not be so confusing and can result in a more inclusive and honest workplace.