Sun | Jan 23, 2022

EDI and the hoodwinking power of language

Published:Saturday | January 15, 2022 | 12:07 AMProfessor Gus John/Guest Columnist
Britain’s Valerie Amos.
Britain’s Valerie Amos.
Augustine John
Augustine John
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It has become fashionable to scour the Queen’s honours list to see what percentage of those nominated to receive gongs are from BAME (Black Asian & Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. This January, it was 15.1 per cent of a total of 1,122, reportedly the highest number to date.

Particular attention has been paid to Baroness Valerie Amos, who becomes the first black person in 700 years to be appointed a member of the Order of the Garter, England’s oldest and most senior order of chivalry. The appointment is given to up to 24 “knight and lady companions”.

The ceremonial order, founded in 1348, is a recognition of significant public service, made as the personal gift of the monarch. Companions remain so for life. Also receiving that honour are former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall and wife of Prince Charles.

Amos has a history with Blair in that she was parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office between 2001 and 2003, and also held the office of secretary of state for international development in 2003. In that capacity, she visited a number of African heads of state on behalf of the Blair government, drumming up support for the Iraq War.

There are those who see Amos’ appointment as a lady companion not just as her personal achievement, but as representing the entire African diaspora. The subtext is that it is an achievement of which we should all be proud.

Such is the hoodwinking power of the language of EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion).

Most organisations and public commentators see diversity and inclusion as having to do with representation. Is this particular target group represented among us? Is their number proportionate to their percentage in the population we serve, whether ‘we’ are parliamentarians, police, prison officers, head teachers, university managers or shop assistants?

This of course leads to meaningless comparisons between, for example, the number of black and global majority people in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet as compared to those in the shadow Cabinet. But this obsession with numerical or demographic representation begs the critical question of who is representing whom, and to what end? I struggled to suppress feelings of utter despair in December when I heard an African brother arguing passionately that we still have a long way to go, but we have to acknowledge that we have come a very long way since the 1976 Race Relations Act. And what was his evidence? We have ‘a brown home secretary and chancellor’, as well as Kemi Badenoch, Kwasi Kwarteng and the most diverse Cabinet ever.

In other words, it should not matter to me whether my executioner is black rather than white, or that it is a black person condemning my elders to a slow death in applying racist immigration laws.

Promoting or valuing diversity is presented by policymakers and managers as a proxy for combating discrimination, eliminating barriers and promoting equity. Butyou cannot promote race equality, gender equality, disability equality, etc, without tackling discrimination in its structural, cultural, institutional and personal manifestations, whether you are a government, a university vice-chancellor, an NHS executive or a chief of police.

The legislation parliament saw fit to pass in relation to discrimination against, and the denial of rights to, the above groups - from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976 (Amended 2000) and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, to the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act 2010 - is not referred to as ‘diversity legislation’, but rather, as equality and human-rights legislation.

Some organisations have opted to put in place an equality, diversity and inclusion strategy. However, the notion of ‘inclusion’ is equally questionable in this context, especially as it typically assumes inclusion into or within institutional and organisational practices and cultures which are not seen as problematic in themselves and as such, necessitating change before those being ‘included’ could be themselves in their fullness. Rather, they more typically feel constrained to mirror and fit into the culture and ethos of the organisation that professes to value and include their ‘difference’ as ‘enriching’, as if they themselves might not have good cause to disrupt that culture and encourage those that sustain it to take a fresh look at themselves.

Small wonder, therefore, that even after you ‘get them in’ and make them feel included as a key function of your inclusion strategy, the newly included still feel like outsiders. This has been the experience of the national Black Police Association and members of most black staff networks with which I have worked.

That is why, in a keynote address to a cohort of black senior schoolteachers/middle managers on a headship development course I co-facilitated at the UCL Institute of Education, a few years ago, I posed the following questions on the matter of correcting demographic under-representation:

What difference does it make to the situation of the majority of the group such black staff are supposed to represent, if the training and professional socialisation those black staff receive, the institutional culture of which they become a part, and the systems and processes they operate are identical to that of their white counterparts?

What in particular are they assumed to bring to the school, and especially to their interface with black students and parents, by virtue of being black?

How does the school and its governors identify those special qualities, validate and promote them, and allow them free expression in developing children’s learning, and in dealing with colleagues?

How does the school deal with those situations in which the ‘additionality’ of black identity translates into curriculum design and content, pedagogy, decision-making, use of discretion, and methods of handling situations with students and their parents - e.g,. in relation to school exclusion - which are diametrically opposed to the regime of the school and the common approach it expects all its staff to apply?

It is the failure of leaders and managers to tackle those fundamental questions that leads to black and global majority staff experiencing their workplaces as such hostile environments, however inclusive they see themselves as being.

One writer recently described applying diversity strategies as a practice that manages race in a way that sustains existing power relations.

Too often, therefore, we have discourses about EDI as if we are simply talking about some adjustments to accommodate the marginalised, as distinct from tackling fundamental, structural inequalities and discriminations. Black representation is often cited as evidence of inclusion, when in fact, what is happening is that black folk are being co-opted into colluding with cultures, structures and practices that continue to oppress.

Some black folk are perfectly happy to be co-opted and to be numbered among those validated by the state or the monarch, or both. That is their right. However, neither they, the media nor the wider community should promote the view that they are representative of the diaspora of which they are a part, whatever their gong might be.

They have a right to say, ‘Count me in’. We have an equal right to say, ‘Rule me out’.

Professor Augustine John is visiting professor, Office of Teaching & Learning, at Coventry University,and honorary fellow and associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education, University of London.