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The value of lived experience research in tackling systemic racism

Dr. Doyin Atewologun and Dr. Fatima Tresh

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Recent global events have spotlighted the racial inequalities that persist in our societies and institutions.



Emerging research shows that people of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds are more likely to die of COVID-19 than White people, and racial biases have contributed to this.


The murder of George Floyd in the U.S, and the subsequent global #BlackLivesMatter movement has turned our attention to alarming statistics highlighting the disproportionate impact of systemic and institutionalised racism on Black people, from the criminal justice system, education and medical care to employment and leadership, not just in the US but in the UK as well.


As evidence-based practitioners we often cite these statistics to convey the scale of barriers to racial equity, but it is our ability to shed light on the lived experience that enables us to address the structural and systemic racial biases in organisations that create and perpetuate these barriers. 


In this article we describe the value of moving beyond statistical data to help address these injustices and highlight 3 reasons why understanding the lived experience of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals is valuable for both the individual sharing their experience and those who want to do something about it. Statistical data provides the evidence required to understand the extent of the problem but has limitations for exploring experiences with meaningful depth. While quantitative research spotlights the what (e.g. what is the differential impact of COVID-19 on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities compared to White communities?), qualitative research (such as interviews and focus groups) spotlights the how (e.g. how do employer responses to the Black Lives Matter movement affect a sense of belonging for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic employees?). Both approaches provide valuable insights, but qualitative research captures individuals’ process, interpretations, experiences, everyday realities and the meaning that they place on these which provides richness and context to our understanding. 


There have been calls for ‘more research and more reviews’ to address systemic racism in the UK. We are not advocating ‘context free’ status reviews. Instead, when it comes to understanding the perspectives and experiences of a particular group (e.g., to improve the promotional and developmental opportunities for NHS workforce professionals) focus groups and interviews can provide a psychologically safe space to disclose on sensitive experiences and express unfiltered suggestions for actionable change.


Insights from the minority lived experience enables voice and visibility for those who are otherwise underrepresented.

Three key benefits of understanding the lived experience are:


1. Voice and visibility for underrepresented individuals


The stories and everyday experiences that we internalise are often based on the ‘majority’, that is experiences relating to being White in a White-dominant context. Insights from the minority lived experience enables voice and visibility for those who are otherwise underrepresented. By listening to, engaging with and acting on a different narrative, the White (often male) ‘default’ experience is challenged as the ‘norm’ and minority ethnic individuals who have shared their experience are empowered, included and valued.


2. Enables shared and unique experiences within a group to be recognised


When we talk about race and ethnicity, we often subsume all minority ethnic individuals into one category. However, spotlighting unique and diverse experiences within this group challenges implicit assumptions regarding the homogeneity of minority communities. An intersectional perspective (i.e. thinking about others’ multiple and interconnected identities) can help us to appreciate the nuance in minority ethnic experiences. For example, it sheds light on how societal stereotypes, behavioural expectations and power dynamics manifest differently in individual experiences (e.g., Asian Muslim women compared to Black Christian women or Asian Muslim men).


3. Provides witnesses and personal accountability 


Storytelling is impactful and thought-provoking. The connection that we build with others when we hear their personal stories stimulates empathy. Research has shown that perspective-taking increases with empathy, and perspective-taking is an effective method for reducing personal bias. Many White senior leaders we work with talk in a more compelling, authentic way about changing their cultures by using examples of stories of exclusion they have heard from their minority ethnic colleagues. By sharing the lived experience, we humanise the statistical data to make tangible the everyday experiences of minority ethnic colleagues, from micro-aggressions to perceptions of invisibility, experiences which are not evident to many without explicit effort.


Overall, the process and outputs from lived experience in your context offer untapped insights, additional nuance, and compelling data to drive accountability. The disruptions caused by Covid-19 and the global awakening to social injustice give the opportunity for leaders to gather this type of valuable evidence for practical action.


Here are some published examples of our impactful lived experience research:


The Middle: Progressing Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Talent in the Workplace Through Collaborative Action

Fair to Refer? Reducing Disproportionality in Fitness-to-Practise Concerns Reported to the GMC 

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