I read an article recently entitled “There are no black people in Africa“. The idea seems like one of those obvious-once-you-think-about-it things that needs to be said more: People don’t inherently identify by skin colour, we identify by our culture, language, geography, function within a community etc and it is only when colonialism and migration put people in a context where they are seen as “foreign” or “different” that the labels of others (often those with power) group them with everyone else in the world with their skin colour as if this is a simple homogenous group. So in America or Europe there is a notion of “black” (or BME/BAME or BIPOC) being defined by being anything other than the majority “white” skintone, whilst in Africa or the Caribbean (or Asia) people are not defined by that (majority) characteristic, but by things that are more meaningful to them.
I agree with the author of the article that lazy stereotypes then follow from this overly simplistic labelling of others, which allow people to make assumptions about whole races or continents (eg the fictitious belief that all of “sub-Saharan Africa” comprises impoverished tribal communities reliant on western aid, whose lives bear little in common with those in industrialised nations, because all many Europeans know of these nations is the charity appeals during times of war/famine). It also ties into the white saviour thing, where people without relevant knowledge and experience arrogantly believe they can go and solve the “simpler” problems of more “primitive” countries, where their unremarkable skills will bring remarkable insights by comparison to local knowledge.
Even the language exaggerates and simplifies a multitude of difference into two categories; using white and black as polar opposite colour terms for what are actually countless shades and variants of colour from pink to deep brown. Whilst the language then links together people with wildly disparate geography and culture, simply on the basis that similar coloured paint would be used to capture a portrait – which seems a rather weird and arbitrary thing to see as a primary defining characteristic. It reminds me of arranging to meet someone at a conference that I had never met last year, where I described myself as “short, overweight, with long dark hair and a colourful dress” and the person I was meeting said exactly the same description could apply to her. We successfully recognised each other from the description, and we realised we had very similar professional interests also. However, we also realised the one thing neither of us had named was our skin colour – she was black and I was white.
I don’t think the author of the article that triggered this blog has the clearest writing style to convey his point – and he is almost certainly not the first person to name this exact thing. Nor do I think that his insights in the other articles I glanced at are unique or always right (eg other sources don’t support the 7 phrases he says we should stop using because of racist connotations) but I’m glad to have read the article, because it did really clarify some stuff I hadn’t put together myself. The fact I had not, is in the end a mark of privilege; the fact I’m not personally impacted and therefore haven’t had to do the work that so many others have to do day in and day out when thinking about race. I’m lucky to have never experienced racism, despite being a second generation immigrant (nor have I been on the receiving end of antisemitism, despite the fact my Jewish heritage carries its own burden of discrimination). I attribute that to being white and secular in appearance (I’m an atheist by belief).
As an aside: Identifying my own privileged position does make it feel awkward to write about race – there are so many things that I could get wrong, and so many people who are rightly feeling angry or depleted, or who might rather have minority voices amplified than another middle-class white woman add her two pence. All of that is true. But sometimes hearing things from a different perspective also has value, or gives the easily digested intro in familiar language that helps people to access voices with more lived experience. So I hope that if I’ve written anything that rubs anyone the wrong way, you’ll let me know so I can fix it up for others and keep learning.
Recent world events really have higlighted the extent of the problem, and how easy it is to foment division during stressful times – with Trump undermining democracy with his increasingly desperate attempts to cling to power, social media and much of the press amplifying divisive rhetoric and expressing the propaganda of their billionnaire owners, Johnson appealing to the worst elements of nationalism and the pandemic highlighting growing inequality, whilst the national act of self-harm of Brexit is reaching it’s final act. So it is no surprise that racial tensions have bubbled to the surface too, with the again so-obvious-it-shouldn’t-need-to-be-said Black Lives Matter protests gaining traction all over the world. Here in the UK the unequal death toll of covid-19, and the inequality enhancing manouvres of our xenophobic current government have really highlighted how prevalent and dangerous this unspoken level of latent racism in systems and the population really is. It is another stark reminder that what appears like a meritocracy in which everyone has equal opportunity only feels like that to those who are not weighed down by the adversities inherent in the system.
Thinking about the uneven playing field also ties into a phrase I read recently: Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not. As I mentioned in a previous blog, when it comes to investment in business ideas in the UK:
- only 1% of investment went to all-female teams, whereas 89p of every £1 invested went to all-male teams, and 10p to mixed gender teams
- black entrepreneurs receive only 1% of funds invested in the UK
- black female founders received only 0.0006% of the funding invested in the decade from 2009-2019, with only one black female founder in the UK reaching series A investment in that period (compared to 194 white women, and over 4000 going to all male/majority white teams)
- female and black founders who do gain external investment, secure lower sums of money than their white male counterparts
- 72% of investment goes to companies based in London
- 43% of funding goes to founding teams with at least one member who attended Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Stanford
- investors are 91% male, and 93% white, and only 3% of VCs in the UK are black
- you are 13 times more likely to receive investment with a “warm introduction” from someone in your own network, which reinforces social exclusion
- 88% of black entrepreneurs self-fund their business without external investment
Yet there are so many challenges that benefit from personal insight that might only come from certain subgroups of the community. I recently read about the founders of CapWay struggling to get investment because the venture capitalists didn’t understand that there are currently people who don’t have a bank account in the USA, for example. Imagine if the founders of Air B&B had never been broke enough to want to stay over on (or rent out) an airbed in a spare room. It gives a glimpse of what might solve a problem those who have had an easier life might never encounter. I’ve met social entrepreneurs who have explained to me the need for a mobile phone in order to identify sources of food or accommodation if you are homeless, or how much female offenders value employment and how this makes them highly dedicated employees. There are also traits that come from surviving adversity that are really helpful in an entrepreneur – being resilient, persistent, being able to juggle multiple demands at once, being grounded in the reality of customers or service users. There are also strong signs that more diverse founders lead to better returns on investment – women founders return more than men, and diverse founding teams more than all white teams. So this is very much an area that is rightly getting more attention.
In my recent business networking with other social entrepreneurs there has been a wide range of people represented in terms of gender, race, country of origin and socioeconomic class. I’ve spoken to people using their links to other countries and cultures in their business, working spanning boundaries, timezones and continents, and bringing ideas to their business from all kinds of prior experiences both personal and professional. I love speaking to people who see things from a different angle, and I am convinced that it so much more helpful to throw ideas around than simply speaking to others who have had similar life experiences to my own. It is one of the reasons I love Impact Hub, as is one of the organisations where all of us in the early stages of developing businesses with a social purpose can find equal support and a culture in which there is value in different perspectives. I’ve used them as my London base for many years, because their co-working space is so convenient for Kings Cross/St Pancras, but they have been brilliant at making an online only membership to adjust to lockdown. And living through a pandemic, I have never been more grateful for my virtual networks to keep me inspired about what I am trying to achieve.