Reflections from the House of Lords Race Debate
On 9 June, the CSA team observed a debate held at the House of Lords by YDWC on the motion:
This House believes that race significantly impacts meritocratic progression within modern Britain.
Both teams did such a fantastic job debating for and against the motion. The team for the motion put forward many compelling statistics for why they believed that race significant impacts meritocratic progression within modern Britain. The team against the motion argued that for the motion to stand, it needs to be proven that a meritocracy exists in the first place, and if it does, it is proven that race, and not other factors such as social class, which significantly impacts meritocratic progression.
Zoe, Liz, Lizzie and Leng from the CSA team share their individual reflections:
Liz: The teams put forward arguments in the binary – either race or class significantly impacts meritocratic progression within modern Britain. For me, it is interesting that the Sewell report commissioned by the government (issued in March 2021) takes a similar approach, arguing that other factors such as “geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism”. The Sewell Report cites the GEMM study1 which found that “to receive a call-back, people with ethnic minority names had to write 1.6 letters for every 1 written by someone with a majority name”. However, the report goes on to caution that “while these application tests show discrimination against names that are recognised as not being traditionally British, it is unclear if this effect is about race, class or perceived foreign culture.”
Why are we so uncomfortable as a nation to acknowledge that our existing biases and systems mean that there are still inequities faced by those with an ethnic minority background? We can much more comfortably accept this when it comes to gender and other diversity characteristics.
How is it possible to separate factors such as class or “perceived foreign culture” from an individual’s race and ethnicity and not take an intersectional approach? Of course, race and class intersects when looking at meritocratic progression in the context of thelegacy of the British Empire, our class and institutional systems and the relatively recent progress in race opportunities and relations in Britain. If “perceived foreign culture” could play a part in biases that exist during the recruitment process – how could anyone, especially someone of an ethnic minority, not connect that in some way to their race?
My personal experiences are set against a backdrop of privilege – both my parents had access to higher education in Hong Kong and they were able to put me through private education and a university degree abroad in London. My parents wanted to ensure the best opportunities were available to me – growing up in an ex-British colony, this meant I was christened with a “traditionally British” name at birth and I went to an international school where I could obtain GCSEs and A Levels. I could therefore recite The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock (but not a single piece of Chinese literature).
Leaving the race debate and having read the Sewell Report last year, reflecting on my personal experiences confirmed to me that all those factors are inexplicably linked and play a part in meritocratic progression in modern Britain. I have been provided with opportunities to thrive and succeed as despite not having grown up in Britain, my name, education background and cultural references are “traditionally British”. My access to education and my fluent English enabled me to learn and adapt to majority culture during my first job as a lawyer in a Magic Circle law-firm. All of this enabled me to “fit in” and not appear “foreign”.
I can’t speak on behalf of everyone from an ethnic minority background – we all have distinct experiences of meritocratic progression based on our different backgrounds and access. Based on the amount of research, data and stories in the public domain, many will have felt (and still feel) the impact of their race on meritocratic progression much more starkly than I have. But it’s time we start having constructive conversations when eliminating inequities that take into account individuals’ intersectional experiences and acknowledge that for many who feel the brunt of current inequities, it is incredibly difficult to isolate the many strands that make up our identity.
Leng: I found the debate very engaging and thought-provoking. In addition to this, it still left me with a fire and passion to continue doing more, especially from hearing the experiences of other people whilst looking at the agency or responsibility I would have in particular situations.
It was great that certain people were sharing opinions that went against the grain. Being in a ‘nice’ space or a sense that maybe we shouldn’t rock the boat is one of the main reasons that inequalities still exist. If we are in a place of privilege or part of a system that does systemically discriminate it’s a truth and a reality that many people are experiencing and I feel it’s important not to turn a blind eye to it.
This is the responsibility for those of us who work in DE&I. It isn’t an easy job and quite frequently it is exhausting. Often, you are processing your own trauma and alsolistening to other people’s experiences of trauma or facing data showing that there isn’t that happy story or diverse picture we would like our workplaces and society to be. In many cases, our workplaces aren’t matching what’s being shown on the recruitment pages.
Despite being expected to be responsible for creating safer workplaces or ones that people can thrive and succeed in, I think what holds us all back is fear and a lack of wanting to really call things for what they are in some instances.
To lead in DE&I you don’t always need to have lived experience, but you do need to ensure that you are comfortable with being uncomfortable and we all have differing levels of privilege which may sometimes make us feel defensive or reluctant to occupy space. Therefore we sometimes default to wanting to provide comfort for ourselves and others, but at a cost of not creating the right actions that will build the very equity, we hope for.
Based on my lived experiences, I can appreciate that things aren’t always fair for people that are deemed a minority and with racism, I feel there is still a lot of fragility around how it’s discussed. I learned that very consciously in 2020 but prior to that, I’ve seen it in place all of my life.
My experience is that White people don’t like to talk about racism and people of ethnic minority backgrounds are expected to downplay it. I may look White but I have Caribbean/Asian racial heritage and where I haven’t necessarily experienced racism, I’ve witnessed it. The first step to stopping racist behaviours and language is for us to acknowledge it is happening (and not pretend it’s not there).
There is more work to do. According to Green Park’s Business Leaders Index (2021), “while the numbers of most other minority ethnic groups in these top positions have increased by a small amount since its first report in 2014, the number of black leaders at FTSE 100 companies has stalled and then dropped to zero… The prospects for future increases in black representation at the highest levels of British business also look slim, with numbers in the leadership pipeline decreasing over the past year from 1.4% to 0.9%.”
We all need to rock the boat and not be anchored by an awkward ignorance.
Zoe: Existing as a Black woman inherently places you at the crossroads of two intersecting marginalised identities, both of which are constantly under the microscope of politicisation. This means that as a Black woman you may be held to a higher standard of professionalism in the workplace when you are constantly being compared to gendered and racial stereotypes. This level of scrutiny is something many minorities face and because of this often feel that they need to work harder to negate away from such bias.
As a minority its common to internalise the idea of having to work harder than others to “make it” and growing up I always thought that to mean physically working harder but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realise that for many its not just putting in that extra time at work but it’s also working whilst dealing with concepts such as code-switching, lack of representation and racial burnout. This all adds to the phycological effects of having to assimilate beyond corporate ideals to meet a western Eurocentric society. But what does that do to our individual sense of self?
During the debate, panellist Maria Onyango (DEI Recruiter for Meta) spoke about her experiences as a Black woman. She discussed the consequences of conforming to Eurocentric aesthetic ideals in the workplace, which undermines professionalism. Maria spoke of recognising her privileges of having lighter skin, western education and a British upbringing that contributed to her experience of her Black female identity in the UK. I often reflect on having such experiences myself, and what this has meant for my experience compared to those of my friends and family who may have had to deal with aesthetic and cultural bias in a society that is still rooted in colourism, texturism and linguistic racism.
Maria discussed her early career and the effects of being a model minority, which led to her straightening her natural hair and working in environments where she was clearly the tokenistic option for diversity hiring. Having to adapt in such ways takes a physical toll on Black women, who ‘often feel compelled to present to the world a different self or an image they perceive will be more acceptable to others’ a phenomenon known as "identity shifting" (Jones and Shorter-Gooden 2004). As a result, Black women often find that they are ‘shifting’ their identities to conform to professional and dominant cultural values within the workplace to align to those who don’t identify as being Black or a woman (Dickens and Chavez 2017).
Since progressing in her career Maria reflected on how she has come to embrace her natural hair texture in the workplace and uses her position to ensure that diversity and representation are at the forefront of hiring processes. Hearing her inspiring perspective of acceptance highlighted the importance of having such representation in corporate recruiting. However, I couldn’t help but reflect on the idea of racial burnout. Minorities often endure heavy phycological labour to get to these places of acceptance both internally and externally. As inspiring as it was to be in a room where I felt like a majority with Black speakers and listeners, I couldn’t help but think how many of us have to face the burden of championing racial justice alone without the support of external communities and allies. Support from those who have the means to bring these conversations and issues to wider spaces is vital for real change to be made.
Real change starts with recognizing privilege and using what comes with it to support those who may not have to advantages to do so.
Lizzie: It’s not often as a white person in the UK that you find yourself the racial minority in a room. Sure, I have been the only woman in the room before (and that’s not without its issues), but I’m hardly ever in a situation where I am not the racial majority.
Whilst this offers a very small window into what actively being aware of your race can feel like, I actually want to reflect more on the disappointment I felt of being in such a small minority at the debate.
The debate we attended was centred around race and ethnicity, and whether one’s race has an impact on their meritocratic progression within the UK. The debate touched on a number of structural barriers that people from underrepresented backgrounds face which directly hinders their ability to progress meritocratically. One element that the debate touched on was bias and subtle acts of discrimination (sometimes referred to as microaggressions).
Looking round the room, I saw nodding and affirmative gestures from people when elements of discrimination were touched upon. Elements that I will never, ever face as a white person in the UK.
During the Q&A, stories were shared by members of the audience where aspects of the debate resonated with them personally. One audience member shared that despite her doctorate, she still believes her race hinders her meritocratic progression within the UK. This is backed up by research by Zwysen and Longhi, professors at The University of Essex (2016)* which suggests that despite equal (or a higher level of) attainment of qualifications between graduates of racial minority backgrounds and their white counterparts, those from underrepresented backgrounds find it more challenging to gain similar positions within the labour market.
The debate closed with over 80% of the room agreeing that race has a direct impact on one’s meritocratic progression within the UK. This suggests to me that it wasn’t those in the room that needed convincing, or needed to hear this debate.
Another audience member plainly asked: where are the white people?
Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting that I am somehow the best ally there ever was because I attended the debate and got an awful lot from it. That is the bear minimum and I will be the first to admit that I do not attend educational events like this enough (something I want to change). However, I do want to take this opportunity to remind my fellow white peers that allyship goes beyond reading about anti-racism, beyond posting links and resources on social media, and beyond just saying ‘I’m an ally’. We have to do better.
We need to show up, listen, learn, and then we need to act in whatever way we can.
We won’t always get it right, and there will always be more we can do. But we have to show up.
Jones, C., & Shorter-Gooden, K. (2004). Shifting: The doubles lives of Black women. New York: Harper Perennial.
Dickens, D.D. and Chavez, E.L. (2017). Navigating the Workplace: The Costs and Benefits of Shifting Identities at Work among Early Career U.S. Black Women. Sex Roles, 78(11-12)
Friday, 22 July, 2022
- World Youth Skills Day: An Interview With Sophie from Conscious Youth C.I.C Saturday, 15 July, 2023
- From Tokenism to True Colours: How to hone authentic support for the LGBTQIA+ Community in the Workplace Thursday, 22 June, 2023
- Mental Health Awareness Week Monday, 15 May, 2023
- Reflecting On Men’s Role In DEI Tuesday, 29 November, 2022
- National Braille Week: “I’m struggling with my eyesight at work” Friday, 7 October, 2022
- The power of recognising colleagues & experiences Thursday, 22 September, 2022
- Leaving with Dignity Wednesday, 27 July, 2022
- Reflections from the House of Lords Race Debate Friday, 22 July, 2022
- Improving Transgender equity in the workplace UK Thursday, 16 June, 2022
- International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia 2022 Tuesday, 17 May, 2022