Ladies and Gentlemen, colleagues and friends—
On another platform I might say “comrades”. In my career I, as long ago as 1960, became a protagonist for equal opportunities, but even as a girl grow- ing up in the colony of British Guiana, I was known as someone who stood up for her friends; I guess because my father was in a position of authority. He brought me down a peg or two when he told me I did not have the knowledge to do what I was embarking on. But he planted the germ of be- coming a lawyer in my head.
So I came to England, and started working and studying. In evening classes I studied under a senior lecturer who claimed to have been Sir Winston Churchill’s Private Secretary. He really was the best for his knowledge of his subject, but beyond that, he was also very racist. His students hailed from the four corners of the earth, which may be hard to imagine at a time when we’re now still campaigning for representation and equality of opportunities. There were six of us from British Guyana, and only two of us were Black. The others were loathe to speak out for fear of being excluded from the college.
I took it upon myself to challenge everything he said and did, which included the notion that we were Black by virtue of being born in the Caribbean. As a result, I wasn’t put forward for my Private Secretary’s diploma— a decision he held sway over. When I later returned to London after a period of time teaching in Bermuda, I sat the diploma without any further instruction, and passed.
My attempts to take up law were thwarted. I was frequently told that “Law was saturated” and that there was no more room for lawyers. At this time, the word “racism” entered my vocabulary, and I began to notice what I can now identify as racial inequalities.
I should say here that this will not be an empirical study, but an account based on lived experiences, therefore there will be no statistics, and no graphs. How do I perceive racial inequalities? Based on my own experi- ences, studies, and observations, there has always been a racial divide amongst the workforce. To cite an example: As an LEA Governor in a large Secondary School, with responsibility for Staffing, Welfare, and Pay, we in- terviewed an impressionable Black candidate for a senior position. The can- didate was a former Grammar School candidate with four A Levels and ten O Levels, all excellent grades. She had excellent degrees, and numerous other professional qualifications. She also wrote examination papers for a London University. She was the perfect candidate, aside from the fact that she was
Black. When the post-interview summation was held, four of the ten inter- view panellists did not want her. When I asked the dissenting members – two of whom were staff – why they did not choose this candidate they gave a petty response – because they could fault the candidate on nothing. In the end the decision to take her on was endorsed, and in short order, it was not- ed that she had a huge positive impact on the school, staff and all.
When I worked in commerce I observed very little racism. In teaching, however, it was noticeable that the few Black teachers there were at the time were all at the bottom rung of the pay ladder. We watched as other teachers were upgraded, even while we took on the same responsibilities, if not more. After years of struggle, protests and battles, things changed for all teachers. Now things are relatively easier and fairer. Black teachers find it easier to e ter the profession; are more likely to be accepted, and can more often garner the respect they deserve. There are BAME Head Teachers, and there are BAME professors in universities. Make no mistake, however— this does not mean that those educators and senior staff members are having an easy time. Only that the mountains are not so high, and the rivers are not so deep.
You can see a paradigm in the example above, where we interviewed a Black person for a position of senior leadership. Institutional racism is where
the institution or the profession does not regard or the treat its employees in the same way, when their employees are denied promotion, when they are denied equal pay for the work they are doing. It has been defined by Sir William Macpherson (1999) as: “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, atti- tudes and behaviour that amount to discrimination through prejudice, igno- rance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.” While institutional racism is no new phenomenon, it has been spotlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, where it has been acknowl- edged that BAME workers are disproportionally represented in low waged roles, including those on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19.
Not only is it evident that BAME workers and families are disproportionally represented at lower ends of wage scales, BAME citizens have been dispro- portionally impacted by rates of infection and resulting deaths throughout the pandemic, and it is likely that they’ll be disproportionally impacted by the mental health fallout and increased disparity in educational achievement, with the associated impact on socio-economic imbalance.
Racial Inequality can be defined in terms of a lack of supervisory support, failings in procedural justice, and endemic indoctrination. It is not uncom- mon to encounter the perception that BAME applicants, candidates and pro-
fessionals are poorly qualified, and are not good employees. These views are often held regardless of the fact that BAME candidates can actually be equally, or more than, qualified for the available post. To speak to my own personal experience once more— when the country called out to its subjects overseas, many of those who answered the call found themselves taking up on work they were over-qualified for. It was not uncommon for an estab- lished professional from the Caribbean to arrive in England, only to be told that their professional experience and qualifications weren’t recognised or valued here. My own son, in applying for work as a youth, encountered on more than one occasion the experience of being well received by a potential interviewer on the basis of his telephone voice and double-barrelled sur- name, only to be met with disappointment and disbelief when met in person.
Other societal factors come into the equation here. These might include ex- periences at work where white indigenous employees are promoted or given increments in pay above their BAME more highly qualified, experienced, a colleagues and with more longevity on the job. Nothing can be more dis- abling than this. Nothing can be more demeaning. This tests and in some cases demolishes the strength of anyone aspiring to the top of their profes- sion.
We know that there are problems with discriminatory policing policies and attention, or maltreatment of BAMEs, belittling BAME people, telling us we
cannot be lawyers, we cannot be bank Managers. One must not forget the Stop and Search saga, or conversely lack of police action when we need it. An elderly lady living in South West London and called the Police when she saw a group of young men breaking into a neighbour’s house. The first ques- tion she was asked was: ”Are they Black?” she said. She rejoined: ”What difference does that make”? Myself, in 2003 knocked down by a young white male. I almost died. The police were reluctant to prosecute. I fought and got action, and the driver pleaded guilty. Two years ago a Black young man I know was knocked off his bike by a White man. His smooth face was scarred. His very expensive specialist spectacles smashed cutting his face just under his eye. Most importantly, the bicycle he so loved, was written off. The police happened do be passing by, and stopped to investigate. The mo- torist knew he was in the wrong, and kept apologising to the young man, but the police took no action.
The Murder on the Media of the African-American George Floyd resonated around the globe, but there were many George Floyds before and since. What is the future if something as gross as that cannot be stopped by three police officers gaining notoriety, such as those three did! It will take more time, and more lives to end those atrocities. Incidentally, the main perpetra- tor – the one who knelt on George’s neck, is out on bail, and the charge of third degree murder dropped.
Not everyone is strong. Not everyone can dust themselves off and carry on. Receiving different treatment, feeling harassed, can drive people to feel that the only way out of is to end their lives. To either go mad, or commit suicide. Just recently I was in a meeting where the topic was about suicide. The speakers all talked about children, or young persons, committing suicide. When I drew attention to this one of the presenters said that older people had to help themselves. I referred to an older person living alone in a small flat, is reluctant to heat his/her home because of the cost, is under lockdown because of COVID, might not have any family nuclear or extended, won’t watch the television because he/she could not afford the licence fee, throw in being harassed because of who he/she might be. How does such a per- son help himself or herself?
Harassment of any kind, for what ever reason, makes a person feel unworthy of living. In situations where a person feels he, or she, is being the recipient of discrimination or harassment because of their race, gender, sexual orien- tation, lies, and innuendo, begins to lose sleep at night, to not eat, wants to stay in bed, they might opt to go to sleep – permanently. When this happens the perpetrator wins. The victim’s family loses out, and more.
I recall that during my Teacher Training at the Institute one of the students, a foreign student had nervous breakdown and after a short spell in an asylum was returned to his country of origin. A British Asian student took his life because of the racism. He and I were the only two BAME students on the programme. The other foreign students were Commonwealth Bursars. The racism we encountered was unbelievable, and prompted me to publish an article in ”Feedback” – the in-house magazine. The director read the article, and came around all the lecture rooms enquiring who the author was. As he was about to leave ours, I stood up. He took me into his office and listened to everything I said. His reaction was: ”Not in MY University”. He vowed he would make changes, and he did.
I too was slighted, that was until I volunteered to sing at the Christmas Con- cert. I can see myself now, in a glittery white dress that I designed and made myself. Bell sleeves, a big cut out around the navel, an Auburn wig, and I did a Sandy Shaw – in bare feet. In the audience there were Mayors, the Rotari- ans and Inner Wheels. No more loneliness for me. An over supply of G and Ts, or Bacardi on the Rocks if I only entered the lounge.
We are approaching the end of the first quartile of the 21st century and, with another wave of COVID-19 descending upon us, we cannot continue in this vein. We don’t have to love one another, but we can at least embrace civility. We should treat people fairly and recognise the skills and knowledge that we all bring to the table.
Be accommodating, and do not go out of your way to make life uncomfort- able, for others. If a colleague falls, pick them up, don’t ignore him. Reach out and pull him up. Give him a chance.
MY SKIN IS FOR LIFE – NOT FOR LIKES!