Asif Afridi: If you really want race equality, get into your discomfort zone

It's up to all of us to face up to the lack of diversity in civil society and put things right

Asif Adridi
Asif Adridi

I read the paper on the bus to work and on three days this week the comments section has focused on "white privilege". Perhaps race equality is rising up the media agenda?

On the Civil Society Futures inquiry these past two years, we expected to hear lots about race too. Hate crime on our streets, the Windrush generation, the experiences of Grenfell Tower survivors, islamophobia: there is increasing public concern that we are becoming a more racist society.

But despite this, when speaking to thousands of people in civil society we heard little about race, racism and race inequality.

Why aren’t charities and community groups discussing this very much? What more can civil society do to help achieve race equality? The organisation I work for, brap, dug deeper, speaking to black and minority ethnic voluntary sector groups, large civil society organisations and people with lived experiences.

As we embarked on this, we heard great examples of work on race equality within civil society, of course. But many we spoke to believe the pace of change is too slow. We are talking about race in civil society less, not more.

For some, it’s because there’s less public investment in race equality projects. For others, it’s a paralysis of fear about saying the wrong thing about race, or seeing the issue of race inequality as too big to tackle.

We could have recommended investment, research, new organisations, structures or networks. We could have told government to listen to civil society more. These things have been recommended before. But new initiatives don’t necessarily mean new thinking.

What many people told us is that change won’t really happen without honest conversations – about race equality, how we treat people who are different from us, our power and relationships. Procedures and policies won’t cut it. We must change our own attitudes and behaviours.

This approach might seem unusual, when racism and race inequality are so ingrained in society, but compare the alternative.

Recent initiatives have attempted to bolster ethnic diversity within civil society leadership. Great, but does it result in equitable, anti-racist organisations? Even when people from ethnic minority backgrounds take on senior roles, the barriers to power remain and organisations might not be fair or authentic places to work.

Race equality is much more than a numbers game. The focus on diversity is comfortable because it doesn’t touch the real issues: how people think about you and treat you every day.

Yes, let’s applaud progress, but what counts? Those with power who hold the purse strings own the narrative on what progress looks like and many of the people we spoke to said it's this that must be dismantled and remade.

It needs every one of us. Speaking out against racism is a job for all of us, whatever our ethnic background. We need to listen to home truths from those who experience racism: about how we are sustaining race inequality and the continued effects of colonialism, gender and class discrimination.

This isn’t easy and there’s a lot to do to build trust, acknowledging the long histories of racism and inequality. Listening is vital, but it must be followed by action. For those who share their experiences of discrimination, if those experiences are discounted or even denied it’s crushing.

This is just a little of what we heard and, if it’s making you feel uncomfortable already, that’s good.

Across civil society – every person, group, organisation – we need to get into our discomfort zone. If we are to change race inequality in England, it starts with our own vision, courage and commitment.

Asif Afridi is deputy chief executive of brap. Find out more about the Let’s Talk About Race report

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