What's going on

June 2020

In 1971 Marvin Gaye released his seminal classic concept album ‘What’s Going On’, featuring a Vietnam veteran returning to America to witness, hatred suffering and injustice. It just seemed appropriate to use this amazing piece of music – a searing documentation of the struggles of people at the time as the title of this blog.

On May 25th 2020, something tragic happened in Minneapolis. As shocking as it was at the time, I had no idea that it would strike such a chord and resonate with so many people. Horrific as it is was to watch it wasn’t new. Spike Lee, the feature film director illustrated that fact in his ‘3 brothers’ short film – featuring the fictional character Radio Raheem from the film ‘Do The Right Thing’ (released 32 years ago) – followed by Eric Garner and then George Floyd. So as I said, this isn’t new. 

I have to be honest, I was more affected by the murder of Ahmaud Arbury, perhaps because it was so brazen, because it was so deliberate, killed in broad daylight and probably because initially no charges were brought until footage and a public outcry ensued.

So whilst the growth of demonstrations – and let’s be clear this is about peaceful protest not violence is heartening – as a black person it's also depressing, tiring and exhausting.

Blog illustration by R.Mbaziira.

To those who think this is about people protesting for a murdered American – it’s not. In the UK things can appear to be better, at least our police don’t carry guns. But from Grenfell, the Windrush deportations to ‘Stop and Search’, the amount of black people in the prison system (12% when they only comprise 3% of the population); or the 48% of under 18’s in custody from black or minority ethnic backgrounds – the list goes on. Whether you want to think about black people dying in custody while being deported, or as a result of being sectioned (which occurs to a disproportionate amount of black people) systemic racism is alive and well. Let alone who is responsible for its historical origins, the brilliant Afua Hirsh has written about that here.

I had a conversation with my wife recently about my own experiences of racism. I didn’t mention them all, in fact some I’d forgotten about until it became time to recall them. And here’s the thing, these moments, those cutting words, that unsettling feeling – they don’t leave you, they stay with you forever.

For sure it has changed, but this has been my reality since birth, trying to navigate the open hatred and vitriol as a child in 70’s Britain; I remember an incident from when I was about 9 years old. I was holding hands with a white girl coming out of school, it was all very innocent, then the girl’s mother saw us and said "That child is as black as the ace of spades", I think back now as a parent myself and just think wow! My daughter who is 9, last week changed her profile picture to the black lives matter logo. Truly the end of her innocence, at 9 years of age.

I was watching Clarke Peters the American Actor / Director on BBC Newsnight last week talk about the difference in racism between America and the UK and he's right that it's the subtle things, the micro-aggression's, the lack of voice, being othered consistently that can take their toll.

Now bringing this back to the world of work…

To the organisations and brands wishing to show support around this incredibly important social justice issue – please don't tweet or do social media. Organisations already embarked on their own diversity and inclusion journey would never do anything so crass and lacking in authenticity.

Don’t convene a diversity and inclusion meeting and invite your black or person of colour colleagues to speak and think by doing so we’ve cracked it, job done. Instead have some empathy for them and how they feel, to always be the minority. The need to constantly adapt and conform, to think about every word, action and reaction because of the professional consequences. The burden of constant judgement and its cumulative effect.

Then think about the times you’ve declined requests to look at the issue of Diversity stating that ‘we don’t have a problem’.

Consider instead why now? Is it the prevailing external mood that has made you think ‘We need to do something’?

The first thing you should do is stop and reflect. I know it seems a little underwhelming but this starts with you as an individual, and that’s the hard bit. To think about your bias and prejudice - we all have them and being aware of them is the key; then to think about your own role and the impact you have before starting to map out how that can be magnified by work, networks, family, social circle or ‘in-group’ and other areas of influence.

It sounds simple but really holding a mirror up to yourself, and being reflective is uncomfortable and difficult, it could lead to the end of relationships with certain people – but believe me its very necessary.

Sir Lenny Henry CBE, you know the famous black funny guy - has been campaigning for change in the media because it's one construct that reinforces or magnifies how people get their information, perceive their communities and the wider world. He said the following in a speech late last year:

“And I want to share a truth with you all today about talking about diversity in the media industry:

It is scary!

Doing the kind of speech I outlined earlier, quoting a few figures, saying that diversity is a good thing and everybody should be nice to one another – is easy.

But it doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t achieve anything.

Sir Lenny Henry CBE - Courtesy of Marcus Ryder blackonwhitetv.blogsot.com

As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words.

So if you really want to do something and I urge you to do so - then the following should guide your actions.

Ask the right questions – of yourself and the organisation your work for / lead. How could diversity make the organisation better suited to adapt and survive for the future? What is the real appetite for change in the organisation? What do your people expect of the leadership and the organisation?

Business case - Define inclusion and diversity priorities that are based on the business drivers for the organisation and those that will enable a successful business-growth strategy.

Call it out – everyone can play an immediate role in challenging unacceptable behaviours and language, be brave and be an ally to those in the minority both professionally and socially; in the real world and virtual version through social media.

Director blog

From time to time, I post a mixture of short form and longer reads here, it might be in connection to a project, a conversation or something that I’ve seen that’s moved me to share my thoughts. I hope you enjoy reading them.

I’m flying the flag for failure

A few weeks ago, I talked at an event about failure and the reason I’m writing about it now, (failure that is not the event), is because it struck me that we hardly ever do and certainly not in a positive light.


What's going on

In 1971 Marvin Gaye released his seminal classic concept album ‘What’s Going On’, featuring a Vietnam veteran returning to America to witness hatred suffering and injustice. It just seemed appropriate to use this amazing piece of music – a searing documentation of the struggles of people at the time as the title of this blog.


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