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We need to talk about race

29 Sep 2020  |  Dale Lovell 
We need to talk about race

Dale Lovell, UK managing director of native advertising platform Adyoulike, shares his personal experiences of race and calls for more open conversations

I want to write about race.

I’ve wanted to write something about this topic for a long time.

I’ve tried writing about discrimination, diversity in advertising, micro-aggressions, pigeon-holing, unconscious bias and all of that stuff. I’ve written trite sentences on the topic. But they don’t really do the subject any justice. So I stop.

But I’m determined not to stop this time.

Instead, I’ll tell you a story. My story is about the 2019 election and going to vote.

I live in Surrey. In a commuter town. I live on a long street of what estate agents would term ‘mixed residential’. Our voting station was in the local church halfway down the road. On voting day, I went to vote. I walked there. I gave my name and address to the woman manning the station. I voted. I left and walked home.

I returned home and ‘swapped’ with my wife, who had been watching our newborn baby. My wife went out to vote at the same polling station. Fifteen minutes later she returned home, looking slightly miffed.

“All ok?” I asked.

“Yes. All done. But as soon as the woman at the table saw me, she asked if I lived in the block of flats at the end of the street. Before I could give my name or address or anything. Wonder what she meant by that?”

We do not live in the block of flats at the end of the road. We live in one of the many semi-detached houses that make up the vast majority of the polling station area.

When you take one additional piece of information into account, it becomes obvious what the woman meant, whether consciously or not. You see, my wife is black, mixed-race Ghanaian/British to be precise. I am white. The assumption the woman meant was “you obviously don’t live in one of the nice houses around here.”

Compare this to my own experience of voting - doing exactly the same thing, at practically the same time. No one asked me if I lived in a block of flats. And I suspect the woman did not ask any other white person voting if they lived in the block of flats either.

On its own this type of comment could be passed off as not such a big deal, a misunderstanding you might say. Are we being too quick to read into something that wasn’t actually there?

But this is just one example from a lifetime of ‘misunderstandings’ my wife and anyone not white has to face on a daily basis. I think it’s important to share because it’s illustrative of how insidious racial bias can be, and how it goes under the radar if you are not the recipient of it. How you can be doing the same thing, but have vastly different experiences, depending on how you look.

This is something many white people fail to understand.

An example from lockdown

Not far from our street (the opposite direction to the ‘block of flats’) is an area with some expensive housing. There are some lovely, quiet, tree-lined streets to walk along. We walked there a lot over lockdown, as a family, or separately, stretching our legs, clearing our heads. I enjoyed the walks.

So I was surprised when my wife said she didn’t enjoy walking around there alone anymore. She said she could feel the ‘twitchy curtains’ and suspicious looks from residents, particularly if she was on her phone, as she walked.

Looks that I can’t remember receiving when I walked around there.  Again, same activity different experience. Small, subtle differences. But constant reminders of ‘otherness’, of being different.

Framing the conversation or boxing it in?

Marketers love labels. Love positioning and ‘framing a conversation’.

Many advertising businesses have clearly preferred to outsource to HR or one or two individuals and cloak the issue of diversity in marketing terminology. The framing of the discussion is of ring-fencing it as a problem that ‘they’ need to solve. Someone to solve. ‘But not really us.’ ‘Them.’

Rightly or wrongly it can come across as if it’s something to be put in a box, ticked and completed and then popped in a drawer marked ‘solved’.

It’s not like that, this issue. To use advertising vernacular, it’s not a campaign, to run for a few months and then stop, moving on to next season’s campaign. It’s a process. A deeply individual process.

By adding positioning and labelling to the issue of race I think it can create a barrier to the root of the problem. It gives businesses – and the people within them – a framework to hide behind without confronting the real issue.

And the real issue is that white people working in advertising do not want to talk about race and racism and discrimination.

Two sides of the debate

A problem with talking about race in the workplace is that it invariably creates sides.

“Them” and “us”. The debate, after all - at its core - centres on differences in life derived from the colour of your skin. You can’t market-speak, acronym, or sugar-coat that. You can’t cloak it in vague hyperbole advertising copy that leaves room for (mis)interpretation. It’s about the colour of people’s skin. And when you look at your own skin colour, many people see sides.

It’s something that makes people uncomfortable.

People of colour can feel uncomfortable by discussions in the workplace because if done incorrectly it exasperates the situation, drawing attention to their ‘otherness’, in a work environment many may well have spent their working lives trying to fit into.

They can also feel uncomfortable by the positioning white dominated companies place on the issue; that it’s a ‘quick fix problem’ and that the onus on making change happen, educating colleagues and championing progress is their responsibility.

If they call out their organisation for not doing enough, many people of colour know it could damage their careers or be met with the rebuff that they are being too sensitive. It was a misunderstanding.

White people feel uncomfortable by it too. Why? Because it goes against a progressive view of the world most of us have been fed and brought up with. 

A lot of it is well intentioned: that race shouldn’t matter; the UK was racist in the past, but by and large we are over it now. “I have black friends, black colleagues, we all get along, don’t we?” The big problems have been solved.

To some white people it can feel as if they are being forced to look to solve a problem they can’t see exists. It makes white people feel uncomfortable because it means they have to question their own behaviour. And recognise their own advantages, which they may or may not have ever been aware of. It requires a degree of introspection – and empathy - that a lot of people are simply unable or unprepared to undertake on the topic.

I’ve been guilty of this myself - of not seeing the full issue.

Throughout the 11 years I have been in a relationship with my wife, race has never really been at the forefront of it. The colour of my wife’s skin is just another feature of what makes her, her, to me. Like brown hair, or brown eyes.

Except it isn’t, is it? The colour of her skin has shaped her from birth; her life experiences have always been through the prism of race in a way that my own have not always been. That’s what makes her, her. And that’s something that I’ve not always been fully able to understand.

As Ross Taylor, from Hidden wrote in Campaign Magazine recently; “the compounded discomfort and exhaustion of daily reminders that you are different, that you don’t "fit in", and of having all those around you weighing in on your identity.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

I know a lot of white people care about this issue passionately. Indeed the BLM protests have done a good job at expressing this as an issue for everyone, black and white. It is ‘them against us,’ but by ‘them’ we mean racists and the ignorant who do not want to change, versus everyone else.

But there is a genuine fear among well-meaning white people to not say the wrong thing. So rather than say the wrong thing, many choose to say nothing. This is, I would argue, the silent majority of people. This needs to change.

Be aware that your silence is noted by your colleagues, friends and family that are not white.

It’s only through talking about the subject that we can make progress.

When I talk to my wife about race, I have often said the wrong thing. I’ve inadvertently said something insensitive or grossly inaccurate, and rightly been challenged for it. No one is perfect – as my wife regularly lets me know.

But I’ve also benefitted immensely by being able to ask my wife honest, specific questions about race, to double and triple check things that I might have missed, or never even been aware of, because I am a white man. And that’s invaluable. My intentions are good. My wife knows this.

Within my own business, we are doing what we can to support. We are starting to hold regular sessions, looking at the issue, sharing good content. But most of all trying to create a forum to discuss the issues.

We’ve tried to place the emphasise on creating a ‘safe’ place to talk openly with no judgement. We can do this relatively easily because we are a small business, we all know each other quite well and have a fairly flat hierarchical structure. But I’d urge organisations of every size to try to facilitate something like this.

If white people don’t talk about the subject openly and they don’t look into themselves, nothing will change. Admit your ignorance – embrace the uncomfortableness and seek to educate yourselves. There are no stupid questions if you learn something from the answers and carry them forward with you, sharing your newfound knowledge with others.

From my own personal experience, I know that combating racism and challenging perceptions is not a quick fix project. It’s one that cannot be ‘outsourced’ to HR or third parties. Or to think about as someone else’s’ problem.

It’s a process. And it starts inside you. It’s a mental attitude to adopt. It’s committing to life-long learning, recognising your behaviour and the behaviour of others, and looking to change where needed.

It’s about starting on a journey: and the more people who go on this journey together, the better it will be for our industry. As the much-touted old African proverb goes – “if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”

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