The last few weeks have seen a massive debate on social media about the significance of race in certain institutions. It began with a photo campaign highlighting the voices and faces of black students from the University of Harvard. These students had come to believe that their voices often went unheard on their campus, their experiences were devalued and their presence was constantly questioned. As a result, the picture campaign was a way of voicing out to say: “We are here. This place is ours too.”
This campaign crossed over to the other side of the Atlantic and students of colour from Oxford, Cambridge and the University of Nottingham followed suit. It has resonated with several people across the world who have experienced prejudice in one way or the other.
I’m part of the Senior Management Team for Youth Charity Elevation Networks. Our mission is to develop the skills of young people, by partnering with outstanding employers to create diverse career opportunities. With our unwavering interest in diversity, particularly around BAME engagement, we run an annual campaign – the Great Debate Tour- which is UK’s largest University Debate Tour targeting BAME students. Over the last 2 years we have engaged over 10,000 young people through this. This serves as an avenue for students to discuss social and political issues that affect them. Last year, for example, we explored the topics like integration and immigration. It has been widely observed that ethnic minority members of the UK population are less likely to vote, and less likely to be active within areas of public life. In addition to this, particular segments of the ethnic minority population are disproportionately unemployed and engaged in the criminal justice system. We believe that to change the current negative stereotypes and outcomes, the next generation of leaders must be inspired to get actively involved in matters that are closest to their communities. As Gandhi said, one must be the change that they wish to see. The Great Debate Tour seeks to use debates to start conversations and create awareness about issues. In the end, young people’s voices are heard in a truly dynamic way, and new insight is provided to all through mass discussion.
Taking this into consideration, I find the picture campaign at Harvard University extremely poignant. It has inspired people across the world to challenge issues that may have been accepted as the norm. The norm is not usually the truth and it is perfectly fine for anyone to challenge them when need be. A few weeks ago the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin tweeted “Lenny Henry wanted more black people on TV. So they put on Crimewatch”. I was intrigued by two things: Firstly, Mr. Griffin’s bravery to make such a statement. Secondly, the lack of backlash concerning the tweet from the public, major news channels or websites. I strongly believe that we have become so desentized to episodes like this occurring from Mr Griffin, and so we turn a blind eye to them every time. Why should we? Just because we expect it does not mean we should accept it.
It is important to acknowledge that the UK is now representative of many cultures and nationalities. An academic report by Professor David Coleman has found that the UK will be the West’s most ethnically diverse nation after 2050 and by 2066, white Britons will be the minority. However, the truth of the matter is that this has not been reflected in many of our leading institutions from Russell group Universities, to blue chip companies. Over the past 20 years the rise in number of MPs from BAME backgrounds has been disproportionate to the increase in the wider UK population. Looking at the European Parliament, the UK only has 4 BAME representatives out of 78. Diversity cannot be championed through lip service – it needs to be championed in practice.
Amongst other inequalities, ethnic minorities have not had fair access to viable finance through Britian’s banking system – something Deputy Prime minister Nick Clegg announced needed to change some time last year. Working with the governments Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, at EN we have run a campaign that has helped over 600 people over the last year set up their own business, through providing low interest loans, hence combating the issue. Over 70% of the entrepreneurs we have supported are BAME. This is because we have been very deliberate in approaching areas and communities that may have been traditionally neglected. Successfully addressing issues like this will not only improve the lives of ethnic minorities in the UK, but it will also grow the UK economy.
People who have gone down in history as greats have decided to challenge the status-quo: whether it was Martin Luther King in America, Nelson Mandela in South Africa or Doreen Lawrence in the United Kingdom. Once upon a time, explicit racial injustice was entrenched (and to an extent still is, in a subtle way) into authoritative institutions across the world, and these leaders were relentless and willing to put their lives and reputations on the line to contest this.
We need more people like these leaders and not necessarily on a large scale. We can make an active attempt to challenge injustice wherever you are, with whatever we have in the best way we know how. Each individual effort will collectively result in the change that we desire. Whether you correct your child for having prejudice views, you start a race awareness campaign on your university campus or you aim to tackle the lack of diversity in the workplace, you are all contributing to a significant cause. I agree, the issue of diversity and prejudice will not be completely eradicated however we would have started a worthy battle against general perceptions and norms.
Certainly, if you are not part of the solution, you are definitely part of the problem and taking action is the biggest stage you could ever have for your voice to be heard.