‘As we re-evaluate statues and debate connections between venerable institutions and the slave trade, racism persists’: has the civil service made progress in addressing inequality?

The murder of George Floyd led to renewed focus on action to tackle racism. One year on, Ayo Awoyungbo shares his personal reflections on the civil service’s efforts
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By Ayo Awoyungbo

25 May 2021

I love language. English isn’t my mother tongue but I’m fluent – I’d be hard pressed to work as a civil servant if I wasn’t. Language is wonderful for conveying nuance. Take the Inuit, who, according to legend, have over fifty words for snow. How many ways can you describe graupel or polycrystals? Their language is part of the Eskimo - Aleut group so best to ask a native speaker if this is genuine polysynthesis or simply a root word with suffixes.

Then there’s Yoruba, a language of rhythmic cadences that encompasses distinct and distinctive dialects spoken in Nigeria, Benin Republic, and parts of Togo and Sierra Leone. We have a word – abosi – which means hypocrisy or deception or pretence, depending on the situation. And back to English, where popular idioms express shades of meaning. Consider the phrase ‘to kick something into the long grass’. Evoking a football punted into the bushes, it’s a fantastic description of pushing aside a problem in the hope it can be ignored. I don’t think there’s an English word that precisely captures it although I wouldn’t bet against a German compound noun. But in the context of the response to George Floyd’s death and heightened awareness of racial inequality, abosi, in Yoruba, is apt.

In May 2020, one man knelt upon the neck of another. We all felt it – although, of course, not literally. Aghast at this convergence again – of racial injustice and police brutality, the hand-in-pocket pose of the perpetrator, as a life ebbed away, spoke to a disrespectful nonchalance. It’s history now and some believe we learn from it. As protests gave way to collective introspection, there was as much said across the civil service as there was in real life. There were action plans and plans of action, occasionally with aspirational milestones. Diversity and inclusion strategies were refreshed; we recommended books and attended meetings. Some declared themselves allies. Others shared their lived experiences. And as we curated materials to inform next steps, the most recent government review swelled the pile, urging that we look beyond race to other causes of disadvantage. There are no easy answers but together we welcomed another false dawn.

I applaud civil service initiatives to address inequality but acknowledge that these alone cannot remedy societal disparities which transcend the workplace and impact black people’s lives. As we re-evaluate commemorative statues, ponder the repatriation of looted artefacts, and debate connections between some of our venerable institutions and the transatlantic slave trade, racism persists. When it manifests, it often does so imperceptibly, in routine behaviours and decision making by those purporting to exercise authority. Now unconscious bias training is no longer in vogue, civil service programmes intended to fill the void should reflect that although there are nine protected characteristics in the Equality Act, George Floyd was killed because of one. Training on inclusion and diversity and all protected characteristics is important but risks missing the point, even if it makes us feel better. Maybe that is the point. Whilst we speak of racism in abstract, as something ‘out there’, defying control, confirmation bias reigns supreme, engendering a disconnect between what we imagine is the outcome we desire and the steps we will take to achieve it. That racism is not as bad as it was, or that it’s better for black people in the United Kingdom than in the United States is cold comfort when juxtaposed with documented disproportionality in, for example, stop and search and use of force by the police.

We need to plug the gap between principle and implementation, but the sticking point is doing what is required. There are no easy questions. What can we tolerate? What will we give up? Why do we expect external transformation without internal?  Where on the moral spectrum does structural as opposed to individual racism lie?  The Windrush scandal demonstrated how past events impact present realities, sometimes with devastating consequences. Tasked hypothetically to design a theory of change, I’d place historical literacy front and centre, because as long as parts of British history are obscured by myths of empire and exceptionalism, it remains a challenge for some to accept black people as equal. Not victims. Not villains. Just human. Contemporary dog whistle narratives ensure that false notions of black people’s intrinsic inferiority linger, so if you are sincere, start by examining your heart and mind. Although knowledge can alter attitudes (or entrench them), I’m not convinced we need training courses to recognise and abandon the baked-in biases that occasionally influence our actions. Maybe those television adverts showing ethnically diverse families doing ordinary things will disrupt our postcolonial psychodrama. Not ready? Then let’s get on with our lives. What’s not to like about the status quo?  Status Quo - that’s Latin for rock band. I love language. I’m all mardy about racial injustice. And no, I’m not done mithering.

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