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As companies now scramble to hire more Black people, let’s remember how diversity quotas and BAME in

As businesses claim to be in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, more and more consumers are asking for evidence of their anti-racism efforts. For many this is measured with a number: the amount of Black workers that they hire. However, while inclusion is certainly important, representation is not the pillar of change. Across all industries, we are continuously reminded of the issues with diversity targets and BAME programmes.

The term ‘BAME’ is contentious to say the least. Instead of taking each group’s specific social context into account, all ethnic minorities are conflated under the same umbrella. This logic fails to factor in the varying rates of unemployment, prejudice and income amongst different ethnic groups. In 2018, Black people faced the highest unemployment rate across all ethnic minorities. Further, a 2019 study from Nuffield College, Oxford found that people of Nigerian, Middle Eastern and North African origin had to send 80% and 90% more job applications respectively before receiving a positive response, indicating a higher workplace bias against people from these backgrounds. Finally, according to a report by the Resolution Foundation in 2018, Black women had the largest pay gap of female graduates, earning £1.62 an hour (9%) less than their counterparts. This mindset which collapses of all ethnicities into an ‘Other’ category like ‘BAME’, neglects to acknowledge people’s varying experiences of discrimination, meaning that targeted solutions are rarely strategised.

Likewise, lurking within the assumption that hiring more diverse people will create a more diverse culture lives the expectation that Black people will shoulder the burden of injecting liberal ideas into the workplace. Instead of holding their current white employees accountable for their narrow-mindedness, businesses place this responsibility on their new recruits. This puts an incredible strain on Black employees who are often baited into hostile work environments and then forced to tirelessly defend themselves against microaggressions.

This can be observed by the recent revelations of writer and broadcaster, Afua Hirsch. Hirsch has shared several clips demonstrating how the UK media makes a sport out of exasperating its Black journalists. In one clip from a debate on The Pledge, Hirsch argues for the removal of racist statues. Upon hearing this argument, Hirsch’s colleague, Nick Ferrari, asks her “Why do you stay in this country if you take such offence when you see Nelson’s column?”. This is not the first time Hirsch experienced casual racism on television. During another debate on The Pledge about Danny Baker’s tweet which replaced the royal baby with a chimpanzee, Hirsch became upset with her fellow panelists’ victimisation of Baker. She poignantly proclaimed:

“I’m not interested in him, I’m worried about the millions of black people who regularly live this kind of abuse, and then have to be in spaces where everybody denies that it’s a problem… I’m living it right now in this conversation.”


In a former life, when I thought you cd politely persuade people not to be racist Their response? "If you don't like it here, LEAVE". Which I'm yet to hear said to a white British person Racism is telling black people who have a critique of their own country, they should leave pic.twitter.com/Dhx4G0yloP — Afua Hirsch (@afuahirsch) June 9, 2020

Source: @afuahirsch on Twitter June 9, 2020.

If such blatant instances of prejudice are broadcast on national television, it comes as no surprise that racial discrimination is ripe across all professions. A survey conducted by The Harris Poll found that 31% of employed adults in the UK have experienced or witnessed racism at work. Another survey by the University of Manchester, which had a greater number of ethnic minorities in its sample size, reported that over 70% of Asian and Black workers said they had experienced racial harassment at work in the last five years. Clearly, when the duty of encouraging tolerance is placed solely on Black employees, it is to the detriment of their mental and emotional wellbeing.

Furthermore, we must also question the likelihood of the workplace culture evolving if it continues to be ruled by white sensibilities. Here we might be reminded of Naga Munchetty, whose denouncement of Trump’s racism was met with criticism from the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit. Although this disciplinary action was eventually overturned, the reversal came only after 61 other broadcasters jumped to Munchetty’s defence. When asked if the BBC was systemically racist, reflecting on this experience, Munchetty remarked:

“Find me a large organisation, and find me an employee from a minority group who feels they are able to bring their true self to work today. I don’t think you’ll be able to.”

It is clearly unrealistic to expect Black employees to successfully convert the dominant workplace psyche when their feelings on the topic of discrimination are constantly policed and discredited by white managers and CEOs.

Also troubling is the potential for institutions to cite their BAME colleagues as evidence of their progress when in actual fact BAME workers also have the potential to regurgitate harmful traditionalist views. Speaking on the Black Lives Matter movement, Boris Johnson used the fact that “two of the four great offices of state [are] held by a man and a woman of Indian origin” as evidence of his government’s commitment to diversity. However, Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has recently been accused of using her own experiences with discrimination to silence Black people’s concerns. This again highlights the problem with the term ‘BAME’; it is premised on a naive notion of racial harmony which neglects to take into account instances of cross-discrimination between minority groups. Patel has indeed internalised a Conservative mindset as evidenced when she evoked racially-charged language in her denouncement of the actions of BLM protestors as “criminal…thuggery”.

Moreover, it is debatable whether the inclusion of POC in the corporate sphere should be the yardstick against which social progress is measured. So long as Black people have to appeal to capitalist structures, then certain socioeconomic groups will always be exploited for cheap labour and profit. For example, in this society’s narrow definition of diversity, a company could be hailed as progressive for its large Black workforce. However, behind closed doors, this same business could be relying on the labour of Black inmates who have been incarcerated in the United States at disproportionate rates. The company’s so-called ‘diversity’ in the UK is hence undone by their exploitative action overseas.

In the same vein, it is vital to question whether large companies can ever be truly committed to social change. If their justification is rooted in their economic performance, then their promotion of diversity will always be disingenuous and performative. For example, while the BBC’s ‘Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2016-20’ seems to be motivated by ethics, the corporation also works with the Creative Diversity Network on this issue. This organisation makes it clear on their website that their interest in diversity is mostly financial, centring on “efficiency”, “return”, “ratings” and “commissions”. This obvious commercial motivation should make us wary of any company’s dedication to social justice.

Source: The Creative Diversity Network website June 2020.

This is not an argument against BAME and diversity initiatives per se. Rather, this is a criticism of the UK’s over-reliance on these programmes. Simply hiring more Black people, and more POC in general, is not enough. The changes that ensue with the implementation of these programmes are mostly cosmetic; they do nothing to reform the deep structural inequalities on which these businesses are founded. Therefore, we should measure progress, not with a number, but with direct action. We need to hold companies accountable, and create an environment where Black workers are not just valued as tokens, but are truly treasured as people.

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