Why is your skin brown?
by Justina Cruickshank, Chief Curator and Founder, Heady Mix
When I was in my twenties, I attended a girl's ‘night in’ that a Black friend of mine organised. She had cajoled a wealthy Black male friend of hers to loan us his flat so we could enjoy films and drink in luxury. Sat in the penthouse suite on the Thames overlooking Tower Bridge, it felt like we were in a Sex and the City episode, sipping cocktails and exchanging stories.
All the girls were Black. I didn't know any of them, except for my friend, but like always I had expected to participate in the night with ease, the way I always did - social encounters were second nature.
Instead, I endured one of the most unpleasant nights of my life. Heated debate after heated debate revealed the same words, ganged up on me: you are naive, you are stupid, why do you have White friends? White people don't give a shit about Black people and never will. White people only care about White people.
Over the years, their words and the nature of their attack have haunted me. Each time I turned on the news to see another Black person unlawfully killed, the Tower Bridge girls’ words ebbed away a little more of me, leaving carcass like remains pecked at by the vultures of racism. Was I wrong? Had I always been wrong?
Eric Garner. You are naive.
Atatiana Jefferson. You are stupid.
Breonna Taylor. White people don't give a shit about Black people.
George Floyd. I. Can't. Breathe.
For them to be right, it would shatter my whole world view, the very existence in which I lived would be threatened. But how else could it be explained. Time after time, Black people in the USA are unlawfully killed by the very people there to serve and protect them. Women shot fatally in their homes as they are sleeping. Men, stopped for suspicion of non-violent misdemeanours, find themselves restrained as if they were wearing suicide vests. In the USA, in 2019, 1098 people were killed by the police, with Black people comprising 24% of those deaths (264) despite being only 13% of the population (footnote 1). In the face of overwhelming evidence, the Tower Bridge girls had to be right.
After George Floyd's death, I had a tumultuous week of introspection, numbed and silent about what was developing, the Tower Bridge girls’ words peck, pecked away at me. But then there was an uprising. Starting first in Minneapolis and spreading across the USA, UK, and the world, I saw days unfold with scenes and an urgency for racial justice I had never seen before. It wasn't just empty gestures on social media, this was images and videos of White people protesting, defending Black lives, throwing themselves in front of the police, being beaten and feeling the full force of America’s brutal law enforcement. This was White people not just in solidarity, but in action.
The Tower Bridge girls had to be wrong.
Racism is not a humanity problem
I’ll be honest, when I saw the Black Lives Matter protests, my first feeling was relief. In a selfish way, no one wants to have the underpinnings of their perspectives challenged in a way that could destroy the very fabric of their being. It sounds melodramatic to write that, but that’s how I felt, because I do not believe that racism is a humanity problem, it’s a social one and, because of that, I believe it can be fixed.
As a teenager, my school terms finished earlier than a primary school that was local to my house. For a reason that I can’t recall, I wrote to the primary school and asked if I could be a classroom assistant for the last few weeks of their term whilst I was off school. They were delighted and placed me in the nursery where I joined in with activities, looked after the children and took them out at playtime. It was a welcoming environment, with very well behaved, adorable kids. They would take a couple of days, at first, to settle in with me, but once that had happened, one of them, without fail, would ask me a question. I soon came to think of this question as the question that nursery children would ask, always wide-eyed, sometimes touching my arm, peering inquisitively as they say, why is your skin brown?
The place where I grew up, in the North West of England, was a small town that was very, very White. For a long time, it was only me and mum who were Black and though there were a lot of people of Indian and Pakistani descent, there was not much else with regards to ethnic diversity. I was the only Black person in primary school. My secondary school, in another town, had a Black girl in my year, and her sister in the year above; another Black girl joined the year below, and there were some Asian children, but the vast majority of pupils, and all teachers, were all White.
So, the nursery, where I had been helping, was full of White children and those White children had White parents and all they ever knew were other White people. So, the first time I was asked the question, I wasn’t surprised, but I was taken aback as to how I would answer. What do you say to a three-year-old? What would they understand? So, I took a deep breath and told them that my grandparents and their grandparents and all the great, great grandparents were from a very hot and sunny country so needed to be brown to protect their skin from the sun, and they passed that down to my mum who passed it down to me.
On reading that, you either congratulated my teenage self or guffawed at how clumsy my response was. Either is a valid reaction, and it doesn’t matter because it worked. The children would ponder my answer and usually would ask if the hot, sunny country was Spain, no it’s a place called Nigeria in Africa, I would reply. Is it like having a really big tan, some would ask. You could say that, I would say, wondering whether that was helpful or giving them a weird view of the world. Ten minutes later, they would reappear with their friends, asking me to tell the story again. At the end of their nursery day, they would skip over to their mum and drag her over to proudly show off their new-found knowledge. I helped at the school for three years, and every single time I did, three or four children each year would ask me the question.
That’s why I know racism is not a humanity problem. These children in their White environments, required an answer to a colour question. The question has been asked since my teenage years, and always with three- or four-year-olds. Having just learnt the nature of colours, that age group is now able to articulate the difference between my skin and theirs, but to them, it is a question of biology, they don’t see anything else. They don’t ask this question when they’re five or eight or older, it no longer matters.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, in 2018, The National Geographic magazine produced a special edition edited by British actress, Archie Panjabi. The issue explored what race means in the 21st Century. For me, it was one of the most illuminating magazine editions I had ever read. The issue is still available online here and I urge you to read it. The most important article for me was There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It's a Made-Up Label as it answers the very question of why my skin is brown. Tracing the DNA of our species, Homo Sapiens, the article concludes that we, humans, all have African ancestors - so far, so obvious - but two concepts struck me from the piece. In it, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert writes:
“There’s more diversity in Africa than on all the other continents combined. That’s because modern humans originated in Africa and have lived there the longest. They’ve had time to evolve enormous genetic diversity—which extends to skin color. Researchers who study it sometimes use Africa’s linguistic diversity—it has more than 2,000 languages – as a guide.
‘There is no homogeneous African race,’ says geneticist Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania. ‘It doesn’t exist.’ The prehistoric humans who left Africa some 60,000 years ago—giving rise over time to the other peoples of the world—reflected only a fraction of Africa’s diversity.’”
In other words, outside of Africa, as a species, we are the most similar to each other than we have ever been in our entire human existence.
The second thing that I think about, even so long after reading the article is this:
“When people speak about race, usually they seem to be referring to skin color and, at the same time, to something more than skin color. This is the legacy of people such as [Samuel] Morton, who developed the “science” of race to suit his own prejudices and got the actual science totally wrong. Science today tells us that the visible differences between peoples are accidents of history. They reflect how our ancestors dealt with sun exposure, and not much else.”
Having not thought about that primary school for years, reading that in 2018, in a post-Brexit Britain, it brought back happy memories, the curiosity and innocence of children to seek an answer to a colour question. Seeing me as a person, the same, simply different coloured skin. Thinking about it again in 2020 with the death of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I long for a world where Black people’s skin could just reflect how our ancestors dealt with sun exposure, and not much else.
I should be so lucky
"You have to work twice as hard to get half as far". The phrase dismayed me the first time I heard it and continues to do so. It wasn't my parents telling me this, thankfully, it was a fictional TV dad telling his fictional TV daughter. I thought it was written just for TV, but I often hear it being trotted out as the phrase that lots of Black people hear when growing up.
One of the things that infuriated the Tower Bridge girls was my recalling not having been personally subjected to overt racism. They said it wasn't true, I was in denial and blind to the truth.
But the truth is, I have breezed through life. I have got the jobs I wanted, been offered jobs I didn’t apply for. I have been the person with the stories to tell, who is given freebies, and ends up at dinners and events I am not on the guestlist for. Strangers smile at me on the street, compliment my outfits and strike up conversation.
I have existed in a bubble of my own privilege, not experiencing overt racism, and not worrying about how my race would affect the success (however defined) of my life.
But after the 2016 EU referendum in the UK, everything changed. Now reading Twitter more regularly, I saw stories that upset and horrified me: the Asian women racially abused on the tube, the signs posted in blocks of flats telling Eastern Europeans to go home, the Black councillors refused entry into an event they were speaking at because security thought they were cleaners, and many more sad, traumatic experiences shared by minority groups living in the UK.
It didn't feel particularly good to continue breezing through life when this inescapable everyday racism was laid bare. I kept asking myself, why am I not experiencing that? Of course, I didn't want to experience any kind of racism, but it felt like we, the minority groups of the UK, were in the trenches, soldiers were being hit in every direction, and somehow I had come out unscathed. But wracked with survivor's guilt, I had a superpower I didn't want.
Every year, I asked myself why have I been lucky. And every year, I answer in disbelief at my question. Luck? Luck is finding a taxi in the rain or getting red on roulette when you want red on roulette. Luck is not somehow avoiding racism.
I have wondered 'when’ not 'if' my luck will run out. The more I step out of my bubble and read other people's experiences, the more I feel I might be treading on eggshells and that my breezy life will expire. What sort of life is that? To constantly be on the edge wondering when you'll be next. And equally, why do others not enjoy the same breeziness as I.
If you are reading this and you are White, this is what privilege is. This is what is meant by White privilege, to never experience overt racism and to never have to question how your life has or is panning out regardless of your skin colour. Privilege is a tricky word in the UK. Encased in layers of the British class system that ensures the majority are oppressed by inherited disadvantages, it can be difficult for some White people to get their head around the nature of their privilege.
As well as overt racism, White privilege covertly exists all around us in society's default setting of Whiteness. The textbooks we read at school, the history we are taught, the people of significance we are educated about – written by White people, about White people, for White people. Yet, the world is far more ethnically diverse than the White Western view would have you believe. For example, Nigeria, a former British colony has over 250 ethnic groups (footnote 2).
“For history is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on their side.” A quote often attributed to Winston Churchill but was in use long before his time, in the 1800s (quote point proven). There is no victory in being White (or any other race), but from the point of view of the West, history has been Whitewashed and if we’re not vigilant, the future will be too.
The covert racism of White privilege is apparent in everyday living. Despite the technology advances of cameras, the light skin baseline that was instigated in the 20th Century still looms large with the inability to photograph Black skin without a flash or corrective tweaking. So, whilst you might believe your phone is objectively capturing you and your surroundings, it is actually employing a technology of subjective decisions. From the New York Times in 2019:
“… developing color-film technology initially required what was called a Shirley card. When you sent off your film to get developed, lab technicians would use the image of a white woman with brown hair named Shirley as the measuring stick against which they calibrated the colors. Quality control meant ensuring that Shirley’s face looked good. It has translated into the color-balancing of digital technology. In the mid-1990s, Kodak created a multiracial Shirley Card with three women, one black, one white, and one Asian, and later included a Latina model, in an attempt intended to help camera operators calibrate skin tones. These were not adopted by everyone since they coincided with the rise of digital photography. The result was film emulsion technology that still carried over the social bias of earlier photographic conventions.”
Quite unbelievably, the article continues:
“Concordia University professor Lorna Roth’s research has shown that it took complaints from corporate furniture and chocolate manufacturers in the 1960s and 1970s for Kodak to start to fix color photography’s bias. Earl Kage, Kodak’s former manager of research and the head of Color Photo Studios, received complaints during this time from chocolate companies saying that they “weren’t getting the right brown tones on the chocolates” in the photographs. Furniture companies also were not getting enough variation between the different color woods in their advertisements. Concordia University professor Roth’s research shows that Kage had also received complaints before from parents about the quality of graduation photographs — the color contrast made it nearly impossible to capture a diverse group — but it was the chocolate and furniture companies that forced Kodak’s hand. Kage admitted, “It was never black flesh that was addressed as a serious problem at the time.”
A chocolate bar was given more fair dos than a Black person.
There are many instances of products that are default set to White when they could and should be neutral. The health and beauty industry is rife with examples such as the term nude used to denote, usually, White skin colour. The medical sector too is set default to White leading one medical student to constantly ask “But what will it look like on darker skin?”. The White skin bias in medical teaching and diagnosis frustrated second-year medic, Malone Mukwende, into developing a handbook of clinical signs in Black and Brown skins (footnote 3). Of the handbook, which was created as part of a student-staff partnership project at St George’s, University of London, Mukwende said:
“The aim of this booklet is to educate students and essential allied health care professionals on the importance of recognising that certain clinical signs do not present the same on darker skin. This is something which is not commonly practiced in medical textbooks as there is a ‘white skin bias’. It is important that we as future healthcare professionals are aware of these differences so that we don’t compromise our care for certain groups.
“The booklet addresses many issues that have been further exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as families being asked if potential Covid patients are ‘pale’ or if their lips ‘turned blue’. These are not useful descriptors for a black patient and, as a result, their care is compromised from the first point of contact. It is essential we begin to educate others so they are aware of such differences and the power of the clinical language we currently use.”
I recently came across covert racism in cookware. Browsing online to purchase what seemed like innocuous items at the time, some new kitchen utensils, I came across this sentence that accompanies many of the British designer, Joseph Joseph, products: “To prevent staining, avoid using with strong colourants such as turmeric”. Turmeric is used by a wide variety of ethnic groups in Asia and North Africa and is common in many well-loved recipes enjoyed in the UK including the ‘national dish’ Chicken Tikka Masala. Unless your diet consists solely of good ole traditional British food and none of that foreign malarkey, it’s hard to imagine how one might ‘avoid’ using it. The use of the word ‘avoid’ is astonishingly deliberate and incredibly exclusionary. I’m quite flummoxed as to why they don’t just state that “use of turmeric may cause staining”, after all, that’s the chemical reality of the spice. But this is what White privilege, the default setting of White and unconscious bias looks like, all carefully moulded into silicone kitchen server.
I’ll always talk to White people about race
Reni Eddo-Lodge with her book I’m no longer talking to White people about race is a Sunday Times bestseller. I congratulate Eddo-Lodge on her achievement and wish her every success, but I find the title of her book to be problematic and one that I cannot support because it is part of what I see as a persistent problem for the improvement of race relations in the UK and around the world.
To expand on this point, I’ll share a discussion I had, earlier this year, with a White woman about race. The catalyst for the conversation was Eddo-Lodge’s book and the wider prevalence of the phrase White privilege. We both shared our viewpoints, and listened to each other, it was a deeply personal discussion, more from her side, than mine. But the crux of it was I came away learning more about slavery in Eastern Europe than I had ever done before, and slavery that had occurred as recently, as tragically and as directly as with the woman’s grandmother. It was painful and sobering to hear, and since my grandparents were not slaves, I had to ask myself, who’s privileged now.
If we stop talking to each other, we all lose out. We all can do better. Me, you, your friends, everyone. On social media, there are a lot of Black people with the view that talking about race means they are somehow providing free labour in ‘explaining’ to a White person what it means to be Black, that a White person should Google the subject and not contact them to discuss or ask questions. I think this is the wrong approach for two reasons.
Firstly, closing yourself off suggests you believe you have nothing to learn. We can all learn from each other, but the only way to do so, is by being open and talking to one another. To close oneself off assumes that you know everything you need to know about a person simply because of the colour of their skin, and that their lived experience is meaningless.
Secondly, our lived experiences, whilst meaningful, are incomplete because societal structures and systems have failed us. The teaching of History is compulsory until the age of 14 in the UK and the little that is taught is woefully Whitewashed with no substantial time spent on Colonialism (British or otherwise). I would rather history was taught until 18 so that Colonialism, the pasts of former colonies and the impact of it can be covered as well as the profiles of the very many diverse races and backgrounds that have contributed to the Britain we know today. Otherwise, we leave it to the whim of the individual as to whether they pick up a book again and engage intelligibly with the past. If I were to encounter such a person, the one who stopped learning history at 14, why should I be surprised if they hold a narrow-minded, Whitewashed, uncompromisingly Western biased view of the world. The system has failed all of us.
The world is more complex and nuanced than we give it credit for, and lived experiences must be taken into account. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of condemning people into homogenous groups, which I desperately do not want to see and is completely contradictory to the fight against racial prejudice and discrimination.
So, lived experiences matter, which is why I will always talk to White people about race because a person being White tells me nothing about who they are, just as me being Black tells them nothing about who I am. My lived experience is different from Eddo-Lodge, and it frustrates me that the book’s publisher says “it’s the essential handbook for anyone who wants to understand race relations in Britain today.” Whose handbook? Not mine. Whose race relations? Not mine. Whose Britain? You get the picture. Ironically, they have set the default to White and said, ‘White people, if you want to understand Black people, read this’.
Don’t forget Africa
The Black Lives Matter movement is a Western ideal that focuses on the issues and challenges of Black people in countries such as the USA and UK. The movement manages to allow people to claim to speak for equality but at the same time ignore the continent with the most Black people, whose lives, it seems, rarely matter. People who know of my work with my book box business, Heady Mix, will know how frustrated I am with the West’s depiction of Africa.
Africa is grossly misrepresented in the West: the stereotypes of poverty and starvation, the assumption that everyone lives in huts, that technology is lacking and corruption is rife. It is usually negative, seeking sympathy or reinforcing some kind of Western perception of primitivity … the ignorance is astounding and is perpetuated on TV, in film, in books and the media’s reporting of events and news on the continent, and it seeps into our minds to form an outlook that groups the peoples of the continent in an unfavourable way.
I mentioned earlier that I had not experienced overt racism, but that’s not entirely true. In Abu Dhabi, around 2008, after a business trip went horribly wrong, I was by myself looking for somewhere to have a drink. I found what looked like a nice bar, attached to a hotel as all the bars are, and headed there after dinner. At the entrance, I was greeted by a largely built Middle-Eastern doorman. Having seen people stroll through without stopping, I expected the same, but he held out his hand and waved his finger indicating that no, I would not be going in. Thinking it was because I needed to be accompanied by a man, I asked as much. Yes, it’s the same for all prostitutes, he replied. Looking nothing like the kind of high-end escort you see in films, I didn’t understand why he had jumped to that conclusion. So, I asked him, why do you think I’m a prostitute, and he replied, because you’re African. Without thinking, I instantly objected, but I’m British, as if my declaration would be the magic password to explain away everything. It was. And I was as bad as him.
I spoke to the doorman for ten minutes or so. He apologised for getting my nationality wrong and pondered how he hadn’t recognised my Mancunian accent considering his love of Manchester United. Throughout the trip, I went to several restaurants and bars by myself and met encountered the same discrimination, and I would utter my magic password in response. Sometimes, I said it before the doormen opened their mouths, I used my Western privilege to signal that they shouldn’t judge me. To my shame, I never challenged them that their prejudices were wrong.
So, when you look at the Black Lives Matter movement, please consider the perceptions you have of Africa. It is a continent more diverse than any other, yet in the West, we treat it as one country as if, because everyone is Black, they are all the same. It’s a dangerous precedent, one that does not respect the 54 countries, 1.2 billion people, 3,000 ethnic groups and 2,000 languages that exist there. Their Black Lives Matter too, not just the ones in the West. It is foolhardy to decry structural racism in the UK, the USA or Europe, then buy a children’s book featuring Africa, in the name of diversity, that renders its Indigenous people invisible (footnote 4).
Africa is rich in ideas, innovation, science, and technology. There are buzzy urban centres and creative hubs brimming with designers, artists and creators, tech start-ups and entrepreneurs. It’s appalling the West does not show more of it - I am tired of the stereotypes. That’s why, last year, my subscription book box featured Afrofuturism, a collection of stories written by Black Africans to readdress the imbalance of how the continent and its people are perceived. Particularly important is the concept of a future in which Black people participate and are significant contributors.
Author Ytasha L. Womack captures the power of the Afrofuturism genre wonderfully:
“In one way I think Afrofuturism helps connect us to histories that aren’t discussed or aren’t really spoken of as much. I think that a lot of the work that people are creating is in part a process to connect to some of what appears to be lost history, or maybe not lost history but not recorded or popularised in traditional media.”
Lost history. That’s colonialism wiping out a whole continent’s future and replacing it with its own.
Colonialism may have stolen Africa’s past, but Africans won their future. And that future has been happening the whole time. The stories shared by tribes, the books, the TV in indigenous languages ... Africans have been reimagining their lost histories and envisioning different futures all along, we have just chosen to ignore it.
The problem is, Afrofuturism is not really for Africans, it’s for the West. It’s for people like me who use the magic password of ‘I’m British’ who want to see a different African future. In the introduction to the Afrofuturism collection, I wrote about an interview in the South African Sunday Times, with author Mohale Mashigo, who requested that her collection of short stories, Intruders, not be classed as Afrofuturism even though some are set in a future South Africa, as it didn't “feel like the right coat to dress [her] stories in”, because:
"Afrofuturism is an escape for those who find themselves in the minority and divorced or violently removed from their African roots, so they imagine a ‘black future’ where they aren’t a minority and are able to marry their culture with technology. That is a very important story and it means a lot to many people. There are so many wonderful writers from the diaspora dealing with those feelings or complexities that it would be insincere of me to parrot what they are doing"
When I first read that, I was curating Black British and American writers for the collection, but after much thought, it became clear to me that this would be problematic. There are so many talented Black writers from the African diaspora, but I made the decision to exclude every single one of them, in favour of writers who were born, raised and live in Africa. An African is always an African no matter where they were born and raised, some will say. But I disagree. This is not about identity, though identity plays a role, but about experiences, representation, and about highlighting those that are ignored.
As a South African living in South Africa, Mashigo will never have my experiences and as a Brit living in the UK, I will never have hers, which is why Mashigo had the rallying cry:
“Africans, living in Africa, need something entirely different from Afrofuturism.”
Our Afrofuturism anthology was not that collection of essays and stories. It was an anthology for people, any people, outside of Africa to see Africa, but what Mashigo and I have in common is our desire to see a future where Africa is prominent, where Black people are the agents of change and are in charge of their own destinies.
Marvel’s film Black Panther was pivotal because it imagined an African country that did not require help or White saviour interventions from the West, and look how it thrived!
Black futures matter.
I found myself wistfully longing for Wakanda to be an African country of now.
But no country in the world is Wakanda, and that is the greatest Jedi mind trick of them all.
I don’t need your hashtag
When the protests first started, I wondered if anything would change. After all, the likes of Mary Frances Berry (footnote 5), who protested with Martin Luther King, are still fighting the same fight. A different battle, but ultimately the same. So, would we, too, be vaguely recalling that time when there was a global pandemic and some people protested, what happened after that, did anything change?
I could see, though, that a seismic shift was occurring. It is one of the few silver linings of the pandemic that has affected all of us across the world. When has there been another time in history when humanity has taken the same action in every country to defeat the same enemy. It’s the stuff of sci-fi alien films. I believe the pandemic has made some of us question what it is to be human and to ask what kind of world do we want to live when this is all over. There is no other material reason that I can see as to why this time, these protests should be different. But complacency is a pernicious attitude, and there is a danger the energy of the last few weeks will be reduced to likes, hashtags and last month’s news cycle. So, before our lives are consumed in the new normal, we need to not only reflect on how we can do better, but we need to pledge action that is us actually doing better as well.
We can all do better in recognising inequality injustices, calling them out and taking action. I have shared my lived experiences, and we all have a story to tell, but unfortunately, the stories of minorities and underrepresented groups are persistently ignored. So, that’s what I see with Black Lives Matter. I see an opportunity for us to build a future free of structural bias, prejudices and inequality that will benefit all of us. If you believe in the value of Black Lives, you need to also believe in the value of the lives of all minority and underrepresented groups including women, the thousands of ethnic groups in the world that are not White, Indigenous peoples, migrants, the LGBTIQ+ community and people with disabilities, to name a few of the wonderful diverse groups we have the privilege of knowing.
Now that some weeks have passed since George Floyd’s future was stolen, I know the Tower Bridge girls were wrong, and for the first time, I see them differently. Instead of the gang that attacked my difference, I see pain. Instead of what I assumed was confidence, I see fear. I have been lucky, but not because I have avoided racism, I haven’t – it is structurally everywhere. I am lucky because I was born me. I am many things and I am Black, so when someone – anyone - looks at my skin, I want them to see me. I want them to challenge injustice and to imagine a better future, I want them to take action and help make all our lives better. But most of all, when they see me, I don’t want them to see the struggles and pain of Black people, because that’s not what my skin is for, it’s not the reason why my skin is brown.
Small actions, big impact
I’ve listed a few simple ways in which all of us can take small actions to help challenge and fight inequality injustice and will enrich our own lives in the process.
Step out of your comfort zone. Music, books, TV, film, plays, culture, each has a part to play in shaping who we are and influencing how we interact with others. Choose to consume creativity from a culture or country other than your own. We all have something valuable to learn from one another.
And from the above, check the ethnicity, diversity and backgrounds of the creators of your favourite cultural outputs, if they look too similar to each other or too reflective of you, consider what you’re consuming.
Check how inclusive your social and professional circles are. At a close friend’s level, my social circle is woefully narrow with little diversity amongst the people with whom I talk on a regular basis. I need to do better to place myself in positions where I can engage more with people different to me. Professionally, I recently audited my LinkedIn contacts and was ashamed at how few female founders and leaders I was connected to. I still have a long way to go to adding more women to my professional circle, but the point is I have started to make the change, progress over perfection is what we’re looking for here.
If you’re part of the leadership team at work, then use your power. What does your leadership team look like? Are you diverse? Do you include your staff in decision-making? Review your policies, recruitment, and routes to promotion. Do you have a Diversity and Inclusion policy? Is it just in name only? Have you educated yourself, is there training?
Donate a book to your old school. This is an idea inspired by the wonderful physicist Jessica Wade (footnote 6), a one-woman crusade to update Wikipedia with more female scientists, and creator of a 2018 crowdfund that sent every state school a copy of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Science That’s Writing the Story by Angela Saini. Which book to send? It’s simple, choose the kind of book that looking back you wish you would have read at school. The kind of book that means if you had read it then, you wouldn’t be feeling guilty now about your ignorance.
Vote. During the pandemic, there have been articles on there being a Jacinda Ardern in every country, we just have to vote for her. If you are White, think about the candidates that are standing, are they going to maintain the status quo, or will they push for a more egalitarian society, think beyond your own personal circumstances and wallet. If you are Black or a non-Black ethnic minority, then please vote, there are dedicated, compassionate and talented candidates in every area who will represent you and your interests. Seek them out, learn more about them, support them and vote for them.
Stand. An effective way to get what you want is to be the decision-maker. Whether it’s being a school governor, on the board of the local hospital, a charitable organisation or non-profit, a councillor or MP, there are lots of opportunities to lead. As a board member myself, I would be happy to share my experiences and tips on where to apply, how to apply and what’s involved with anyone interested. And if you really don’t think it’s for you, then lift someone else, and encourage them to stand.
Speak out. Inequality injustices can only thrive if they are not challenged. Be the person that points out that the paragraph on your marketing leaflet doesn’t ring true, or who calls out a stereotyped remark with your friends. Be the person that doesn’t just think about it, but says it too.
Call out your own bullshit. Educate yourself. Become aware. Step out of your bubble. We all need to tell ourselves off and stop our own nonsense. For me, last year, it was realising how much ableism I was blind to. This year, it’s broadening my knowledge about Indigenous peoples around the world particularly related to how their land is threatened by inaction over the Climate Crisis.
Lastly, let’s be honest with ourselves about the country we are. We cannot do anything about the past – it is dominated by old White men who made fortunes engaged in despicable activities. The stark reality of being British is that our nation-builders were not just flawed, but evil in their pursuit of wealth and power. That is where we are, a lot of what is good in Britain arose from these atrocities, and as did a lot of what is bad. If you are reading this and you are White, understanding the full horrific extent of what British White people were capable of in the name of the Empire is vital. There is no hiding from it, it is the savage truth of our history. Statues in their current form, tell only partial truths. It is true that they can educate and I for one have sought out many a statue in the towns and cities I have visited to learn more about what has contributed to that place. But if a town or city is to become an immersive history lesson, it must be a truthful and accurate one, no matter how painful and uncomfortable that might feel. The glorification of slave traders and oppressors of minority groups must never be allowed, no matter what ‘good’ they did. Plaques recognising history accurately and unbiasedly is a start; more statues and memorials of underrepresented groups is progress; energising ourselves as a country into accepting, tackling, and educating on the devastating impact of colonialism is an evolutionary step towards recovery.
My diversity pledge, what’s yours?
As I write this, I have decided to make a pledge that is my contribution to doing better and helping others do better in 2020. My company Heady Mix will donate five books to my former primary school, and a book to every secondary school in: the borough I grew up, Tameside Metropolitan Borough; the borough where I went to university, Glasgow; and the borough in which I live now, Hackney; The three boroughs I have spent most of my life – my lived experiences that have helped make me, me. With this action, I hope to share new-found pasts with an emphasis on highlighting historical figures from underrepresented and minority groups, and to use the power of books to positively contribute to the lived experiences of these schools’ students – on the path to more informed, egalitarian future.
What will you do?
4) The 2019 Reflecting Realities report by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education found children’s books would have a country-specific setting without a country-specific population. The report found instances where it was evident that the scene was located in a specific part of the world outside of the UK but the characters present were exclusively or predominantly white, rendering the indigenous population invisible. For example, portrayals of countries in the African continent where readers encounter exclusively white characters on safari. Learn more at https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research/reflecting-realities-survey-ethnic-representation-within-uk-children
5) Mary Frances Berry is an American historian, writer, lawyer, activist and professor who focuses on U.S. constitutional and legal, African-American history. Learn more about at http://www.maryfrancesberry.com and https://twitter.com/drmfberry