Let’s Talk About Race. A blog for Race Equality Week

Featured article - 07 February 2022
By Kathryn Smith, SCIE Chief Executive

Kathryn Smith, SCIE Chief Executive

In the words of Nelson Mandela “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background or his religion. People learn to hate and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite”. I firmly believe in these words and those that say you are a product of your environment. I was brought up in a pretty multicultural world I think and whilst I recognised that people where different it was never the basis of the relationships I formed with people. One of my closest friends as a child; Isma, a young Asian girl, lived next door to me and we played together all day in each other’s houses. We lived in a multi-cultural area, my mum was a childminder and both her and all of her childminder friends looked after children from various backgrounds, and our own babysitters were diverse too. I don’t think I’d ever heard the word racism or understood what it meant in my junior school years, it was certainly never talked about.

Although, I do remember my grandad who came over to Bradford from Ireland in the 1950’s telling me, when he first came to England there were signs on the pub doors saying ‘No Black’s, No Irish, No Dogs’. I don’t think I understood the significance of that at the time though it stayed with me, I still find it shocking that that was legal! Me and my friends used to tell jokes all the time, and ‘The Englishman, Irishman and Scottish man’ jokes were our favourites. I’m still slightly perplexed that we used to tell these jokes (that were always derogatory to the Irish man) to my grandad or in front of him yet we were never admonished. He isn’t here to ask now but I wonder if he’d just got so used to the jibes and racism he didn’t bother to challenge it.

I remember years later when my son was 6, he had been best friend’s with Bradley, a black boy whose family were from French Guiana, from 3 years old. I used to walk home from school with his nana as we lived close together, and the two boys spent nearly all of their time in each other’s houses. I’d taken the children out one day, to a wacky warehouse type of place, we’d had a great morning and I was just taking them to a small café for lunch. As we walked in the owner looked at us and said she was sorry but they were full. I was quite surprised as they didn’t look full but I didn’t question it I just left. Outside while we were stood thinking of somewhere else to go, another family (all white) went into the café and were immediately seated. I pondered out loud to myself how come they had room for that family but not us! Bradley replied ‘that happens to my mum all the time, she says it’s because we have beautiful dark skin and they’re jealous’. I cried! I walked back into the café (leaving the children outside I’m afraid) and told the owner in no uncertain terms what I thought of her. I didn’t repeat the story to Bradley’s mum because in all honesty I didn’t know what to say – it’s an awkward sensitive subject that I know many people struggle with how to address as they’re scared of saying the wrong thing.

But not talking about it means we hide the issue, to people like me who might not have seen or experienced racism throughout their lives, it can leave people believing it doesn’t happen, or can minimise the effects or the magnitude. I believe we need to be able to talk about it and we also need permission to ask questions where we might get it wrong and can be put on the right track. What I know now is that the experience I had with Bradley, is not uncommon for many people from Black or Ethnic Minority backgrounds. We must talk about it and we must actively work to eradicate racism.

SCIE are committing to make a Big Promise this Race Equality Week so that this isn’t just about one week but about action leading to lasting change. One of my personal promises is to keep talking about it and to endeavour to make sure our organisation is a safe place for colleagues to share their experiences. I will look for a reverse mentor who can help me to make sure I get this right, and I will offer to mentor black or ethnic minority colleagues where my experience might help their career path.

I shouldn’t be proud that my sons remain inclusive without even thinking about it, as that should be the societal norm. But it’s not so I am. I’m reminded of my great grandma who told me and my sisters when we were teenagers that we wouldn’t be allowed a black boyfriend in her house. She was at least embarrassed when we challenged her, but that was unfortunately a common view in her day. My eldest is at university now and his friendship group is still very diverse, but this is not worthy of comment to him. He turned up at my house with 6 friends to all stay over before Christmas, it didn’t even occur to him to mention their ethnicity as it is such a non issue to him. I am of course conscious that I noticed the diversity of his friendship group whereas I wouldn’t have done in my youth.

As a white person, I think awareness of racism leads you to constantly check and challenge yourself, who are you surrounding yourself with and who is in the room. It makes me think of a quote I heard recently ‘What gets designed is created by those in the room when you do the designing!’. How can we benefit from the diverse experience, creativity and culture to make our organisations more productive and forward thinking, to really serve the whole population we are here to serve, if we don’t remove the barriers to having truly multi-racial and diverse leadership and organisations?

I’m not sure if my aspiration is the right one, but to me, success would be when the awareness of race equality is not reduced to one week in 52 weeks of the year – but until then though I will continue to be an ally, to learn and improve, and I will lead my organisation to make our promises and stick to them. I promise!

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