What colour is identity?

Peter Cunnision, Manager West Midlands, offers his reflections on race and identity in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement.

Peter Cunnison, Manager West Midlands

2020 started like any other year in the life of a Regional Manager. I was sure of who I was as a person which included my professional work and my personal life. But 2020 is a year unlike any other. Everything feels different for so many of us but for me, it has also led to a reawakening and collision of worlds in terms of my identity, my professional work and how both of those elements of my personality are communicated in my everyday walk.

 

Triggered

Two forces served to trigger this reflection and a re-alignment that I did not know I needed. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.

 

Both created space and time to reflect without the distraction caused by the ‘old normal’.  Over the past 21 years, I have been fortunate to work for two of the country’s most well-known funders. I came from a Public Sector background with a desire to learn the inner workings of funding and bring that back to benefit ‘my people’. I had a real sense of identity which was based on my family, social circle and my work up to that point. I spent previous years volunteering and working with small community organisations where it was clear that ‘funding’ was the holy grail.

 

Most of these were led by and for black and brown people of predominantly African and Caribbean ethnicity. They relied heavily on volunteers, goodwill and donations, but for them, the thought of getting funding from another independent source was huge. It signified that you had broken through, become mainstream, you were legit (when used culturally speaking legit does not denote illegitimate activity in any way).

As I settled into the world of working for a funder, my earlier aspirations had to increasingly take a back seat. Funding processes, systems and the strategic agendas of the funder were what set the pace.

 

This experience is probably not unlike ones that we all face when engaging with new environments. You either fit in or find somewhere else (I’m sure you know the more colourful version of that phrase, shared with me by a former Manager).

 

I wanted to fit in, learn and grow so I looked forward, I adapted and slowly assimilated. The assimilation was not so much in action but in language. There is a certain language that we use, in our reporting, on our websites, in our forms as well as how we describe our work and that of the sector. It is quite hierarchical which, dare I say, is also influenced by class, but who can refuse the hand that feeds.

 

Don't call me BAME

This was the end of the 90s and that was a time where Diversity was in the ascendency and Racial discrimination seemed to have been defeated. So much so that it felt regressive to refer to it as an issue.

 

I jumped on the train of equality for all and diversity as the blanket term that acknowledged all types of inequality.

 

It’s interesting watching how people who all look the same to me can be so different. I’ve seen almost three years of protests and marches where, on the face of it, people who looked the same, were possibly from the same family, lived in the same area and even worked for the same company had such different and entrenched views and values. Yet the world has continued to turn and nobody died.

 

Nevertheless, terminologies such as Right or Left, Brexiteer and anti-Brexit have become divisive. We often use frankly lazy, short phrases or terms to convey just one element of complex characters and people. BME is not a word, B.A.M.E. is not a word, but I listen to so many conversations where this is used as a word. I am not BAME. My melanin may be brown, but this is not a reflection of my character and so probably not the best way to describe me. As my son recently shared with me when his friends (none of whom are Black) said they never saw his colour, “tell me how you would describe me to someone who has never seen me, what words would you use in your first line”.

 

A dear colleague of mine shared the same sentiment with me recently and I understand where it comes from because when you get to know someone you really do get beyond the skin and its colour. You see the person and she saw ME. 

 

B.A.M.E, or even BAME, doesn’t even begin to describe the complexity and differences of values and cultures amongst people whose skin tone might be the same. Just imagine if we regularly used W.A.M.E. as an easy way to describe the White And Majority Ethnic, or said WAME.

 

The Movement

The Black Lives Matter movement brought all of this to my door, someone who works in a sector and for an organization where the majority of people don’t look like me. Although this had not particularly escaped my attention the main thing that I had felt that my colleagues and I didn’t have in common over the years was the fact that I don’t drink!

 

Suddenly my skin tone became visible to me. We were all in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion mode. Diversity was no longer good enough and the disproportionality of the COVID-19 impact on people of colour was impossible to ignore, we had to respond.

 

But what did I know? I had assimilated. I had left my identity focus of colour and moved to the higher ground of systems, processes and equal access for all.

 

I was completely conflicted and felt as though I had betrayed a very old friend. That 28-year-old who entered the world of funding at the end of the 90s. He looked at me hard and judged me. I had let him ‘and my people’ down.

 

I wasn’t ready to respond and certainly not in a place to represent and I resented the very thought that I would be expected to do so. I was safe and hidden but I had known for some time that I had lost my sense of identity, although to be honest, I thought it was because I was turning 50!

 

Re-awakening (becoming Woke)

So, I went on a journey. I spoke to colleagues, including former colleagues who are people of colour. I quickly recognised that by being in a majority white environment I had assimilated to its language and culture as a professional so that I would not feel alien and just left out. Besides, my former identity had no place in such a fair and neutral environment. I began to realise that when I started comparing it with the time I worked in a more ethnically mixed environment where I could look around and see people that looked like me. I had felt more comfortable in my skin and my cultural characteristics could be easily shared during my working day with colleagues without feeling that I was stepping outside of the majority culture because they were part of that culture too. I had felt more whole.   

 

I am still on that journey. I’m not back to where I was as a 28-year-old but moving forward. Taking in thoughts and feedback from colleagues and peers of all skin tones within the culture of this awesome sector. Our experiences vary but it is refreshing to learn that many acknowledge the discomfort that comes from discussing systemic racial bias (I hate using the term race to denote ethnicity).  

 

For people of colour, it seems easier to discuss the issues. In some discussions, it seems almost a release to be able to talk about these issues of access, support and equity after 20 plus years of the Diversity blanket. For people who are not black, brown or minoritized (I won’t say WAME), I do experience the occasional blank faces and awkward silences. It’s difficult to empathise with something that you have never observed or experienced and is unlikely to ever affect you. But it is also often difficult to convey. However, I would like to elicit understanding without having to repeatedly go through the emotional trauma of my or other peoples’ racist experiences, whether covert or overt. It is painful and uncomfortable. Particularly because I am not the source of it and cannot (will not) be pressured to resolve it alone. It is therefore what I would consider a blessing that the confidence and encouragement to write this article came from colleagues inside and outside of the Foundation. Of whom the majority are white.

 

I’ve met many brave people over the course of my time in this sector who have lived through horrific experiences. I would not compare mine with theirs for a moment, but what I have learnt is that they don’t want to be defined forever by those negative experiences. Nor should they have to repeatedly outline them in order to justify their need for things to change.  

 

One way that we can all move forward is to avoid using terms that box people into stereotypes and divide. Instead, let us see people and refer to them in a way that better reflects who they are with all the complexities of their characteristics, most of which we share. This might serve to better inform and unite us.