Yesterday I took part in a roundtable discussion with the MP for Bath, Wera Hobhouse, Dr Sean Sobers, Toni Swaby, Rob Mitchell, Alex Raikes, Lloyd Notice and Chris Baker. The discussion was around the lived-experience of being a Black person in Bath and the panelists (myself included) talked about times they had faced discrimination in the workplace, in education and in their daily lives and the impact that facing racism has on their mental health. The stories were both shocking and unsurprising. I have never been under the illusion that racism doesn’t exist in every facet of life, as I too experience it regularly. I hope that the conversation served to highlight the issue to those who do not experience racism but the question remains, “what do we do now?”
In my brief talk during the discussion, I pulled out three areas where we can look to make changes. I want to go into a bit more depth about each of them below:
By institutions, I mean universities, schools, the police force, courts and justice system, and I am calling these out separately to employers (which I will go on to below) because they have a foundational impact on the way our country behaves, looks and functions. Their reach is broad and overarching, and these institutions shape our country (by educating our children, for example) and/or set the tone and rules regarding what life should be like. That is a huge responsibility.
Our institutions have the difficult task of representing all people who live in this country. In terms of supporting Black people, it is not possible to do that without cultural understanding. At the very least, this should include being conscious of events that might be important or significant to Black people. When talking to some students at Bath University, they told me that the faculty (including staff responsible for pastoral care of students) did not think it was important to check on Black students in the wake of George Floyd’s murder – this shows a lack of understanding of what is significant to students and of the things that will be impacting them. The fact that it is a refusal to do something that is essentially so simple, and should be part of the role of anyone working in a University (ensuring and supporting the mental welfare of students), is also deeply worrying.
In all walks of life we need to ensure there is a safe space to report incidents of racism, harassment and hate crimes. The same students reported to me that they are often worried about the repercussions of reporting racist incidents, especially when these might relate to the behaviour of a lecturer who is responsible for your success at university, and that when incidents are reported they are down-played or not taken seriously.
Too often, issues of anti-Black racism and the experience of Black people within institutions (and employers) are bundled under the BAME banner. This banner has not served us in removing racism from institutions or ensuring that the people who fall under that banner are appropriately supported. It is an easy catch-all and is too simplistic. The experience of a Black person in education, including attainment, continuation in higher education, etc, is very different to that of a person from a South Asian background, for example. It is not possible to properly address the issues faced by Black people within institutions (or others who fall under the BAME banner) without a real focus. When considering that “BAME issues” are usually bundled in with all “diversity and inclusion”, it is clear to see why progress is not being made. We need experts in this space, not generalists.
Much of what I have said above can be applied to employers, so I won’t repeat myself. In addition to the above, employers need to look at the systems they have set-up to support the business and check whether these adequately support employees. This check starts with recruitment and flows through the “life-cycle” of an employee to when they leave. It is worth noting that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, so it is important to measure your “diversity” statistics, even at the hiring stage when possible, to truly understand how your Black employees fare within the business in comparison to others.
I will talk about this more in other posts, as this is a key area of focus for the Black in Bath network.
Everyone has bias and prejudices, both conscious and unconscious. That is the nature of being human and also of being brought-up in a society that perpetuates certain biases and prejudices. As individuals, the first step is for us to accept this. I must accept that I have biases and prejudices, I must identify them and then, finally, work to remove them. This is difficult work that many people have started recently. I hope that this internal work won’t be a fad, or something that people give up on quickly. It is fundamental to building the changes that we need to see in the world.
We can all start by educating ourselves and there are plenty of resources available, which anyone can find by doing an internet search. It is important to remember that there are no “quick wins”, the systems that uphold our country have bias, prejudice and racism built into them and dismantling that will be painful. By doing the work as individuals we can ensure that when we collectively build new systems, prejudices and biases are not built-in. We can also ensure that in our interactions with others, both professionally and personally, we are not allowing biases to creep out (as we will have worked to remove them) and colour those interactions and relationships.
There is a lot of work to be done but it is not the case that this is “just the beginning.” Activists, individuals and organisations have been working for years to make the very changes (and more) that I have detailed above. Where are these experienced experts? They appear in all walks of life, a few of whom spoke in the roundtable discussion with Wera. It is not possible for these people to be everywhere, but with the right focus and investment (time and money) we can pool the knowledge and resources that we already have, develop new resources where there are gaps and start to build a society with institutions, employers and individuals that can support and serve everyone better.