Last week, in the response to the referendum, we saw reported a resurgence of racist behaviour. Families were being targeted with hate mail, graffiti was being daubed on cultural centres, and individuals reported being harangued in the street with abusive accusations. I found myself feeling very frightened and depressed about where all this is going to lead and helpless about being able to do anything about it.
But I caught myself "blaming" others for their behaviour, making myself believe that I would never behave in such a way and feeling rather smug about my lack of discriminatory behaviour.
Then some relatively ordinary things happened. I went to speak at a voluntary sector event and discovered that in a room of more than 70 chairs and chief executives of charities there was only one black person. As a woman and chief executive of a charity working with young, disadvantaged women, I was also naturally interested in the gender balance, which was relatively OK- this despite an ACEVO (Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations) statistic which shows that only 25% of CEO's are women and less than 5% are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups.)
I went to a comedy evening for university alumni and again the audience comprised a vast majority of white people. I also went to the launch of a book by Stephen Frost and Danny Kalman, Inclusive Talent Management. And guess what? The delegates were overwhelmingly white.
Stephen and Danny reminded us about unconscious bias and the tendency of all of us to socialise and recruit people like us, to define ourselves as the in group and others as "those people". This was clearly demonstrated in the room.
I also stopped to reflect on my personal circle and the organisations that I am more closely involved with and was embarrassed to have to face up to the fact that there is a serious under-representation of anyone from BAME groups.
None, not one of us, is immune from the tendency to define ourselves by describing negatively the characteristics of people whom we consider different. In my view nothing will change if we merely punish those who persecute others.
We need a much more honest debate about the inherent tendency of large groups to fragment and to create good in groups and bad out groups. We need to accept that groups of all sorts, including children in school, will sometimes enjoy inflicting psychological pain on others and it makes them feel clearer, though in a fragile and potentially destructive way, about their own identities. We also need to remember that lack of engagement between people breeds ignorance and fear and allows for all sorts of false assumptions to be made. Until we can really accept that we are all potential bullies and that we are all at risk of behaving in a discriminatory fashion nothing much will change.
I am no longer feeling quite so helpless and think that there are some things I can do, at least in my own circles at work and home. I can change my own behaviour and take ownership of my own so called unconscious bias and make sure that this is not interfering with my decisions or stopping me from realising that most of the difference that I fear or perceive in others turns out to be an illusion once I allow myself to work with and get to know them.
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