Time and time again I find myself in positions where I’m asked to comment on a particular group, probably because I am the closest representation in the room. I may be asked what platform is best to engage ‘young people’ or how can organisations reach more ‘diverse’ communities.
On the surface these seem like fairly genuine questions. What lies beyond that, and has always concerned me, is that the people asking me these questions are seeing me as the voice for all young people (because I’m the youngest in the room) and the voice for all non White English community groups (because I’m the only non White English person in the room).
The reality is that MY experience is just that; mine. I cannot tell you what the ‘young people’ today are doing; I’m 26 with a dog and a mortgage (not the ‘young’ audience they’re thinking of) and I’m mixed-race born in England (probably not within the ‘diverse’ communities they’re thinking of). But in that room, I become the closest thing to these non-represented groups.
But what does this mean for me and the people I’m asked to represent?
Sometimes it’s possible for me to simply say “I can’t answer that” and direct them to the right groups to find answers, but on occasion it’s more problematic to do this. There are times when the only opportunity to hear a different perspective, or to air a concern that no-one else has considered because of their similar perspectives; is me.
I found myself in this position recently when I felt strongly about a piece of work I’d seen. As the only person looking from a non-white perspective I was in the minority in the view I had of it and it’s issues around representation. Had I not spoken out, no-one else in the room would have questioned this. So even though I don’t belong to the group concerned by the piece; I was the closest to a representative that they had in that moment. Was I right to speak? Since speaking to others about it I believe I was. Can I genuinely and honestly be speaking on behalf of an entire community, and in particular one that I’m not even part of? No, but what I tried to do in that instance was to use my experience of being ‘other’ to see things from another view.
This puts a massive amount of responsibility on my shoulders, and I know this is an experience that many BAME professionals in the sector face. I’ve heard some people saying that this is the reason they won’t join a board unless there is at least one other BAME person on there too. They refuse to become the token and be asked to speak for all of those not represented in the room. The difficulty is that we don’t always have that choice. Quite often at conferences, events or meetings we find ourselves being the only BAME person in the room and what do we do then?
So what about the people we’re being asked to represent? Whilst I would always try my best to give an opinion without bias and based on my knowledge of working with a range of different groups; it’s impossible for me to ever fully detach my own personal experience and environment. So whilst I may be trying my best, the group is still being mis-represented; only now – the people doing the asking think they’ve got the answers they need so there’s no reason to keep interrogating.
Sometimes I find myself questioning what’s worse – having no voice in the room at all, or having a voice in the room that isn’t truly representative? But how can any one person be representative of an entire group – it’s this homogenous thinking that is so often the problem. We talk in the sector of groups as a whole far too much and in doing so miss the complexities and intersectionality that exists.
Then I start to think, what can I do to ensure none of these become a reality? There’s a few things that we all should do if in this position…
- Being a reminder rather than a voice for those not in the room. Instead of finding ourselves in a position where we give opinions on how others may feel, we can simply remind people that we’re missing these perspectives in the room and need to solve that before making any further progress.
- Staying true to ourselves and our own experience. We need to recognise and understand exactly who we are and what males is tick, particularly when in positions of power. Our background, our privilege, our understanding, our perspectives; all of this effects our ability to think without bias.
- Building a support network around us. We need to keep reminding ourselves of what this position of power means on a larger scale. The impact it can have on us personally and the sector more widely. We can do that by surrounding ourselves with critical friends; people who understand the position we’re in, are supportive of us and our aims, yet objective and honest enough to correct us.
Featured image: street art in Birmingham city centre