Daring to look: Complacency is the enemy of humanity

Posted: Sunday, 24th September, 2017

When I was about seven, I remember watching Dr Who with my sisters. In those days there was little by way of special effects or CGI. In fact, the Daleks looked more like an inverted dust bin with empty loo rolls stuck on for effect. Despite this jiggery-pokery, in the imagination of a seven year old, the Daleks did their work of terrifying the onlooker.  So much so, that my sisters and I would huddle behind the settee with a cushion over our faces. We only dared to peep out occasionally, just to check that the dreaded aliens had departed the screen, before resuming our more comfortable seats.

Needless to say, we were spooked way beyond the end of each episode. We dutifully checked behind the bedroom door and under the bed before we felt assured enough to lie down to sleep. No Daleks under the bed, “phew!”

I’m sure many of you will have similar stories to tell, I will return to this story a little later however.

A couple of weeks ago, I chaired the programme and practice board for the Ready Now and Stepping Up programmes. These are the Academy’s positive action programmes for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) aspiring leaders. The former for bands 8a and above, and the latter offer has been tailored for bands 5, 6 and 7.

These programmes are always over-subscribed and have been hugely impactful for participants. Each year the programmes get better, as we learn how to make it so by listening to participant stories and acting on their feedback. We know, from the stories they tell us, just how many barriers they encounter in their roles on a weekly basis. In fact, when in a safe space people will often open up and weep, as they recount these experiences of hurt and deep disappointment with a system that is supposed to respect and value them.

These stories are the ones that seldom get told, partly because people fear speaking up and calling discrimination out, lest they are subjected to even more of the same. Burying pain and working out how to remain resilient in the face of injustice, is labour that is familiar to many who have protected characteristics. This is the often silent, additional labour of those who have the most to gain from advancing equality, and the most to lose from perpetuating the status quo. These stories of system failure and oppression are indeed, by their nature, very difficult to hear.

Working in the space of leadership, and at the intersection between leadership and equality, it is often noticeable to me how people can use words in ways that sanitise and dilute the subject being discussed; especially when that subject is one that evokes strong feelings. Discrimination is one such subject.

Even the ways in which we describe the causes and outcomes of discrimination, we see this muting effect at work. We talk about underrepresentation and unconscious bias, when what we really mean is that people are discriminated against and denied social justice. No matter how nicely we package bias, it is still the conduit of often painful and heavily veiled hate. It can and does change lives, diminish life-chances and at its most potent; it kills people.

Now for the really difficult bit. For me, there is a difference between not being racist and being anti-racist. The latter is proactive and is actively working to eliminate discrimination or mitigate its effects. The former at best, spectates, sees injustice, may be momentarily appalled by it, but then looks away.

Just like the Dr Who story above, the person who is merely not racist, mistakes this stance for being much more radical than it actually is. An accompanying viewpoint also supposes that such a stance might be helpful in some way. When called out, people then fail to appreciate that maintaining the not racist stance is actually akin to maintaining the status quo. From the perspective of someone who is on the receiving end of discrimination, or abuse; having a non-racist person in the room, feels a bit like having someone who is hiding behind the settee trying hard not to look at the horrible scene before them, and just waiting long enough until the ugliest part is over.

This may sound harsh, but I would plump for the anti-racist ally every time. For me the difference is that those who move from not racist to anti-racist have been brave enough to look, to understand what is taking place, and then to act. If everyone in the NHS was anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic and anti-disablist, the nation would be very different and the system would be transformed.

Learning how to act courageously in the presence of discrimination is what we now collectively need to do. David Lammy’s report recently outlines to complacency of the criminal justice system, when the data is speaking so loudly of discrimination, which is severely harming a whole generation of white working class and BME children. Complacency is the enemy of humanity.

Surely it is time for us to collectively stand, and say no to discrimination, injustice and harm; which also means saying that merely not being a racist, sexist, homophobic, disablist, is actually no longer good enough.

- Tracie Jolliff, Head of Inclusion and Systems Leadership - NHS Leadership Academy