We’re big believers in doing what we can to build ethical businesses that help make the world a better place. So when we found out about Vancouver-based Bakau Consulting, which helps organizations foster inclusion and equity in their workplaces, we knew they’d have something to teach us.

Amrita Aggarwal, one of Bakau’s equity and inclusion strategists, recently took the time to answer our questions about anti-racism and how businesses can build this practice into their operations. Here’s what she had to say.

Workshop: What is the difference between being “not racist” and being “anti-racist”?

Amrita Aggarwal: The biggest difference between the two terms is action. Being anti-racist is putting in effort to work toward a future of equity and equality.

When we say we're not racist: first, that is not true — I think all of us have biases. More often than not, they're there as a result of what we've been taught, the societies we grew up in and the cultures we grew up in.

If somebody claims to be anti-racist, it means that they're actively donating to communities, or working with communities to help them rise. A lot of the BIPOC communities — Black, Indigenous and people of colour — are the ones who've been disadvantaged. So if you have privilege, devoting some time to being anti-racist is actively working to give your power and privilege to somebody else.

W: I saw a really good description of culture once, which was that it's a basically a shared Google Doc of what to do in different situations. We all just learn these things. The human brain is designed to find these social shortcuts so you don't have to analyze every single situation, because we'd be paralyzed. But I think knowing that we all have these biases and have to examine them is nice because it helps people find that common ground immediately.

AA: Exactly. I feel like when people say they're not racist, they're just talking about the big picture stuff, right? Like I wouldn't be complicit in police violence. But do you cross the street when you see a Black person approach? Do you hold your bag closer when you see somebody who's brown or Black? Do you expect a brown person to not be articulate? Do you expect a Black person to not be professional? It's those subtle, everyday interactions that make us racist.

It is a collective responsibility for us to give back and make sure we do better for the communities we're serving.

W: Why is it important for small businesses to bring anti-racist practices into their work?

AA: I think it's important for all organizations. First of all, if your organization isn't diverse enough, then you are already setting yourself up for failure. Because the people you sell to, the people who are engaging in your services — they are from these communities. When they see that your organization looks a certain way, then they know that this is not something that's important to you.

When we think about organizations being homogenous, and not diverse like the communities they serve, they miss certain nuances. I think it's very important for small businesses to take part in this. It cannot just be one individual, it cannot just be one organization doing this. It is a collective responsibility for us to give back and make sure we do better for the communities we're serving.

W: What are some examples of ways that a small business could integrate these kinds of practices?

AA: I would start with the purpose of the organization. Define what's important to you, define who your audience is and ask for their input. Maybe your community can tell you, ‘We would like to see these kinds of products.’ Or ‘We see that in your messaging, you said something like this, but we would rather you didn't use these terms.’

Another thing is purchasing. A lot of small businesses need to purchase raw materials or supplies, and if they can do so by supporting BIPOC-owned businesses, that is a great way to think of anti-racist practices built into your organization.

Another thing could be really evaluating your messaging, going through your social media or your website, and seeing what could be perceived as racist. Put on that lens and really analyze, if I am from a certain community and I see this messaging, how would I feel?

I know a lot of small businesses also like to give back, so making a small donation to Indigenous communities whose lands you're on could be a good start, as well as a thank-you beyond a land acknowledgement.

W: What are some things in this area that people sometimes don’t think about?

AA: I would say, really think about how you are complicit in racism, because one way or another you are. There are some certain values in all of our heads. I know as a brown person, I also grew up in a very anti-Black society. We were dark-skinned people, but we did not like it. I had to do a lot of unlearning, to accept that it's okay to be dark-skinned. Even now when I see my skin looking dark in certain lights, I think, that's not looking good. But I know it's coming from a place of what I've been taught. And this is not something I believe in.

That is something for all small businesses to think about. What are the things you believe to be true that are not actually true? What have you been taught? See for yourself, what are some things that you've done that you shouldn't have?

Another thing is striving for perfection from day one. Okay, we all want to be perfect. We want this perfect diversity statement. We want these perfect anti-racist values on our website. But we're not doing any action. And that's what happens when we strive for perfection. We are immobilized because we don't want to make any mistakes.

A sign taped to a pole reads "Hi. Don't be racist. Thanks."
Photo: Markus Spiske

But the thing is, you are going to make mistakes. And that is okay. What is more important is the accountability that you take after you've made that mistake. Maybe, now that you evaluate your business, you find that this thing you did might have been racist. The first step is awareness and an acknowledgement that something has happened. Then you go and be accountable: what are some reparations that you can make for the harm that has been caused?

The last thing — and this is all organizations, not just small businesses — is they fall into the trap of being performative. Like, they would say, here's our diversity statement, here are our policies. But if those policies and statements are not being implemented, and I don't see that in your action, then that is performative.

W: What else should people think about?

AA: When we are trying to see where we might we have gone wrong, there might be a lot of feelings that come up — we might start to feel guilt and shame. It's very natural to feel that — I have too, and I work in this field, right? I would urge people to use those negative feelings to do something positive.

Go and find people who are doing similar work and ask them for support. Peer support is so important when you do these kinds of things. A lot of people's mental health get affected when they are starting to do this work, and it can spiral into denial. Don't stop there. Take care of your mental health, seek support from your community, from your friends, from your family. It doesn't have to be an individual journey.

W: How much of a difference can one person or one business make?

AA: I fall into that trap. If I don't recycle, who cares? It's just one person. And you know, if you think about it, it probably doesn't matter that I don't recycle. But if each and every individual began to think like that, then nobody's recycling, nobody's taking any action. And then there's no change happening in society.

A lot of people emphasize that change starts small. And it really does — it starts at the individual level. What we teach in our workshops is to start with yourself, start with your own mind. Before you go out and help somebody else, try to think of your own biases. What are the things you've been taught and the things you've learned that you need to unlearn?

One person can only do so much. Even if that so much is buying books by writers who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour, or listening to podcasts by these folks, that is action. Those are small, steady steps that actually help these people grow. And then it has a domino effect. So it does start small. It does start with one individual, and a community then comes together.

Thanks to Amrita for taking the time to speak with us! For a list of things to read, watch and listen to, read through Bakau Consulting’s resources toolkit.