Earlier this year, my friend Bec* and I were out walking our dogs around a local inner-city park. It was a glorious day, and picnickers were scattered about beneath the trees, including a group of 30 or so women. I didn’t think a lot about it. I just put my dogs on the lead so that they didn’t go and enjoy the picnic too.
“Interesting,” Bec said, once we had passed by. I hadn’t noticed what she had – that a well-known feminist and activist was at the picnic’s centre, and that everyone seated around her was youngish and white.
The news from the US, where Bec and her partner were living until last year, was at the time filled with stories about attacks on Asians resulting from COVID-related racist violence. Bec, Australian of Chinese-Malay heritage, was acutely aware of this. As was I. But for Bec it was personal. For her, witnessing the gap between this well-known activist’s public position of inclusivity and her private reality hurt.
Once pointed out, the effect was stark, and I fell into sympathetic judgement. But shame set in later as I thought of the friends I see most often. Until recently, the writers I know, and a lot of those published more broadly, have been a fairly homogenous group: middle-class and white.
The world, after a time of reckoning, is finally opening up for younger writers of diverse backgrounds. Some of this is the result of deliberate initiatives, including prizes and mentorships. But change is slow. Publishing itself is still overwhelmingly white. Thinking about that group in the park made me consider myself, and the personal reckoning wasn’t comfortable.
The responsibility for change lies with the dominant culture.
Something similar happens in workplaces. A teacher friend recently told me of a principal who appoints new teachers on the basis of who she feels comfortable with. New hires are invariably younger versions of herself: blonde, white, and female. Unconscious bias often draws people towards the familiar – including beliefs, cultures and attitudes – and to the status quo being affirmed rather than questioned. But we are all the poorer for it.
Another friend, someone who ticks a ‘diversity box’ – the only person on staff who does – is routinely centred in advertising material for the educational institution where they teach. Such tokenism, in private or professional life, is not the answer. Representation matters for the future as well. “You have to see it to be it,” goes the saying.
The message is loud and clear in politics, where women and people of colour are often seen as troublesome challengers to a dominant group of middle-aged white men. A recent preselection battle to replace an MP accused of antisocial behaviour saw a man who was described as an “aggressive misogynist” selected over five women.
The responsibility for change lies with the dominant culture. These examples demonstrate why quotas and affirmative action policies are sometimes necessary to ensure diversity and equality of representation. Employers need to be actively conscious of diversity when appointing people to positions, including leadership roles, and when electing people to professional associations in which people from diverse backgrounds are underrepresented.
The slow shifts in societal attitudes can make change complex and glacial. Countries, societies, families and workplaces are slow-moving ships sailing through time. But that can’t be an excuse for not taking action. Choosing to be aware of the current direction, instead of your immediate instincts, is crucial to making decisions about changes that are not only socially just, but also beneficial to all of us.
People of colour report being targeted as potential friends by those trying to burnish their socially progressive credentials, which is parasitic rather than friendly behaviour.
Perhaps we need to take stock of the narrow worlds we sometimes inhabit, get out of our “villages”, and find ways to enter the broad and unimaginably rich world that is Australia.
*Name changed to protect anonymity