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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Who's Afraid Of The "R" Word?

Large sections of British society want to portray much of the discussion around racism, sexism and other diversity issues as “Political Correctness gone mad” but is that just another way to shut us up?

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last weeks (or are living on a diet of X-Factor and the Apprentice) you will know that racism is once again in the headlines. First there was Tiger Woods’ former caddy wanting to put things inside the golfer’s orifices, then there was England captain John Terry insulting Anton Ferdinand and finally last week Fifa President Sepp Blatter saying racism could be solved with a friendly handshake.

These events have caused some people not to ask if society is becoming more racist but whether we have all become too sensitive about racism and name calling and once again to ask is this all “Political Correctness gone mad”? The BBC topical discussion and phone-in programme “Sunday Morning Live” joined in with the debate with three panellists – Gerry Robinson, Carole Malone and John Amaechi – trying to answer these very questions. The two white panellists Gerry Robinson and Carole Malone both thought society had become too sensitive and ordinary white people now live in fear of saying the wrong thing and being accused of being racist. Carole Malone described an incident where she was too scared to even describe a shop assistant as black just in case this was misconstrued as being racist.

I’m not doubting Carole Malone and Gerry Robinson’s experience in shops but when it comes to working in TV the truth is normally the reverse. Accusing anyone of racism (or much worse of being a racist) takes tremendous guts. Accusing anyone of the ‘R’ word can jeopardise your job, your career, social standing and risk being alienated by your colleagues.

Being accused of being racist almost has the same social opprobrium as being a called a paedophile or wife-beater. While it is a sign of progress that racism is now seen as completely unacceptable in a way it wasn’t thirty years ago the stigma attached to the label can scare people from raising the issue let alone pointing fingers.

Take the simple act of blogging for example. I often have discussions with black colleagues about the issues of prejudice and racism in the television industry but when I suggest they blog about it as I do (or talk to other people in power about it) they regularly tell me that they don’t want to “rock the boat”. They tell me that I have a “safe” staff job at the BBC and I’m senior enough to say the things I say without fear of receiving my P45. They feel that raising any of the points they regularly talk about when amongst colleagues and friends from diverse backgrounds could mark them out as troublemakers. They worry that talking about racism in the television industry is the equivalent of calling people in very powerful positions in the industry (their current and future bosses) “paedophiles”.

We have got to find a way in which colleagues can raise issues of race without fearing that they are committing career suicide. Similarly we need find a way to look at inequality and race related problems in the television industry without those in power becoming overly defensive, fearing that they are being labelled “racist” and pushed in the same corner as wife-beaters, rapists and paedophiles.

The recent incidents involving Sepp Blatter, John Terry and Steve Williams show that racism is still an important problem that needs to be addressed. But just as everyone from David Cameron to David Beckham realise a friendly handshake won’t solve racism neither will being afraid of using the ‘R’ word.

Monday, 21 November 2011

One Is Never Enough


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.