The problem with silence in the campaign for diversity

Posted by Sara Hawthorn

When it comes to diversity and inclusion the devil is always in the detail. The injustice of everyday things is what incenses me. The things so commonplace and mundane that they are either missed or dismissed as anything concerning or worthy of note.

A thing like four white commentators being asked for their views on cultural appropriation and it being almost entirely ignored as being any way problematic.

It has been a week since PR Week’s commentary on #JerkGate. I have left it deliberately this long to see whether it was flagged up. Whether the women of colour who did pick this up (Twitter handles at the bottom of this article) were supported in their condemnation by the white PR community.

Turns out, not so much. The fact that PR Week failed to find a single PoC to comment on the Jerk Gate piece is difficult to believe when PR Pros like Elizabeth Bananuka has an accessible database of over 300 people, but this is not a piece about that.

This is a blog about silence. It’s about the congratulatory nature of big diversity initiative announcements compared with relative silence over every day occurrences that slyly add another brick to the wall of diversity and inclusion challenges.

I understand that some people who read this will think I’m angry about the wrong thing, or that it wasn’t a big enough issue to warrant this kind of response. They’re wrong. Everyone who champions diversity and inclusion, everyone who blogs about it, talks about it and speaks about it should have supported the women who flagged this up. We know how Twitter works, the ripple effect means that things pop into our timeline, tagging people in replies gets us to take note.

But nothing happened. Elizabeth Bananuka’s retweet of Anouchka Burton’s original tweet mustered 4 RTs and 7 likes, Anouchka’s didn’t fare much better – just 7 RTs and 18 likes. And the people who commented on her tweet? Almost all women of colour.

Imagine, just imagine, if that article had been about maternity pay and they’d asked four men for their opinions. I don’t believe that anyone, particularly white, female PR pros would have let that slide. But when race plays a role we are suddenly quiet. It’s unacceptable.

When speaking up involves potentially calling out leading voices in the industry, including a respected industry publication – this poses a risk to our reputations, to our ability to be respected and worked with. It poses a risk to our privileged position as white people working in PR. And so we are quiet, because it is not worth the risk.

This is uncomfortable to write. I am aware that this is difficult ground. I am aware of all of the above but I cannot and should not call myself an ally, an activist or a campaigner of diversity and inclusion of disabled people in PR, if I’m not willing to also look out for and support other people who speak up when something is wrong. This is why the devil is in the detail. We cannot glorify big ideas whilst simultaneously ignoring daily discriminations that add to the problem.

It’s also probable, that for many people, the inclusion of comments from four white people didn’t even raise a flag as being odd, so commonplace is the absence of thought or opinion from people of colour from our media. And so frightened are we (white people) of having a discussion about race that we’d rather let something like this slide than speak up and support those who call it out.

We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘paying lip service to diversity’, yet how many of us attach it to the daily things we see and ignore? Usually it’s used it to describe announcing a new diversity policy with no real willingness or detailed plan on how to put said policy in place to effect real measurable change.

If we truly have a desire for change, if we are going to deem ourselves ‘committed’, ‘championing’ or ‘passionate’ then staying quiet when there is opportunity to speak up can’t be an option.


Things you can do right now:

Follow @ElizabethBananuka and read this post on her LinkedIn about being black in PR

Follow @bmeprpros

Follow @AnouchkaBurton

Follow snd support the Taylor Bennett Foundation: @PRstarsTB