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The Representation Game

This blog was first featured as an article in our zine. It outlines some reflections on the different forms racism takes and what this means for how we measure it. You can download the zine for free here.


Is the election of Rishi Sunak as the first Indian origin prime minister a sign of progress for equality and inclusion? Judging by the media reaction and triumphant headlines proclaiming Britain a post-racial society, many think it is. And on the one hand proponents of this view clearly have a point. Sunak’s election – or, rather, his selection – would have been unthinkable 30 years ago and suggests the MPs who appointed him feel the public at large will be comfortable with a non-White PM. The rather muted response following his appointment indicates they might be right.


Underlying this argument, though, is a particular conception of racism. It’s an assumption that racism today is the same as it was for most of the post-Windrush era: a conscious discrimination against people from different ethnic backgrounds. But the nature of inequality has changed during that time. While we still see countless evidence of conscious bias, the increasing focus on anti-racist practice reflects an understanding that structural discrimination has a wider and more pernicious impact on people’s lives.


So, while the nature of inequality has changed, our way of measuring it has not. We still tend to rely on quantitative measures which simply count the number of ethnically diverse people in particular positions. Of course, these quantitative measures can be useful in some contexts. The introduction of standardised measures on recruitment/seniority of black and minoritised ethnic (BME) NHS staff for example (through the Workforce Race Equality Standard) has helped to introduce a shared language and accountability to lever progress. It has also helped to describe some of the systemic challenges that BME NHS staff face. Refining data of this type and reviewing how it is used can help us to improve the experiences of those who are racialised in our society.



Yet, at the same time, we know that efforts to improve on measures like this haven’t always addressed the underlying systemic causes of racial disparities. Perhaps they were never meant to. Our ambitions can be limited to the type of change we consider possible, especially within the wider context of a world that believes in the social construct of ‘race’. We may think, for instance, that the presence of more BME leaders in the NHS, will eradicate racism in the wider healthcare system. Yet, ironically, our views and beliefs about representation can also coincide with beliefs that fuel systemic racism. Beliefs like: people from BME backgrounds have innate qualities or characteristics because of the colour of their skin; having an all-black board of directors means our job is done; or it is the responsibility of racialised groups to eradicate racism.



Unfortunately, the presence of more BME leaders - though welcome and important - is not a silver bullet that will eradicate racism in the wider system. This can be a challenging topic to raise, particularly when representation in positions of power and outcomes for racialised groups are so poor. But, if we are to address the root causes of racism, we know that something deeper is required – efforts from a broader constituency, drawing in a wider set of resources and challenging mainstream beliefs about ‘race’ and discriminatory practices across different parts of the system. In this short paper we will reflect on some of the key challenges we have encountered at brap on the topic of ‘measurement’ when supporting anti-racist learning and development. We also identify some of the areas brap is planning to explore over the coming year.


THE CHALLENGES

For those working in the field of anti-racist facilitation and organisational development, there are moments of challenge and frustration when faced with the prospect of understanding the progress that we and our partners are making. How do we know if those we are supporting are getting closer to addressing systemic racism in their work, in their organisations? How can we disrupt the impact of systemic racism on what is measured? In particular, we mean the dynamics whereby anti-racist change agents are exhausted by the process of gathering and presenting data in ways that whiteness finds acceptable.


1. KNOWING ‘WHAT’ TO MEASURE

Systemic racism can inevitably impact upon what is measured in our work / in the work that our partners do. Those with power can shape the level of ambition and activity. They can police content so that it is in line with what is ‘comfortable’. They can shape what is valued and identify what is counted - or measured - focusing, for instance, on the number of black staff recruited rather than the level of power and belonging that those staff experience in the workplace.


Working in this environment as facilitators, there is always a risk that we inadvertently replicate some of that lack of ambition. We may catch ourselves internalising the oppressions we seek to challenge. We may feel depressed and deskilled as nothing we do seems to ‘stick’ with our partners.


2. PUSHING BACK ON THE PUSHBACK

Often the evaluative data we are asked to collect by commissioners about anti-racist work assesses low-level and short-term impacts (e.g., who attends training sessions and their satisfaction with the input). As an external consultant, there are often few opportunities to collect more meaningful data. When we do ask for more, our efforts can be met with resistance. Facilitators and consultants working in this space are often expected to act as a ‘sponge’ that can absorb or empathise with their clients’ defensiveness, fragility, or guilt. We are expected to work at our client’s pace of change – often with little assurance or expectation that this will lead to meaningful progress on their anti-racist aspirations. As facilitators this pattern of resistance and pushback comes at a cost to us, to partner organisations, and the BME people we seek to support.



3. FATTENING THE COW

As the Palestinian proverb states, 'you can’t fatten a cow by weighing it'. Despite the benefits of quantitative measures, they have not brought us close enough to understanding our progress in addressing the root causes of racism. The challenge that anti-racist changemakers working in this space often face is that what is measured does not reflect anti-racist practice. The measurements we are using won’t help us to fatten the cow because they don’t relate closely enough to the root causes of racism and systemic change.



WHAT CAN WE DO?

This year, brap are developing, in partnership with others working in this field, a set of ‘felt’ indicators that could support our partners to assess change in new ways, but that could also offer us - as anti-racist change agents - some meaningful markers of hope in the face of pushback and resistance. We hope that these approaches to measurement and evaluation will help us and our partners to develop a greater grasp of when our anti-racist interventions are working.


We see particular opportunities to challenge some of the paradoxes and inconsistencies in the status quo, such as the tendency to tackle symptoms rather than causes of racism; or the tendency for racialised beliefs to shape the very measures we use to assess progress in tackling racism. Going forward, we would like to explore whether we can be clearer about root cause interventions. We will also be developing measures that help us to understand more clearly the impact our work is having on challenging systemic racism.


Which brings us back to Rishi and the supposed post-racial society he represents. Amongst the varied items in the prime minister’s in-tray might be an attempt to lift people out of poverty. If it is, he should note that people from all BME groups (except Indian, Chinese, and White Other) are more likely than White British people to live in the most deprived neighbourhoods in England.[1] Perhaps Rishi wants to focus on getting more people back into work. If so, he should reflect on why in every region of the country white people have a lower rate of economic inactivity than people from all other ethnic groups combined.[2] Or perhaps Sunak’s time is taken up with NHS pay disputes. Even then, he could note that BME staff are more than twice as likely as their white colleagues to experience discrimination at work.[3]


So, is Rishi Sunak‘s appointment a measure of progress? Perhaps, but then it all depends on which measure you use.



NOTES

[1] For more on this see English indices of deprivation 2019. Link: https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/uk-population-by-ethnicity/demographics/people-living-in-deprived-neighbourhoods/latest


[2] Annual Population Survey 2021. Link: https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/work-pay-and-benefits/unemploymentand-economic-inactivity/economic-inactivity/latest#by-ethnicity


[3] Workforce Race Equality Standard 2019 report. Link: https://www.england.nhs.uk/about/equality/equality-hub/equality-standard/workforce-race-equality-standard-2019-report/

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