I was recently invited to attend the launch of Powerlist 2011 – an event recognising powerful and influential black people in the UK (I crept on to the list in the “40 and under category”). A lot of the black people at the launch event were truly inspiring having broken glass ceiling after glass ceiling. As I was making small talk over finger food afterwards the one feature that lay behind a lot of their achievements is that they were often the only black person in their field, their office or even their company. From my own experience of often being the only black person in a production team or TV department, I wondered about what effect this has been having on achieving true diversity. Let me give you an example.
Working in current affairs, I regularly come across weird and wonderful crime stories. A few months ago a black man in a car was pulled over by the police. The police discovered that he was driving without insurance, hand-cuffed him and arrested him. However, after he had been arrested the driver got into a dispute with the police officer. It just so happened that the arresting police officer also happened to be black. The black driver then proceeded to call the black police officer a number of names including “black c---” and “black bastard”.
In England and Wales, under the Crime And Disorder Act 1998, if someone commits a crime and it is proven to have a racial element they are subject to a harsher sentence (similar laws apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland). Hence, when this case came to court the black driver was found guilty of a far more serious racially aggravated offence than he would have been otherwise.
It was a minor case, and as it happened in England we definitely weren’t going to cover it up here in BBC Scotland. However, it nevertheless came up in discussion over lunch one day with my white colleagues and friends. Nearly all of them thought that the black driver was guilty of racism and deserved to have a stiffer sentence than if he hadn’t called the officer racist names. Obviously, so did the jury in the case. On the other hand, nearly all BME colleagues and friends I also raised the story with later thought charging a black man with a racially aggravated crime against a black police officer made a mockery of the very good reasons the additional legislation of racial aggravation was introduced in the first place.
I’m not sure which group of friends and colleagues are right (and I hope everyone noticed the “nearly all” in both group – not all white people and not all BME people think the same). But what it does highlight is that people from different racial groups with different life experiences can often view the same events differently.
The problem is that as I talked the story through with my white colleagues over lunch I was acutely aware that I was the only questioning voice. I was worried that I would either be seen as having bad judgement (an extremely important quality in television and journalism in particular) or worse still thought to have a racial chip on my shoulder. I felt insecure in voicing a dissenting opinion – despite the fact I was the most senior person sitting at the BBC canteen table talking.
If there had been just one other person putting forward an alternative view, or one other BME person sitting at the table, I would have been a lot bolder. I see this all the time with both Scottish issues and with women’s issues. I often see the single Scot in London not voicing a particular view on “English prejudice” as they are worried they will be typecast as the “Angry Scot”. Yet when he or she is back in Glasgow amongst fellow Scots they are quite the opposite. I know many women who keep their opinions to themselves concerned they will be viewed as “man-hating-feminists”.
Ironically enough, having the odd woman, disabled person or BME member of staff working by themselves can fail to increase diversity. The sole diverse member of staff striving to fit in will worry about sticking out or being known only by their differences. Far from increasing plurality of views having only one member of staff from a diverse background can sometimes cause even more consensus.
The answer to this problem of course is simple. We need to employ even more diverse staff (easier said than done). Breaking glass ceilings and being the only BME (or woman or disabled person) at a particular level is important, and it is brilliant that there are events like the Powerlist 2011 to recognise these achievements. But until these trailblazers have company I’m not convinced that we will achieve true diversity.