The recent outcry over the death of George Floyd caused me to revisit a blog piece that I wrote In January 2018, following the death of my childhood hero, Cyrille Regis. There’s something about it which still feels very relevant to me. I wrote in that piece that I was worried by coverage of Regis’ death which suggested “that racism was something ‘over there’ that was happening amongst other, less enlightened, people. It wasn’t ‘us’ who was racist; it was ‘them’ – older people, opposition fans, opposing players; whoever. But not us at any rate; and certainly not me. With the greatest respect… that is not my recollection of the 1970s and 80s at all.”
The death of George Floyd has unleashed wave of hurt and pain and anger across the globe, especially amongst the black community. Part of being a leader is showing leadership; and the issue that leaders are being asked to address right now is how we can create diverse organisations in which everyone feels valued equally; organisations that contribute towards a fairer and less racist society. In the battle against racism people are being asked which side of history they are on, and, of course, everybody wants to assure us that they are on the side of the angels. In this binary logic there are good people and there are bad people and it is important to show everyone that you are a good person. One way of doing this is to denounce the bad people, so we are encouraged to jump on social media bandwagons and to engage in the kind of moral showboating designed to signal our virtue to the watching crowd.
My experience of racism in the 1970s and 1980s makes me uncomfortable doing this. Because, being honest, I don’t feel like one of the good guys. The reality was Albion fans hurled as much abuse at Cyrille Regis (and the other black players in the West Brom team) as opposition fans did if they weren’t having a good game. I was on the terraces and I heard it. And I did nothing. As I wrote in 2018, “In the 1970s I was young white working class boy growing up in Handsworth, Birmingham, about a mile and a half from the Albion ground. At that time Handsworth was undergoing significant change as large numbers of immigrants from the Caribbean and south Asia moved into the area… During that period economic challenges meant that factories began to close or lay people off, and unemployment began to rise. The notion that immigrants were simply being brought in to do the jobs that “we” didn’t want to do became unsustainable – now immigrants were competing directly with the white population for the few jobs that were available. And many of us resented that. We were fearful of what was happening to our community and we were worried about our future economic welfare. Society seemed to falling apart, and all the old markers of white working class identity began to be stripped away… So I do not recall the racist abuse of the 1970s and 80s with the kind of bemused bewilderment that many journalists seem to. The idea that ‘all right-thinking people’ viewed it as an abhorrence simply does not chime with my memory… Racism was not something ‘over there’, being carried out by other, less enlightened people. It was us. We were the racists. I was not the solution – I was emphatically part of the problem.”
As a consequence, I don’t really feel qualified to lecture anyone about how dreadful they are and how much more like me they need to become. Indeed, if you’re looking for a role model for how to respond wisely to rapid demographic change I’d politely encourage you to look elsewhere. I am sure that I am not alone in feeling inadequate for that task.
Looking back, I think our fearfulness overwhelmed any sense we had of hope in the future. It seems to me that our views were primarily driven by a fear that things which we held dear were being lost and we were ceding control over social space to people over whom we had little influence. So, I’m not sure that the ‘good guys vs bad guys’ dynamic is very helpful because most people don’t feel themselves to be motivated by the kind direct racial hatred they associate with being a ‘bad guy’. This might help explain why racism seems so painfully difficult to eradicate despite the fact that virtually everyone says that they’re against it.
But this is not to engage in a counsel of despair. Here at YMCA Heart of England we work in some of the most diverse communities in the country. I am proud to have built up a strong and diverse team, including a diverse senior team, over the past fifteen years. Our Executive Leadership Team are 50/50 white/non-white and 50/50 male/female; our senior management team are 50/50 white-British/non white-British, and over 60% are female; 30% of our trustees are non-white. Are we perfectly equal? No. Is there nothing that we could do to improve our representativeness? Of course not (only 40% of trustees are female, for instance). But our diversity means that when we have conversations about equality and racism there are people in positions of authority able to speak with authenticity. All the decisions that are taken are taken by a mix of different types of people. This affects how staff and service users perceive us and how they perceive the ability/willingness of the organisation to respond meaningfully to calls for change. So rather than leap to defend our record when issues of diversity hit the headlines, we can point to real differences that our diversity is making now.
I think my upbringing makes me a natural ‘incrementalist’ rather than a radical revolutionary, but if I’ve learnt anything at all over the past decade-and-a-half about creating a more equal and diverse organisation it is that there really is no substitute for being intentional about it. It’s absolutely not about appointing people who aren’t the best person for the job, but it is about recognising our own unconscious biases (those deep-seated fears that draw us towards ‘people like us’) when considering what ‘the best person for the job’ actually means. Does it mean someone who thinks like me? Does it mean someone who won’t challenge me? Does it mean someone who won’t start raising ‘difficult’ issues that I consider peripheral? Because if it does, then we’re unlikely to see improvements in diversity.
Often I hear leaders complain about the difficulties of recruiting high-quality BAME people to senior positions, but my experience has been that once you start to get a broader range of people into senior positions it actually becomes easier. The issue is not with BAME people’s abilities, but with their experience of trying to rise up the ladder. Once they see other BAME people in decision-making positions it feels like they might have better chance of a fair hearing at interview. That is what changes organisations and makes change meaningful.
That’s why making the first step is so important. Because would I be doing this if it wasn’t for people around me for whom the issue is very personal challenging me on this? Honestly? Probably not. Not because I’m a bad person because I’m a limited person. I’m limited by my own experiences and horizons – just like everyone else. Other people can help extend my limits by exposing me to their experiences and horizons. This exposure is crucial because alone we are all diminished. I have come to care about equality and diversity in this organisation, not because I have been sent on an equality and diversity course, but because I am living and working alongside people for whom the wounds of racial inequality and injustice are often very personal. I have come to respect and care about these people and when I see them in pain, it bothers me. I feel compelled to do what I can to try and make things better.
We are still not perfect, but we are better than we were. And we’re better because in our slow and faltering way each of us has tried to make a positive contribution. Sometimes they work out, and sometimes we get things wrong and need to ask for forgiveness. So ultimately, I don’t see this as a ‘good guys vs bad guys’ battle, but as a battle in which we are all flawed, but some of us recognise our need for grace.
Alan Fraser is Group Chief Executive of YMCA Heart of England.