20 Feb Katrina Marshall: Musings of a Three Box Ticker
The State of Play
At a time when diversity and inclusion are the buzz words of the moment, there are still far too many instances when institutional bias and racism rear their ugly heads.
Members of Black and Ethnic Minority groups continue to be faced with tone deaf and racially insensitive microaggressions in the workplace. These insensitivities often lead to greater barriers to accessing equal opportunities for career progression. Concerningly, we are not referring to one or two bosses making colonial era references in their attempts to appear like they are ‘down with the kids’. The impact of such working environments is in some places systemic and has been well documented. Even more damagingly, the sectors whose public faces preach diversity in employment, programming and community outreach are in reality drastically underserving the audiences most aggrieved by this kind of prejudice.
A recent study: Diversity in UK Television OfCom 2017 has rapped the knuckles of the UK’s five biggest broadcasters for its failure to employ more women and minorities at senior management level. This is pretty rich, since they are literally supposed to be the mirror society holds up for a true reflection of itself.
People with very little experience or context for issues that are sensitive to women, minorities and the disabled are actively determining the editorial direction of programming largely consumed by women, minorities & the disabled. The report also highlights how hard it is for people from Black and Ethnic Minority backgrounds to break into the media when compared to their white counterparts. Data from the legal, STEM and creative industries is even more nuanced and just as damning. The trickle-down effect of this kind of isolated tone deafness seeps like rancid red wine into a company’s very fabric.
Growing up in our house there was no talk of ‘things only people of a certain colour do”. My quietly revolutionary parents gave us a disdain for societally imposed limits on our aspirations. Even though these interests and hobbies at the time could be described as outside of our racial and cultural frame of reference. I have become accustomed to being the only person of colour on the rugby team or at the stables or backstage at a convent school’s Christmas pantomime. Yet myself and my contemporaries continue to be faced with comments and behaviour that suggests we are one dimensional and homogenous. How can we continue to unseat this? Beyond the box-ticking and the diversity disclaimers on application forms, employers and managers need to do the psychological heavy lifting that comes with truly listening and understanding and stop grabbing for dated old tropes in the farce that is modern day lip service paid to diversity. This may in some ways be challenging for those genuinely investing in the dismantling of certain old ways of thinking. Holding up a mirror is often uncomfortable. But it is truly the only way to create a culture of understanding. It begins with the language that is used.
The Tale of Two Beers
Sadly, this earnest dismantling was not on the agenda of a former employer. The self-aggrandizing ad man, whose Glass Door reviews tell you everything you need to know about the character, attempted to warn me that an upcoming project would be challenging. He did this by yelling across the open plan office that I’d “better drink a Red Stripe this weekend girlie”. I suppose the inferences there were that a) as a person of Caribbean birth Red Stripe was my tipple (it is not) and b) that in order to be prepared for a stressful week, I should fortify myself with the chilled malt beverage full of molasses and hops. Surely getting into the office early and doing some extra research would be more useful? I can’t remember hearing the colleague to my right being told to ‘drink a Carlsberg and eat some sauerkraut’. That colleague, unsurprisingly, was white, male and European.
Even the well-rehearsed phenomenon of code-switching doesn’t shield some of us who are faced with this type of institutional prejudice. My friend Julia is an exceedingly qualified and driven professional, whose bubbly, the positive outlook has grown more dejected in her struggles to generate business for the company she has started. It’s in an industry that in theory is on the bleeding edge of medical professional services. There are more offices offering services like hers in my neighbourhood than you can throw a stick at. Yet her entrepreneurial drive has been rewarded with the cold wall of prejudice. In her experience, the judgment starts before she opens her mouth. She hints at thinly veiled shock when she’s walked into interviews where there is clearly a disconnect between her name and who they expected to match the CV in front of them. There is a gendered bent to the prejudice that is also very alarming.
“In my experience, being a woman in business, there is a tendency not to respect my views or opinions. White women are at times even worse than the men. I’ve been belittled, sabotaged, undermined and treated poorly in some work environments. Ironically, the main offenders have been women. It’s possible that some are not even aware of their prejudiced views. Racism is subtle in the UK and runs deep into institutions; it is systemic.”
Even when being from a diverse cultural background can potentially work in your favour it then falls to the ebb and flow of political tides to determine if this is an asset or a liability. Just ask my friend who works at a leading oil company. In earlier employment, *Lydia explained that “being a black foreign woman went against me until the quotas became mandatory in 2001 and then I was ticking three boxes at once. It has worked in my favour somewhat now… to fulfill the diversity quotas at a higher grades”.
Now in senior management with international responsibilities, Lydia’s employment allows the organization (on paper anyway) to “say they have a certain number of women, blacks and foreigners at senior level management… again 3 boxes with little ole me”.
So for context, your career progression is as much about hard work as it is about reading the industry tea leaves and deciding how to leverage your position in the market in your favour. Some would go so far as to say that niggling concern about job security is far less of a consideration if you are white, male, straight and hold a British passport. Bias is not automatically assumed.
How are we trying to dismantle this system? One way I thought I was dismantling it was removing barriers like thick accents and culturally nuanced language and dialects from the way I spoke with people in a professional setting. If they can understand me, I thought, they would make a greater effort to communicate effectively. Then I wondered if I was doing more harm than good. Because by sliding into a more palatable mode of address around middle class white people, I’m in fact sanitising the very thing that defines me and is a marker for my heritage. Further it removes the responsibility of understanding the way I communicate from the listener and places the burden of clarity on me. When really it should be an equal effort. It isn’t that one way of communicating is better or worse, just normalized by the dominant paradigm of the time. So-called Ebonics in America suffers the same fate. And noted author and Academic Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom has recently chosen not to code switch on purpose. Because she feels that in reality it makes little difference to the structures of institutional bias that people of colour continue to face. I’m prone to agree with her.
The More Things Change…The More They Stay the Same. But do they have to?
The timely release of a Guardian article flagging the staggering difference between efforts to get on the employment ladder if you are British and white, vs if you are an immigrant and brown, is only a surprise to people for whom that is not a lived reality. Those of us without a red passport or a cv you could plot a graph to know only too well the dehumanizing nightmare of job seeking. Worse yet in mid-career. But our focus should go further than being outraged at that nonsense. What we need to inculcate, in my view, is more informed, educated thinking that forces people to seek areas of similarity unrelated to racial or cultural background. Start from chatter around the coffee machine in the office. Check yourself when you realize you’re even thinking along offensive lines. Be a champion for meaningful diversity in all areas of your life. Do not be intimidated by so-called “Social Justice Warriors”. “It’s just locker room talk” is no longer an excuse for bigotry even in jest. If it feels uncomfortable to hear it should be made uncomfortable to say.
Like Lydia and Julia, I’m a three box ticker. Yet employees are not just a checklist of skills. We are diverse and textured in ways that might surprise. Start with engaging with just the person: not the grocery list of signifiers we’ve been taught to ascribe to people different from us. If a culture of individual engagement and understanding is fostered in the workplace, it is likely PoC will gradually feel more accepted, even as they live authentically as members of diverse cultures.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.