The shipping industry must act to include more Black people in its community and make them leaders, argues Namrata Nadkarni, chair of Communications and Events Working Group, Diversity in Maritime Taskforce, Maritime UK.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) civil movement – which has been in the spotlight since it was founded in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi and has gained increasing global support over recent months – is spurring discussions across many sectors and is prompting an examination of their structures and operating behaviours. It is only right that the maritime sector makes the time and effort to recognise its shortcomings and work to address them in a sustainable and meaningful way.
The BLM movement’s message is the latest manifestation of a long-standing call by the Black diaspora for access to the same protections, dignity, justice, and rights granted to everyone else. This refusal of rights and space is not a matter of opinion, and addressing it requires that all of us play a part in creating a society that offers justice, care, and access to its members.
Many of us assume that the international nature of our sector automatically creates a level playing field, but the fact is that our daily lives are immersed in a global culture of anti-Blackness and this carries over to our personal, public, and business interactions. This is perhaps most evident in the fact that while there are many respected Black members of the maritime community, they do not account for a proportionate number of leadership roles – as is easily observed in any major maritime setting, where attendees tend to be predominantly white.
Being inclusive means ensuring the allocation of resources to make the working environment welcoming to those less represented
Unless mandated by local regulation that requires a country national to be a majority shareholder or a registered representative, most of the big shipping and port companies have non-Black people sitting in the leadership role. In many cases, particularly in developing countries such as Africa, white workers are specifically hired to spearhead companies. The arguments to justify the latter often hinge on the perception that having a white, Western CEO gives the company gravitas and makes it easier to win international contracts – a way of thinking that promotes the problematic notion that a Black CEO would not be as commercially successful as a white leader. This contributes to structural racism that will keep generations of Black people out of boardrooms and in less well-paid roles. White leadership also filters down and, in many cases, anecdotal evidence shows that white seafarers or port workers are paid more and promoted more quickly than their Black compatriots, who end up performing low-paid menial or unwanted tasks.
It is also of note that we are yet to appoint a Black International Maritime Organization (IMO) secretary-general.
Although a number of extremely talented secretary-generals have been from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) countries and there are multiple skilled representatives from BAME communities at the IMO, it is important that we do not use these appointments to obscure anti-Black attitudes, many of which are prevalent within the BAME community.
Being British-Indian myself, I can attest to local anti-Blackness within Indian communities at home and abroad, which is why it is important that we do not assume non-white identities are automatically anti-racist. We must resist positioning People of Colour (POC) as a homogenous mass, and work towards changing all communities and building solidarities to tackle anti-Blackness even within BAME spaces. There are already a number of organisations working towards this goal, but this is a topic that has not gained traction in our industry.
The time has come to question the way the maritime community thinks and rewrite the rules we follow. When it comes to eradicating systems of racism, there are many roles for allies from non-Black communities. A great starting point and the single most important action we can take is to listen to Black people and learn from the contexts around us. While this may seem like a very simple request, this will require us to change many of our current systems.
For one, many of our workspaces are not set up to be welcoming to Black employees and the onus to identify the failings in the system and suggest solutions should not be placed upon Black workers, particularly when they may face retribution for highlighting racial issues. To ensure a safe and inclusive working environment, companies should bring in trained diversity consultants to identify and address systemic existing biases in our offices and on the field – be it a port terminal, head office, merchant ship, fishing vessel, or jackup rig.
We must put in the effort to continually educate ourselves so that Black and other minority community members are not tasked with the labour of explaining the various strands of racism and problematic social structures to those of us that do not experience these issues first-hand — it is exhausting enough to be on the receiving end of discrimination.
It is also important to remember the differences in lived experiences for various members within these groups, who might face additional marginalisation because of gender, sexuality, disabilities, access to physical or mental healthcare, and more. While often placed under the catchall terms such as diversity or inclusion, these are not the same needs across the board; for example, a white transgender port worker will have a completely different set of professional obstacles than a cisgender and disabled Black worker. Being inclusive means ensuring the allocation of resources to make the working environment welcoming to those less represented even within minority groups.
We must also work hard to avoid the pitfall of virtue signalling and tokenism, which is something that we are still fighting regarding gender. A handful of minority representatives will not really bring the nuance and variety of lived experience from which a truly inclusive workplace will benefit. To level the playing field in a meaningful way, we need allies to create inclusive space for BAME community to flourish and this will take time, effort, and constant work. It will also mean that white people must cede space that they are used to occupying because of the current status quo.
I am very pleased that Maritime UK’s Diversity in Maritime Taskforce, of which I am a part of, had planned to set up a BAME-focussed network as part of its phased strategy and has chosen to accelerate this process. This new network, which has been named the Ethnicity in Maritime network, aims to exchange information and share resources among shipping, ports, leisure, engineering, and service providers. It also aims to create a safe space for BAME-led conversations on how the maritime sector can improve and better support our communities. The members of the network will also have access to other Diversity in Maritime resources, which addresses mental health, LGBT+, gender, recruitment, and retention issues that are specific to the maritime industry and will be able to feed into those discussions.
To make real progress, we need more information, including industry data, which requires large scale collaboration with other organisations – and I hope that this group sees membership from across the industry, with POC and white allies working together to draw attention to issues faced by ethnic monitories and bring about sustainable change.
I look forward to learning from the conversations we have there and disseminating the information to allies across the maritime world. I also invite Splash readers to share their resources for building workplace and community inclusivity with us so that we can collectively make maritime a better and more sustainable workplace.