Celebrating International Day for People of African Descent

Celebrating International Day for People of African Descent: It’s a matter of non-tokenistic inclusion

August 31st is International Day for People of African Descent (IDPOAD). It is a day largely unheard of, let alone celebrated in Australia. At DCA we proudly celebrate this day as an inclusive workplace practice. Read on to find out why your workplace should too.

The 2021 census shows that at least 414,378 (or 1.6%) Australians identify as being of African ancestry. In the 2006 census, this figure was 248,699. While these numbers may not include all African diasporas living in Australia (for example, Afro- Caribbeans, Afro-Spaniards, Afro-Latinx [Black Hispanics] Afro-Canadians, African Americans etc., who are also people of African descent), they still point to a significant and growing portion of the Australian population.

Yet in spite of these increasing numbers, the experiences and voices of people of African descent in Australia remain largely unheard and silenced. When people of African descent are the topic of conversation, it is often in problematising ways (also called deficit discourses) – for example reports of African gangs, or what ‘they lack’ (like ’relevant’ English language skills, local employment experiences, ‘culture fit’ (including workplace cultures) and so on). This constructs people of African descent as a ‘burden’ or a ‘problem’ that needs to be dealt with, rather than focus on the contributions they make to the Australian community, and how that can be supported.

The IDPOAD is an opportunity for Australia to promote counter-narratives to these deficit discourses. It is an opportunity for non-tokenistic recognition of the contributions of people of African descent and to also talk about the barriers they face when doing so.

What is the IDPOAD?

IDPOAD is a United Nations declared observance to commemorate the extraordinary strength and resilience of the African diaspora. It was first celebrated in 2021, around the midterm of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) and the heightening of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd in the US. The International Decade for People of African Descent aims to honour the important contributions of people of African descent worldwide, advance social justice and inclusion policies and work towards eradicating racism globally. The IDPOAD centres these goals to allow for a sense of community amongst the African diaspora and to bring to light the legislative, policy and institutional structures that still exist to perpetrate racial violence against them.

What issues and barriers do people of African descent face in Australian workplaces?

The workplace experiences of people of African descent are marked by negative racialisation, exclusion, racial discrimination and marginalisation. For example, research in Australia and elsewhere clearly shows that people of African descent face discrimination in society and at work at higher rates than most racial and ethnic groups (see for example, the Scanlon Foundation survey)1. The barriers and challenges that people of African descent face in workplaces are systemic, and to name a few key ones, include:

  • restricted pathways into leadership roles (hence they are scarcely ‘at the top’ but are overrepresented in entry-level jobs) 2
  • not having access to mentorship, sponsorship and allyship to support their progression into leadership
  • fewer job opportunities, and especially less access to well-paying, stable jobs 3

Why do we celebrate IDPOAD at DCA (and why your workplace should too)?

At DCA we celebrate the IDPOAD because:

  • We recognise the significant contributions that people of African descent make to our organisation and to our community. This means recognising the skills and expertise African diaspora bring to Australian workplaces and celebrating the breadth of diversity and merit in their continuing contributions to our organisations.
  • We want to bring awareness to the marginalisation and exclusion of African diaspora in Australian workplaces.
  • We want to advocate for racial equality and encourage workplaces to put ending racism and creating racially equitable and racially safe workplaces on the agenda.

Achieving racial equality is the unfinished business of our time.

We therefore commemorate IDPOAD in the spirit the day is intended: as our show of commitment and solidarity with our colleagues of African descent – we stand with them in the quest to end all forms of discrimination against them. Doing this aligns with DCA’s commitment to cultivate and create a racially safe workplace in which people of African descent feel safe being their authentic selves.

To commemorate IDPOAD as inclusive practice, workplaces need to:

  1. Take as the starting point the belief that if we want people of African descent to feel included at work, we must be intentional about including them. It is harmful to people of African descent and indeed racially marginalised groups broadly, to assume that our seemingly ‘racially neutral’ policies and structures benefit everyone equally. Racism is systemic, as our research has shown.
  2. Enhance their understanding and deepen the recognition of the unique challenges facing the African diaspora. For example, research tells us that people of African descent “continue to suffer intersectional and compounded forms of racial discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion” 4
  3. Be Afrocentric, i.e., centre the Black (or African) voice and experience. Any genuine anti-racism work can not happen without people with lived experiences. Ending racism requires workplaces to not only recognise the value of lived experience, but rather to centre the voices of people with lived experience as legitimate and valuable expertise.

Concluding reflections: The significance of POAD for the authors

IDPOAD holds particular significance for the authors of this blog, who themselves are Australians of African descent.

For starters, it is an opportunity for us to celebrate our distinctive voices as Black African and Muslim North African Australian women as well as those of other members of our communities so that our collective experience can be centred to change the narratives about us.

Second, it is a day on which we particularly reflect on our racialised positionality within Australian institutions and structures. For us, the day marks a “long overdue recognition of the profound injustices and systemic discrimination that people of African descent have endured for centuries and continue to confront today.” 5

Finally on this day we are critically reminded of how Australian attitudes must change – to foster racially safe environments that cultivate connectedness and flourishment. More importantly, it is a reminder of the pervasive need for the world to come together and eliminate all forms of discrimination against people of African descent.

IDPOAD is not simply about recognising our ‘diverse cultures’ (and foods) – important as that may be, doing so is performative and tokenistic, and will not bring about the workplace racial equality we truly need to feel included and welcome in workplaces.

IDPOAD is a time for reflection.

How will your workplace celebrate IDPOAD next year? It’s a matter of workplace inclusion!

1 The Scanlon Foundation survey found that found 54% of respondents with an African background had experienced discrimination in the past year, rising to 77% of South Sudanese respondents experiencing discrimination during that period. The same survey also showed that 22% of respondents with an African background (excluding South Sudan) experienced discrimination at work, increasing to 61% of respondents with a South Sudanese background.

2 A 2021 Mckinsey report found for example that Black (i.e., people of African descent) employees in the companies that participated in their survey were overrepresented in frontline and entry-level jobs, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/the-black-experience-at-work-in-charts

3 See for example the Centre for American progress report: African Americans Face Systematic Obstacles to Getting Good Jobs (2019), https://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Black-Unemployment1.pdf

4 United Nations (no date), Honouring the Contributions of the African Diaspora, https://www.un.org/en/observances/african-descent-day, accessed 1 August 2022

5 Guterres, A (2021), cited in United Nations (2021), UN marks first International Day for People of African Descent, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/08/1098872, accessed 15 August 2022