The Black Lives Matter movement provided the necessary backdrop to frame this conversation. George Floyd’s death brought all the difficult topics to the forefront, while the Amy Cooper incident captured the essence of white privilege. Delving into issues around racial imbalances can take many forms and come from a range of perspectives. It was in that diversity that this discussion laid plain the depth of problems surrounding it. At the same time, it became clear that there is no single remedial approach as these issues permeate different parts of society in various forms.
The distinguished panel of guests and their personal experiences reflected the complexities and nuances of the problem at hand. Brian Corr, Executive Consultant at Financial Services Compensation Scheme, directed the conversation, acknowledging his position of privileged as a white, heterosexual man. He was supported by scholar and psychologist Dr Doyin Atewologun. Speakers included Afua Hirsch – journalist and broadcaster documenting colonial history; Phyll Opoku-Gyimah – executive director and co-founder of UK Black Pride; Stephen Lue – barrister and Duke of Edinburgh LGBTQ+ mentor; and Alwin Swales – partner at PwC, where he leads the company’s Colour Brave initiative.
The panelists explained lasting change will be derived from everyone across the ethnicity spectrum engaging deeply with all elements that antagonise racial division. Brian and Dr Doyin led an exercise defining commonly used terms like microaggression and white fragility to help the audience understand the subtleties in difference around parlance, while Afua Hirsch highlighted the wider gaps in knowledge – like colonial history – where there is a demonstrable lack of engagement.
It is those events that shaped the backgrounds of the panelists and defined their relationship with race. Alwin described his upbringing in Apartheid-era South Africa as being caught between not being either black enough – where it prevented him from obtaining bursaries, nor white enough – which hindered his job prospects. He was told he was “A different kind of coloured – you’re not like them” and Afua explained growing up in a majority-white area she was forced to “downplay her differences.” Dealing with this is a daily occurrence and Phyll simply said that confronting racism so often is exhausting, irrespective of the form it takes.
Such torment outlined the disparity in value the panelists place on themselves and what society lowers them down to. Stephen, a well-spoken and educated gay man, was told by a friend he would not be considered middle class because he is not white, while simultaneously is expected to be cleverer than his black colleagues because he is a quarter Chinese. It is within the blurred lines of these labels that Alwin had to navigate to establish his identity when he moved to the UK, describing himself as a “chameleon”. Realising it was to the detriment of his individuality, it had to end.
Battling the ignorance is a united effort, and as Phyll noted this solidarity is most meaningful when you loosen your grip on privilege to empower others. After all, as Afua commented, “‘The ideology [of racism] is unsustainable, it cannot withstand its own facts.”