The area of equality and diversity, is one that I have been interested in for the last two decades. Why are some people treated one way and others treated another way? This behaviour can be conscious or unconscious, sometimes based on the biases we have collected during our life experiences. Research has found that we have an ‘affinity bias’, where we like people that are the same or similar to us. When we have had a negative experience with a particular group; be it race, disability, gender, sexual orientation we can start to build prejudices against people due to one or a few negative experiences. Then we can start to label others from the same group in the same way. We feel more comfortable with people who share the same background, values and interests as we do. When we encounter difference it can feel a little uncomfortable and slightly harder work, so we can decide whether to make the effort to understand and get to know these people or keep life simple and stay with what we know. In groups we sometimes can exclude those people that are quieter, more introvert, look different, speak differently, the list is endless. Sometimes we do this to others consciously or unconsciously, and sometimes it happens to us. Needless to say we do not like it when it happens to us, but we can justify the way we treat others as acceptable.
I have been a member of the Division of Occupational Psychology Diversity and Inclusion at Work Group since it started around 2009 I think, where I have met some of the leading researchers and academics in the UK and internationally, discussing and exploring this area. Two weeks ago I attended an event at Queen Mary, University of London from ‘The Centre for Research in Equality & Diversity’ (CRED). They were celebrating their 10 year anniversary, with a special talk by Professor Myrtle Bell from the University of Texas, a diversity scholar in the field of human resource management. I valued her sharing her history with us and talking about her grandmother who was a slave. It was the first time I had seen somebody talk so openly about race and their history. I was privileged to be there to listen and hear first hand about race, slavery, America and what we can all do.
“If a person is seeking a job at a restaurant, their race might be used to determine whether they get a front-of-house job or a back-of-house job. It may even determine whether they should get a job at all.
“Research from the US has found that if you have a black sounding name, you have to send 50 per cent more resumes to get a positive response than an equally qualified person with a white sounding name. Most troubling of all, the research found that having a white sounding name was – for a black person – equivalent to having an additional eight years of employment experience.”
Myrtle also spoke about sex as a surface level characteristic that persists as a discriminatory factor in terms of hiring and placement decisions for low-skilled work.
“Imagine a person is looking for a job at a hotel. One might use their sex to determine whether this person gets a house-keeping job, or a valet job. These decisions affect the wage gap. A house-keeper cleans a lot of toilets; gets no tips. A valet – almost in exchange for releasing your luggage – gets a lot of tips. Why does this housekeeper have to be a housekeeper? If she can push a heavy vacuum cleaner, she can easily pull a piece of luggage. It’s not related to strength, but the way we think about men and women – we still think about them very, very differently.”
Myrtle said that while much valuable work has been done in the United States and Europe, there remains much to do if we are to eradicate racism. I was surprised to hear that there is no overall sexual discrimination legislation in the US. If you are gay or assumed to be gay you could loose your job. In this day and age from what they call a first world country, educated, with money it is surprising the legislation is stuck in the middle ages.
She gave us the analogy of diversity hats, for us to open our eyes and notice what is happening and work for change. She teaches students to get their diversity hat on, take responsibility, talk about the difference, include others and do not be afraid to ask questions.
Pete Jones a bias psychologist, alongside Tinu Cornish have put a factsheet on bias together. I remember Pete telling me the story of what he noticed while coming to London and doing work for the Metropolitan Police. He said it was striking how you notice all the street cleaners are mostly Black and most of the people in suits are White. You see this again when you notice people at the top of an organisation. Who is at the top of organisations? Mostly white men, where is the diversity? Where and when can you wear your diversity hat?
CRED asked delegates to write one word, on what does equality and diversity mean to them. A pretty difficult task, a variety of answers followed; my favourite was ‘don’t be an asshole’ and ‘thriving’. My response was a little boring, but I got two words in there ‘human-being’ If you want to see more go to twitter and use #CRED2015 #QMUL.
Last week I visited the exhibition by Marlene Dumas at Tate Modern, called ‘The Image as Burden’. Dumas grew up in South Africa during the time of apartheid. Her intense, psychologically charged works explore themes of sexuality, love, death and shame, often referencing art history, popular culture and current affairs.
‘Secondhand images’, she has said, ‘can generate first-hand emotions.’ Dumas never paints directly from life, yet life in all its complexity is right there on the canvas. Her subjects are drawn from both public and personal references and include her daughter and herself, as well as recognisable faces such as Amy Winehouse, Naomi Campbell, Princess Diana, even Osama bin Laden. The results are often intimate and at times controversial, where politics become erotic and portraits become political. She plays with the imagination of her viewers, their preconceptions and fears.
One of the images that struck me was duplicated twice side by side, one was white and one was black. The same picture, two different colours used. The colour of your race can impact your whole life and the choices available and how people perceive you and their reactions to you. At the end of the exhibition I visited the shop and saw a copy of the Spike Lee film ‘Do the Right Thing.’ This was one of the inspirations for her work. I went away and watched it and was surprised I had not seen it before in the 90’s. The film brings to life prejudice and racism, from all the different races and the consequences. Definitely one to watch!
And finally I want to bring to your attention another example, two nurses one white and one black. I spent a decade working in the NHS and it was during that time when I was working with Elizabeth Anionwu on ‘Ethnic Monitoring Training’ in 2003 that I became aware of Mary Seacole. Most people know about Florence Nightingale very little know about Mary Seacole who is buried in London in Kensal Green cemetery. One day I want to go and visit her graveside. She was a nurse, hotelier, boarding house keeper, author, and world traveller. Why is she not recognised for the contributions she made:
“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed the sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.” Sir William Howard Russell, War Correspondent The Times Newspaper, 1857
Travelling was Mary’s passion. In 1850 she travelled to Panama to visit her brother. When a cholera epidemic struck and the American doctor could not cope, Mary single-handedly tookover caring for the patients. Back in Jamaica, Mary looked after the victims of a yellow fever epidemic in 1853 and the British army asked her to provide nursing services at their headquarters at Up-Park Camp in Kingston. In 1853 war broke out in the Crimea and the following year at the age of 49, Mary travelled to London to offer her services to nurse soldiers alongside Florence Nightingale who had just left for Scutari. Despite her glowing references from senior medics in Jamaica and Panama her offer of help was rejected five times. Refusing to succumb to discrimination Mary raised the funds for her passage to the Crimea where in 1855 she set up the British Hotel, very close to the war zone. Here she provided soldiers with food and nursing care that included a morning dispensary.
She often rode out to the front line with ‘baskets of medicines of her own preparation’ to treat the sick and wounded of both sides on the battlefields. She acted as a surgeon as well as administering natural remedies.
The Mary Seacole statue, which almost certainly will be unveiled in the autumn of 2015, will be the first statue of a named black woman in the UK. It will stand 10 feet tall in a prime position outside St Thomas’ Hospital, directly opposite the Houses of Parliament. It will be seen by millions of people a year. If you want to find out more read Lisa Rodrigues blog, she talks about being an ambassador for the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal
To close, what is the new name for Equality & Diversity, is it Inclusion, what does that mean, is there another word? Can we stop changing names and start changing our attitudes, beliefs and biases?
How to find Mary Seacole’s Grave-
Here are some tips: Mary is buried in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, 679-681 Harrow Road, Kensal Green, London NW10 5NY. Nearest Tube Station is Kensal Green. Tel: 020 8969 1145. Office open 9-4.30pm – they have a fact sheet on Mary and are happy to direct to the grave. Mary Seacole’s grave number is 6830. To find her grave once at the main Cemetery, turn right into the Catholic Cemetery, carry on until you reach the chapel (on the right), turn left at the chapel and follow the path to the first crossroad, then turn right and walk a small way (look for graves numbered around 6829) and Mary’s grave is over to the right – it stands out from many of the others as it has a renovated headstone.