Ms. Mojankunyane Gumbi, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General during a town hall with staff, Bangkok, 2023 © UN archives

Breaking the silence
Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Addressing Racism in the Workplace, promoting candid conversations about racism at the UN
1 Mar 2024

Allow me to start at the beginning. On my first day in New York to take up the post of Special Adviser, I went to the Pass and ID office on 45th street to get my new grounds pass. As directed by the security guard, I stood in the queue. It was not very busy. An African gentleman and a young white woman arrived shortly thereafter and were told by the security guard to wait behind me. A second security officer, who was white, came from his post near the service kiosks and approached the young white woman to ask her why she was in the office. She explained that, like me, she was there to get her UN grounds pass. As soon as the next service kiosk became available, he pulled her from the line and said: “Come with me.” Despite my instinct to say something, I decided to stay quiet, keenly aware that it was only my first day, and I had not even met my principal, the Secretary-General. The following morning, when I met with him and recalled the incident, he was quite taken aback. “You know, Mr. Secretary-General,” I said, “you may be taken aback, but this is just a typical example of institutional and systemic racism.” The security officer probably did not even think through what he was doing. For him, it was just the way ‘things operate’ at his workplace. The young lady slipped easily into the privileged position offered to her; what race theory terms ‘white privilege.’ She could have objected, but she did not. The other people in the room, the bystanders, decided not to be involved. A colleague who had accompanied me, who herself was new to the UN, was the only one who asked me what that was about. We inquired later whether the young white lady had secured an appointment and we were told she had not. The lady who finally assisted me was openly uncomfortable, because we all saw what happened.

In the end, I was happy to be given a grounds pass, which incidentally turned out to be very restrictive. I could not enter many parts of the Secretariat, including the Delegates Lounge, where colleagues had to take me along as their guest for me to attend meetings there. It was only seven months later when my ‘partner in crime,’ USG Catherine Pollard was alerted to my predicament and intervened, that I was given a new pass. In many ways, my experience on that first day exposed me to the ongoing challenges within the United Nations Secretariat on matters of racism. I expected nothing less, although the broader United Nations family was part of the global anti-racist movement for years.

Racism continues to rear its head around the world. As the Secretary-General has said, if it is prevalent in society, it will be found within the UN as well. One of the leading political activists of our time, Steve Bantu Biko, reminds us that in combating racism, we must always remember that we are fighting an idea, not people. For as long as the idea that one race is superior to another lives, it is bound to find new hosts. Science has shown that the notion of superiority or inferiority based on the melanin levels in a person has absolutely no basis. 

“There are many who appreciate the absolute joy of working in a diverse and dynamic organization” © Lou Gobber

To support the idea of superiority or inferiority based on the color of their skin would be as ridiculous as thinking that only tall people can be leaders; or that the levels of insulin in one’s body can determine their intelligence levels. Fortunately, all of humanity has accepted and embraced this scientific fact. Racist practices continue only because racism serves particular political, economic and social purposes. Racism is but a social construct and it can be dismantled. There are enough men and women of all colors and nationalities who have exhibited the will to bury racism. None want to be held hostage to a past of pain and shame. However, we all have to take concrete steps to ensure that we bury this monster.

One of the major challenges in our organization is the culture of silence around the issue of racism. Additionally, victims are made to feel apologetic about speaking out. This results in the victimization of victims; double victimization. 

Data from the 2022 UN Staff Engagement Survey reflects this conundrum. In the survey, around 25% of respondents reported experiencing discrimination, with the most common grounds for discrimination being either national or ethnic origin, race, color, cultural background or gender. Moreover, of those respondents, 54% indicated that they were displeased with the manner in which their complaints were resolved. On the other hand, there are very few direct racism complaints. The discrepancy points towards major under-reporting of racism complaints. There have been suggestions that this may be because there are very few instances of racism in the organization. That would be absolutely wonderful news; except that staff experience and organizational practices indicate otherwise. Not only do the surveys highlight racism in the organization, so do visits to many UN offices and reports commissioned by the organization. Staff members are reluctant to speak out due to fear of reprisals. The hierarchical nature of the UN contributes to the veil of silence. 

One of my colleagues used the term ‘cappuccino effect’ to describe our organization: brown on the bottom; support and General Services staff, and white foam at the top; professional level staff and upper management.

The major challenge expressed by staff is that processes for selection, appointment, transfers, and promotions of staff members are tinged with racist undertones. There are unwritten rules and practices that privilege white people. For instance, in the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, countries from the global North are overrepresented. Meanwhile, countries from the global South are overrepresented in peacekeeping missions. Thus, institutional systemic racism has been quietly built into the system and become part of the culture of the organization.

The Secretary-General’s take on the UN’s responsibility to address racism and racial discrimination in its workplace © UN archives

When I was appointed Special Adviser for Addressing Racism in the Workplace and the UN’s Anti-Racism Office was created, staff members were highly skeptical of our ability to effect any meaningful change. In conversations with me, they would often bemoan: “Oh no, this is the UN. It’s not going to change. There’s nothing that you can do.” Even Anti-Racism Advocates, who hold senior level positions, such as D-2, D-1, and P-5, would balk at the thought of exercising authority based on their ‘Terms of Reference,’ which, among others, allow them to review appointment patterns with an anti-racist lens. Time and again, I would hear the same refrain: “We can’t do this. You don’t know the UN.” It is telling that the people who carry the responsibility to bring about change, feel so disempowered and helpless. 

Part of the reason for this fear lies in a rigid organizational culture that is resistant to change. A senior white European official I met in Bamako, Mali, once said: “I see that you and the Secretary-General are standing up and trying to do something about racism. But secretary-generals come and go. I’ve been here for 26 years. I’m telling you nothing will change. He [Secretary-General Guterres] will be out, and we will still be here. We are the UN.” This kind of ethos hinders the achievement of the UN’s goals and mission. 

If we do not put our hands together to effect change, the rigorous and militaristic nature of the institution will ultimately be its undoing. 

Nothing, however, is set in stone. We have the tools to combat racism, and we know what works. We have to find the will to do it. I have no doubt that there are enough good men and women in the UN who wish to unshackle themselves from our collective shame. There are many who appreciate the absolute joy of working in a diverse and dynamic organization; many who know the richness brought about by different experiences and cultures in the staff composition. Dealing with racial discrimination and racism will always be uncomfortable due to the feelings of shame about slavery, colonialism, and the apartheid. Nevertheless, I believe that we must address racism candidly because it debases the organization’s most valuable asset – its staff – and hinders the effective delivery of its mandates. In order to do this, I advocate a two-pronged approach.

One would be aimed at changing people, to address acts of personal racism, including micro-aggressions. The other approach is to create an organization that is intolerant of racist behavior. While working on adjusting personal attitudes and mentalities, we must also evaluate the organization’s policies to root out hidden racist practices. For example, staff members may have certain biases, but should know that as soon as they step into a UN office anywhere in the world, those biases must be left at the door. This means the organization must transform itself so that it is intolerant of any kind of racial bias.

To achieve this goal, we must examine each and every policy of the organization to ensure that they do not have racist outcomes. At times, even the most benign policies may have unintended racist outcomes, when superimposed on an organization that has inherent societal imbalances. Another necessary intervention is to evaluate the manner in which racism cases are assessed internally. For example, we have found that the UN Secretariat is not up to date with the latest jurisprudence, theory and practice on anti-racism. There are court judgements from across the world where it was ruled that whenever there is an allegation of racism, the effects of the alleged act on the victim, rather than the intentions of the perpetrator, are central to the root of a racist event. Therefore, impact instead of action should determine how assessments are conducted. However, in my meetings with the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), it transpired that most were not aware of this jurisprudence. In another meeting, investigators from OIOS were asked about colorism, but they were unfamiliar with the term. This often happens through no fault of individual staff members, but rather due to the siloed working culture that prevents Secretariat staff from having an overarching framework to address issues around anti-racism. Everyone in the UN focuses only on their narrow responsibility and we need to change that.

The Anti-Racism Office offers anti-racism training, working together with partners across the Secretariat. I hope that in time, we can generate an institutional shift when it comes to matters such as the burden of proof, protection from reprisals, and the positionality of the perpetrator and the victim when staff members file racism complaints. I also believe in informal dispute resolution, such as that done through the Office of the Ombudsman, which can help us broaden our toolkit to deal with these issues.

Racism is not merely about color; it is also about power, namely the power to exclude on the basis of race. Disliking a certain class of people, does not in itself amount to an infraction; it is only once one has the power to exclude, that it is racism.

Among a myriad of obstacles, it is often easy to forget that our organization is capable of doing immense good. The UN has already overcome numerous challenges such as negotiating peace in conflict situations and burying the monster of apartheid in my country, South Africa. In fact, the UN begun its anti-racism journey by finally agreeing in 2022, that racism and racial discrimination have no place in the Secretariat. The Secretary-General took another bold step forward, by adopting the Strategic Action Plan to address racism. We know that we have a long road ahead and that our anti-racism journey has only just begun. Nevertheless, we also know that we have the necessary tools to eradicate racism and racial discrimination from the United Nations once and for all. 

Now, it is time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Being at the forefront of combating racism is a difficult task. The occurrence of racist practices within the organization will be minimized and delegitimized. The interventions we seek to make will be criticized.

I have been told to my face that the decision to establish the Anti-Racism Office is “the SG’s flavor of the moment”, “a passing fad.” For me and my colleagues in the Anti-Racism Office, it is an immense privilege to be afforded the responsibility to contribute to the creation of a workplace, and indeed a world, free of racism and racial discrimination. We stand ready to make our small contribution to the creation of a better Secretariat, a better United Nations and a better world. 

* Mojankunyane Gumbi is Special Adviser to the Secretary-General for Addressing Racism in the Workplace. This article was drafted with the assistance of Anyuli González Oliver, a member of the UN Today Editorial Board.
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