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Box-ticking in the workplace: A BAME dilemma

07 Aug 2017

As one of the few non-white faces in a starkly non-diverse industry, I’m obviously passionate about the need to encourage diversity and increase the number of employees from BAME backgrounds. A study last year found that British journalism is 94% white and there was no black or ethnic minority talent in the top 20 of the BBC’s highest earners for this year. Black and Asian people are chronically underrepresented in the media, and the hierarchies of power seem even more impenetrable when you can’t see yourself reflected anywhere within the system.

I’ve managed to get a foot partway in the door, and I desperately want loads more of us in here to permanently wedge it wide open. So why, then, do I feel uncomfortable when faced with the opportunity to do just that? To encourage young BAME people to do what I do? It has something to do with the nagging suspicion that I’m being used.

When a group of students from an inner city college comes to your office for a tour and you’re hauled up to give them a rousing pep-talk, you probably hear that little voice in your head. The one that tells you you’re not being chosen to speak to them because you’re vibrant and great at your job, but because you look like them. And you might be the only person in your office who looks like them. And there’s a falsity in that. Standing in front of 20 gawping teenagers, singing the praises of your profession, a physical embodiment of the diversity and varied representation they can expect in this line of work – except they won’t unless they’re on shift with you or one of the three other BAME employees on your team.

“It feels like a deception. As though we’ve been conspicuously placed in the limelight to sell a falsified image”

It feels like a deception. As though we’ve been conspicuously placed in the limelight to sell a falsified image. And it isn’t only the depiction of the industry that’s false, it’s the depiction of the self. Often, when wheeled out to do these BAME appearances, I’m conscious of the constructed version of myself that I’m portraying. I went to a grammar school, I’ve done an MA, my parents work in a similar industry to me, so parading me as an example of inclusivity is pretty nonsensical. Aside from also having a brown face, there’s not really anything that links me to these aspiring college kids from south London.

The not-so-surprising absence of black talent in the BBC’s recent rich list highlights the utter lack of minority voices at senior levels of the media. So where are they? All these diverse interns, trainees and apprentices from low-income households, state schools and non-elite backgrounds? The latest figures from the Beeb suggest that despite some of them finally making it through the door, BAME employees still aren’t making it anywhere near the top floor.

This is not an issue limited to the BBC, or to the media. The BBC’s race gap is a microcosm of what is happening in every major industry and institution in the country. So when we’re asked to stand up and sell an image of an organisation based on diversity and accessibility, it’s a lie.

“Maybe this is why those interns, trainees and apprentices aren’t making it to the next level. Maybe you need to be better at diluting your ethnicity”

But if it helps to encourage more BAME employees to feel as though they could belong in an industry, to show in some small way that workplace diversity is possible and positive, does it matter? Do the ends justify the means? How do you reconcile being complicit in deception with the need for change?

It’s a fine, and confusing, line to walk. A huge part of me is desperate to champion any and all BAME issues; sit on panels, lead talks, be rolled out at high-profile events to show 16-year-olds that we do belong here and we can thrive here. But another part of me begrudges the falseness of it, and it’s a huge personal struggle to grapple with the tokenism.

The hardest thing to accept is that much of this struggle comes down to ego. It’s tough to contemplate the idea that you may not have made it to your position purely on talent. A friend told me that at the final interview for his Masters course he was told: “It’s really great that you’re Asian too.” When you’ve worked like mad for something the last thing you want to hear is that any part of your achievement is down to your race.

What’s most worrying to me is the idea that my upbringing and education probably make me a “palatable” level of black – I can be the face of diversity when I need to, but in so many other ways I resemble my white colleagues enough to “pass”. Maybe this is why those interns, trainees and apprentices aren’t making it to the next level. Maybe you have to be better at diluting your ethnicity. 

It’s maddening to feel as though you’re the face of something, without having a voice. But until we start to see more faces like ours infiltrating at senior level, perhaps the best thing to do is use what we have until our voices are loud enough to actually be heard. As painful as it may be to swallow, maybe using your tokenism is worth the ego-hit if it will help open the door for others.

In the short-term, maybe it does help to get more black people, more Asian people, more women represented and visible in the workplace. But let’s not get it twisted. Box ticking is a symptom, not a solution. Genuine representation is only going to be borne from providing real opportunities, not through a symbolic display of sham diversity.