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One more hire won’t fix your diversity problem

After Black Lives Matter, companies promised to better represent the communities they serve. Here’s how to avoid it just being empty rhetoric.

Rachel Charlton-Dailey
18 December 2020, 12.51pm
The media is still dominated by White men.

I’m a disabled freelance journalist, so when I started seeing job vacancies for writers and editors to cover ‘diversity’ as a beat, I was excited. But I’ve quickly become skeptical.

Instead of looking for writers who could cover specific experiences of the world, most outlets seemed to want just one person to write about the wide spectrum of ‘diversity’. It’s as if there there are two kinds of people: straight, white, cis, middle-class English men who aren’t disabled – and the rest of us, who are ‘diverse’.

Recently, I came across a posting for a writer who could cover “POC issues, indigenous issues, disability, sexuality, religion, gender, trans issues, black lives matter”. They were looking for just one writer.

It’s not just the media. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, more companies are scrambling to fix their diversity problem. Companies in all sectors are attempting to hire someone who might just say something different, which is welcome. But there’s a problem.

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I am disabled, bisexual, Wiccan, non-binary, from a working-class background and have lived in poverty. I can talk about issues that affect me and people like me. But I can’t speak for all people who have the same issues as me. Even if someone had the exact same medical history as me, or grew up in the same place as me, at the same class level, I could not speak for them and would never want to.

When asked to write about my communities I always seek comments from others who live with different circumstances to mine, as I couldn’t possibly portray the whole spectrum. I’m just one person. If I was to take on the role of ‘diversity editor’, I couldn’t be expected to know personally about issues that I hadn’t experienced. I could learn about them, from reading or talking to people, but I couldn’t speak as a member of that community.

This, of course, is the basic journalistic process of cultivating a beat. but if I were to become a ‘diversity correspondent’, what would that mean in practice? It would be reporting on the entire life experiences of everyone who’s been put in that box labelled ‘diverse’ – which, it turns out, is most of humanity. And so what would my beat be? The vast majority of the human experience?

Faced with this impossible task, it would be too easy to fall back into covering the narrow set of concerns which those with power – too often those cis White men – think count as ‘diversity’ issues. It’s OK to talk about gender if it’s about childbirth, but less so workers’ rights. It’s OK to talk about racism in the justice system, but what about people of colour’s experiences of healthcare, education, or working in newsrooms?

Get on board

We all have our own stories, so companies shouldn't be expecting one hire to fix their systemic problems. We need to ensure that there are more people from under-represented groups hired at all levels and given the tools to reach that point in life. We can’t expect someone who is told from a young age that they can’t aspire to greatness to reach it.

There are a number of ways to try and change the monochrome, monotone nature of so many of our institutions.

Let’s start with the top. Almost half (47) of the FTSE 100 companies have boards and executive committees with no people of colour on them. In total, there were only ten people of colour in the role of chair, chief executive or finance chief. CEOs are more likely to be called Stephen than they are to be a woman. Only two FTSE 100 companies mention LGBT+ role models in their annual reports.

And the British media is no exception. A study in 2016 found that just 0.4% of British journalists are Muslim and only 0.2% are Black, while nearly 5% of the UK population is Muslim and 3% is Black. When different researchers spent a week this July assessing the front pages of every major newspaper in Britain, not a single journalist of colour has a frontpage story, and only one in four bylines went to women.

Which shouldn’t surprise us: the five oligarchs who own most of our newspapers are White men. 50% of the combined revenue of Britain’s national newspapers goes to the Daily Mail Group and Newscorp between them. A quick glance at the makeup of their leadership teams tells a powerful story. The leaders of the five companies which own 80% of our local newspapers paint a similar picture. And the situation isn't much different in the US, Brazil or Germany. In both the UK and Germany, the Reuters Institute found that the percentage of the population which reads news on sites with a senior editor of colour was 0%.

But changes at the summit of vastly unequal power structures won’t do much on their own. Obama becoming president didn’t stop police in the US from killing Black people.

Organisations can look at their hiring practices as a whole. If companies want to make a true commitment to diversity, they can’t expect to do it with just one person. They need to hire a wide range of people for every kind of job. If they don’t hear from qualified applicants from different backgrounds, then they need to to find out why, and do something about it. Companies need to educate their privileged staff and weed out those who aren’t on board.

There are also things you can do, wherever you’re working. What questions have you asked about diversity in the organisations and movements you’re involved in? Were the people affected by something you work on consulted about it? If they were consulted, were they paid for their time and energy?

You can ask if an event, or an organisation as a whole, has been made accessible to all, or if you’re asking the right people to be ambassadors for your project. It’s equally important to listen to people from marginalised groups when they tell you something isn’t right, and take the time to educate yourself. Do you still do this when the things they tell you upset you, or when they make you feel attacked and defensive?

Lose the fear

Long term, a few more people getting jobs in the current system won’t fix it. Those of us who are currently excluded shouldn’t have to slot into the old patriarchal, ableist, racist structures that have held us down. But to transform that requires collective organising: change in the way our workplaces work will come from below, not above.

It’s not enough for an organisation to perform diversity. If that organisation isn’t really committed to equality, or to contributing anything good to society, then we need to be asking: what do they contribute to instead, and are we going to allow it to continue?

It may seem uncomfortable but our fear of being “uncomfortable” is what allows injustice to prosper. We need to be holding those who have misused their power accountable, by asking difficult questions and not allowing ‘diversity’ to be abandoned when it stops trending.

And those of us who work in the media have a special responsibility. It’s our job to challenge power. So if we can’t even do that in our own institutions, we have a real problem.

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