The Blog

Goodbye To All That: On Non White Flight And The Racial Glass Ceiling

"Something is wrong when British people of my generation are considering moving to the country our parents were born in three quarters of a century ago," I say. It's mid-June and I'm with a friend who's considering leaving the UK to pursue an excellent job offer abroad. "Take it," I tell him, "and don't come back."

How did it come to this? The friend is highly regarded and influential in his field. Yet even he, well into a brilliant career, is packing his bags. In the course of the conversation we have hashed over a long list of names of talented journalists, artists, writers, film-makers, designers, actors, broadcasters, all non-white and all British, who have left the UK because they've hit their glass ceiling, their plateau, their wall or cliff or shelf or whatever it feels like to them. They've seen their white peers being absorbed into the establishment, becoming names, being given good and appropriate leadership roles or high-profile commissions or major projects, being offered a long term chance to shine, to be challenged, to advance, to stand or fall by their achievements. They have watched themselves being steadily more ignored and marginalised, denied the power and money they deserve, until they realise when nearing middle age that they are in a precarious position and may not survive. They have then had to leave the country and search all over the world, including America, which is bigger and where the glass ceiling is higher.

I used to be proud of being a Londoner, intrigued by England's unique combination of insularity, dry humour, rough edges, long history, genuine multiculturalism, introverted contemplation, yob philistinism and deep tolerance for variety, quirkiness and eccentricity. That variety doesn't exist anymore. Increasingly, over the last seven years, I have been out and about in the city and noticed nearly every time that I am the only non-white person present in the park, the hipster bar, the creative professionals' restaurant, the cultural event, the cool book reading, the prize jury, the programme, the stage, the think tank or the arts festival.

Were we pushed out, or did we check out, or both? Did we realise that we had risen as far as we could and either we had to make our peace with it and remain at that level for ever, or go somewhere else, or do something else entirely?

It's strange when it's made clear by no single person in particular but by everything in general that you are not a part of the fabric of the only country you know. To be, not violently shoved out, but gradually deprived of air and space and light until you have to go, for your own survival. I wait, I do the maximum of work and good faith showing-up and proper networking, I say yes to everything, I value myself and make sure I'm paid for everything, I lobby for myself but always recommend others, I ask for things outright in the correctly tactful way, I am polite and present, fun but no fool. After a while, the penny drops that this is as good as it gets, and it's not great. I could make the problem my livelihood and spend the rest of my life talking on panels about (lack of) diversity, multiculturalism and race, but I don't want to.

What is happening to me is happening to many others. It's a million times worse for those who did not have the perks of privilege, good connections, entitlement, an elite education and an established career history. What happened to the image of a great, tolerant, multicultural, truly varied nation? Apparently that is no longer something to be celebrated or desired. I never thought it would come to this, or that I would be one of numerous non-white Britons of my generation who is contemplating leaving the UK permanently due to a lack of opportunity for growth and advancement and a deep concern at the increasing cultural insularity I see around me.