Race and racism are topics that many people feel uncomfortable talking about, either because they fear that they will let slip politically incorrect views or because they do not want to relive painful experiences.
According to Statistics South Africa’s 2011 mid-year population estimates (Stats SA ) 79.5% of the total South African population is African, 9% is Coloured, 9% is White, and 2.5% is Indian/Coloured. This kind of racial diversity is likely to be reflected in the small business setting, along with the accompanying instances of racism which can be perpetrated by people belonging to any population group.
Racism matters for small business owners because it may create conscious and unconscious biases that influence how employees are managed, customers are treated, or suppliers are selected. Whilst some small business owners may feel justified in holding onto their beliefs and prejudices, they should stop and consider the potential negative consequences for their business. Employees may feel frustrated or humiliated, resulting in turnover or a marked lack of initiative and interest in the business. Small business owners may find it difficult to widen their customer base and expand into new markets because they do not know how to relate to people from different backgrounds.
Competent suppliers who offer competitive products and services may be overlooked even when they are a better fit for the business.
So what is the solution?
Legislation such as the Employment Equity Act prohibits racial discrimination against employees in the workplace. However, one wonders whether legislation by itself is sufficient to effect the change in mindset and behaviour required to counter and eliminate racism. Or put differently, does the typical small business owner stop to think about the Employment Equity Act before making racist comments or practising some other form of racial discrimination?
Having frank and honest discussions about racism could be cathartic for small business owners and their employees. This would then spill over to the business’ interactions with customers, suppliers and other stakeholder. However, if not managed correctly talking about it could merely create a heated and emotional environment without any sense of closure or progress.
How many small business owners can trust themselves to lead a mature and constructive discussion about racism? Whatever solutions or compromises small business owners reach, racism is not something small business operating in South Africa can pretend does not exist.