Can cultural intelligence help us overcome racism?

Published on January 21st, 2021

Black History Month had extra significance this year as we attempted to build momentum on the #BlackLivesMatter movement that surged after George Floyd’s murder earlier this year. The end goal of this movement must be the overturning of overt and implicit racism in all its forms. If we believe that cultural intelligence is a key leadership skill, we must explore whether it is the tool that will allow us to bring equity to our workplaces.

Culture and racism

We need to go back to what we understand by the terms. Cultural intelligence (CQ) is the ability to understand and interpret other cultures. Which brings us to another ambiguous term – “culture.” Culture is described as “the way we do things around here” – the attitudes, values, beliefs and symbols that define normality, acceptability and appropriateness in one group as opposed to another. Our first stumbling block, therefore, is to see whether the term culture fits the context of anti-racism. I think it does, but not in the way many people might think initially.

I’m not talking about black culture (which is a problematic term, grouping all black people into one single group). But I do think there are relevant cultures. There is an actively racist culture: a marginal attitude that promotes racism and actively believes in white supremacy. This is not a culture that cultural intelligence is going to help us with.

Refusing to see the problem

The culture we can work on, using our cultural intelligence, is the cultural of denial and ignorance. There is a culture that does not recognise racism as a problem:

‘I’m a good person, I’m always careful to treat black people the same.’ Or ‘That person wasn’t a good cultural fit for our organisation, it has nothing to do with their skin culture.’ Or ‘I put some rap music on to make them feel at home.’

The micro-incivilities of a society that treats black people as other – mispronouncing their name, mistaking them for another black person, making an assumption about their background – create a culture that is not welcoming. One of the fundamental principles of culture is that your own culture is invisible to you but highlights the differences in other cultures. We define normal as ourselves – everything else is not normal.

So, when a Police officer knocks on the door, a white person is looking forward to the juicy gossip – what’s gone on next door; who’s children have been naughty again. A black person is much more likely to be concerned that a family member has been arrested – not because they are criminals, but because a black person is much more likely to be arrested, even if released later without charge. The Office for National Statistics shows that in 2019, 60 black men in every 1000 were arrested, compared to only 10 in 1000 white men.

In a business context, we can look at our brand imagery: do people of colour appear in leadership positions in our brochures in strong roles?  Is our diversity message for show only or does it permeate every decision we make?

Can cultural intelligence really help us? 

If we go back to the ABC of CQ: Accept – Be curious – Clarify – then the answer has to be ‘yes’.


We need to accept that privilege and the absence of privilege impact lives in ways that we will never fully understand.  We need to accept that racism is a part of life. To be clear – I mean recognise there is a problem, not accept that we can’t change. Part of that acceptance must be acceptance that racism is abhorrent.

  • Don’t be a silent bystander. Be an active challenger.

Many of the stories I hear about the lived experience of racism contain “and nobody said anything.” In Russian there is a proverb – silence is a mark of agreement.  If you don’t support racism, speak out when you encounter it within your workplace or your circle of friends. Don’t tolerate jokes or accusations of being overly sensitive.  Challenge stereotypes.

We’re not looking for white saviours – cultural intelligence in this context is not about you, it’s not about your voice.  It’s about allowing space for all voices to be heard and valued equally.

Be curious

We then must be curious about our own self. Examine the ways in which we unconsciously support the status quo.  What are the presumptions we make in our everyday actions that assume whiteness is the norm? It is not the obligation of black people to educate you – you need to take responsibility and educate yourself. Look at the books you read, the people you respect, the influences on your opinions – do you rely on diverse perspectives?

  • Educate yourself – start by reading a book on anti-racism (This book by Reni Eddo-Lodge is a great place to start)

If you’re doing it right, you will feel uncomfortable. You will learn about yourself and your assumptions.  You may even be embarrassed. Your cultural curiosity may well provoke you to change – that is what we’re looking for!


And finally, clarify, or in this case, check how you are doing. This doesn’t mean finding the nearest black colleague and asking them to rate you on an imaginary racist scale. It means clarifying with yourself the impact of what you say and do. Are you excluding others? Are you denying someone a voice?

  • The best advice parents give their children is the advice we most ignore – think before you speak.

This is the hardest part – the majority of micro-incivilities (often called micro-aggressions) are throwaway comments, afterthoughts – actions and words that you have not put any effort into thinking about. Part of our clarification process needs to be ensuring we catch those ourselves before we say them. Developing inclusive thinking at an individual level and that becomes second nature is not easy. We are too conditioned not to think too much about what we say and how we say it that changing our attitude to communication takes active thought and strength. A new kind of active listening – listening to yourself before you speak.

Cultural intelligence is not the answer, or at least the only answer, to racism. However, if we are serious about countering the inequities of our society and want to do a little more than repost #BLM statements on LinkedIn or Twitter, then we need to use all the tools we have at our disposal. The journey to equity is a long one, and it needs to push through “diversity-fatigue” and empty words to provoke real change. Cultural intelligence has authenticity and open-minded inquiry at its heart and they are tools that we can all access.


Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.

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