Ever since I was a small child, I was passionate about fighting racism and injustice. Amongst other things, this led to tears of frustration as an 8 year-old when a relative found it funny to be deliberately racist; a bloody nose, when in the first year of secondary school I challenged a 16 year-old who was telling jokes about Ethiopians; and being thrown out of a pub, when the landlord sided with the men who were giving out the homophobic abuse.
As an adult, I have worked to educate people about the damage of prejudice and the importance of promoting equality for nearly 10 years. When people find out what I do, there’s often a look of puzzlement on their face. Firstly, that there is a need for education on issues of equality and secondly, why it is a field that I, a white, British, heterosexual, able-bodied woman, would be working in. I have actually seen people visibly relax when they find out the my children are mixed heritage as if “Ah, now it makes sense.”
Working in this field is not a job that one can do from 9-5, it seeps into every aspect of life. I can almost guarantee that when I tell people what I do at a social gathering, the rest of the evening will be devoted to their questions and opinions on issues of equality. This can be fascinating and constructive, but when I’m battling denial of the existence of Islamophobia at 1 in the morning, I have occasionally wished that I was an accountant. Alternatively, I’m the fun sapper, the PC brigade, or the one that people feel the need to apologise to if someone says a discriminatory joke: “I’m sorry, I know that you don’t like that kind of thing.”
I recognise that my privileged position means that I have the option of going undercover. If I’m tired and not up for a fight, I have ashamedly, on occasion, left discriminatory comments by taxi drivers or bar staff unchallenged. My privilege also means that I cannot fully understand the experience that many people from minority communities are facing. I constantly have to reflect on my opinions, question my assumptions and listen to the voices of others in order to check my world view.
However, I am the mother of two mixed heritage children and I am watching them growing up, trying to navigate a society which still considers white British to be normal and everyone else to be an outsider. Where they fall into the Daily Express category of “ethnics” who are diluting the power of the white British majority.
I have seen my youngest come home from school confused because another child had told her that she would grow up to be a monkey because she was brown. I have seen them devastated when a friend said her Dad wouldn’t let them play inside his house because of the colour of their skin. I have seen them be given a curriculum where only the contribution of white people to society is valued; at a recent open day at a secondary school, I asked if they studied anything other than British history and was told “No, we only have so much time. However, we do look at the British Empire and contrast the way that we ran that to the way in which the Roman’s managed theirs”
I am aware that my children are living in a society where black people are six times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people, where they may be refused a job because of their foreign sounding names and where black people in their early 20s are twice as likely as white people to be not in employment, education or training.
Therefore, it never fails to worry me, when I meet people who, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, feel that equality has been achieved, or that it’s even gone too far; that disabled people, women, people from minority backgrounds need to move on and stop demanding special privileges. The luxury of walking around without noticing injustice and discrimination, is one only afforded to the powerful. If we are going to create substantial changes within our society and within our organisations, it is vital that the fight to combat injustice is reframed. People need to understand that this is their fight, even if they are not from a minority background, or gay, or disabled or transgender. Everybody should feel as passionate about the injustice faced by others as though it were something faced by them or their close loved ones.
We need to be sensitive to the experiences of others. It is not OK to dismiss concerns about language and behaviour as the PC Brigade trying to stop people having fun. How can it be an imposition to think about how other people feel, and whether your behaviour is excluding others and creating a hostile environment? We need to accept that we all carry bias and recognise that none of us approaches a situation from a neutral background. We need to help people to recognise that equality can’t be achieved by ignoring difference. We need to make sure that we expand our knowledge, read, listen, learn and access advice and support.
If we are in senior positions, we need to lay out our expectations of behaviour in the workplace and make it clear that people can come to us if there is an issue. When we witness injustice, we need to have the strength to speak up. By doing so we may be affording others, who are worried about being a lone voice, the opportunity to raise their voices in agreement. Our workplaces should not be places where people can identify the one person that they should not express their prejudice in front of, but one where the very idea is abhorrent.
There are no quick fixes, no easy solutions, but recognising that promoting equality and tackling discrimination is an issue for everybody is the first step. It is a long journey, but ultimately, it is a hugely rewarding one, from which we will all benefit.
Sarah Soyei, Director: firstname.lastname@example.org