Published in The Financial Times
My colleague and good friend Tom Catan grew up in Mexico, the US and Britain, attended a state school in England, graduated from a university that wasn’t Oxford or Cambridge and, as a journalist, has lived and worked in countries including Argentina, the US and the UK.
I, on the other hand, was born and bred in Britain, attended a private school in Britain, graduated from Cambridge University and, as a journalist, have lived and worked in countries including Britain, Britain and Britain.
Using this information as a guide, which one of us do you think: (a) was recently invited to speak at an event aimed at promoting diversity in journalism; (b) receives an invitation to attend some such event every month; (c) was once offered a newspaper traineeship especially created to improve diversity?
Well, despite the fact that Tom’s international background makes me appear as diverse as the seventh Marquess of Bath, the answer to (a), (b) and© is: me. Tom has never attended, spoken at or even served chicken tikka canapes at a diversity event. Which raises another question: why am I considered a poster boy for diversity, when Tom isn’t?
In short, it is cos I is black. The fact is that the diversity agenda, as propounded by corporations, values some differences more than others. Things such as class, geographical background, education, accent and personality don’t matter. But things such as race, gender, disability and sexuality matter so much that they have become synonymous with the very word “diverse”. This, of course, is wrong. But before I try to explain why, a qualification. Talking about diversity as a member of an ethnic minority is a frustrating business. I once wrote a piece criticising workplace political correctness and was depressed by the response – support from bigots saying it was marvellous having an ethnic minority share their (racist) views, complaints from ethnic minorities saying I was a traitor to the cause.
It is not my intention to solicit such responses. It is entirely laudable that large companies are trying to ensure they are not only hiring the able-bodied male descendants of the seventh Marquess of Bath. It’s just that most companies, all of which now routinely claim they are “passionate about diversity”, are trying to diversify in a crude manner.
In the eyes of most corporations, ethnic minorities are great for diversity, while white people, if not afflicted by disability or homosexuality or old age or the female gender, are not. But as the descriptions of Tom and me illustrate, this is clearly not true. It is perfectly possible to be white, able-bodied, straight, male and “diverse”, and brown and not very “diverse” at all.
Arguably, with some of our immigrant parents having arrived in Britain decades ago, and made money and assimilated to varying degrees, it makes less and less sense to talk about ethnic minorities as if we are a homogenous group, all equally underprivileged and under- represented. The fact is that there are now huge differences within and between ethnic groups, in terms of employment opportunities, income and education. A recent report found that while weekly earnings for white people in Britain average Pounds 376, the figure for ethnic minorities is Pounds 347. But within that, the average is Pounds 373 for people of Indian origin and Pounds 235 for those of Bangladeshi origin.
Indeed, while some of the most “diverse” people I have ever met are from ethnic minority groups, so are some of the most “undiverse”. I had several Asian friends at college who were so posh they barely separated their teeth when speaking. At the same time, I know some white people who make Bob Cratchit from A Christmas Carol look underprivileged.
As it happens, neither Tom nor I fit into any of these categories. Frankly, I could have made myself sound like something out of a Dickens novel earlier by pointing out that my parents were labourers, that I worked in a sewing factory every weekend and every holiday between the ages of eight and 16, that my school fees, uniform and meals were paid for by the state, that I was the first person in my family to attend university.
Equally, I could have given Tom the lah-di-dah treatment, pointing out that his Mexican father is an opera composer, that his English mother is a psychoanalyst, that he attended a good comprehensive school in Sussex and a university as posh as mine (the London School of Economics), and that while his family didn’t have much money, he grew up in a middle class district of Brighton.
And this is my point: people are complex mixtures of privilege and underprivilege, but corporations do not acknowledge this in their box-ticking approach to diversity. I suspect this is because it rather suits them not to. For all the talk of diversity, large companies are spectacularly undiverse in practice. Most want their employees to conform and see things in a certain way.
I’m sure recruiters rather like the fact that with second generation immigrants like me, they can hire people who are diverse on paper but who are, in terms of experience, quite similar to them.
However, I don’t think such an approach does much good at all. What we need is a more intelligent, more subtle approach to promoting diversity. And I’m going to get the ball rolling by declining this speaking invitation. I may even suggest that a certain Mexican-American-British colleague of mine takes my place.
(c) 2005 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved