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At the age of 18, I lived in a student residence that was cosmopolitan, there were fellow students from the Caribbean, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Mauritius and several African countries.
One of the things that I quickly came to realise was that irrespective of our heritage and cultural differences, there were actually more similarities than differences.
It was also readily apparent to me that my fellow students simply wished to be treated with respect and to be given an equal chance. What they did not want or need was patronising or preferential treatment.
“I’ve seen huge changes for the better but I am mindful that there is still much to do”
Working in healthcare and related industries throughout my adult life, I’ve made many friends from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. I’ve seen huge changes for the better but I am mindful that there is still much to do.
What concerns me is the outbreak of self-flagellation by many White people who are in positions of influence. I am conscious that some of these people have been in positions of power and authority for many years.
I hear phrases from some White middle class people that roll too easily off the tongue. “Institutional racism is rife” and “We are a racist society” are two examples.
Recently in relation to the Royal College of Nursing presidential elections someone tweeted: “Will the appointment of the RCN president be another brick in the white wall of the establishment or is it time for change?”
The tweet went onto suggest that a BAME president would start a new era for the NHS. With due respects to the current and past presidents of the RCN, it’s lost on me how a Black president of the RCN can start a new era for the NHS.
This tweet sums up my concerns. It’s just too easy to make these sweeping statements, which may give the individual a sense that they are contributing to the debate, however they could be counterproductive.
“My concern is that the current debate on racism in the NHS and in broader society is too superficial”
Look at the evidence. The current general secretary of the RCN is Dame Donna Kinnair, a Black woman, and when I took up post at the RCN, my predecessor was Beverly Malone also a Black woman.
To have two Black women as general secretaries of a trade union in the UK is truly exceptional. In addition, from 2015 to 2019 the president of the RCN was Cecilia Anim, a Black woman from Ghana.
Furthermore, until recently the longstanding regional director for the RCN in London was a Black man and the current regional director of the college in the North West of England is a woman of colour, I could go on.
My concern is that the current debate on racism in the NHS and in broader society is too superficial and with so many people making statements similar to the one I’ve described.
These acts may well be a way of some people indemnifying themselves against any suggestion that they may be racist. “Me, racist? Look at the statements I’ve made”.
I’m sure many make these statements with good intentions but it’s too easy to do.
‘Taking the knee’ may have raised awareness of racism but for me it is now on a par with the Thursday night clapping for the NHS. It has lost its meaning.
Recently Emile Heskey and Les Ferdinand, two Black footballers, expressed the same concern. Emile Heskey said he thought taking the knee had now become a gimmick and Les Ferdinand said that he wanted to see action not words and taking the knee has become “a fancy hashtag or a nice pin badge”.
“We need a more thoughtful discussion to understand the causation of racism”
Think about it, these two men are great role models and in their careers they have had at times suffered racist abuse and chants from the terraces. Their thoughts are worth reflecting on.
I do not believe we are a racist society but there are racists and in some organisations racist practise. We need a more thoughtful discussion to understand the causation of racism rather than going with the flow, which in my opinion will achieve little or nothing.
While I want to ensure that people are given a fair and equal chance I do not want to see people getting jobs on the basis of their colour and in my experience neither do people of colour. They should get jobs on their ability and there is no shortage of talented BAME people.
There is a danger that people are appointed for the wrong reasons and BAME people must be wary they do not become the modern day ‘White man’s trophy’.
The term institutionally racist is now sprinkled around so liberally it has also lost its meaning.
I say to BAME people, be wary of your fair-weather (White) friends. Judge people in authority on what they have done, not just on what they say they intend to do.
Dr Peter Carter is former chief executive, Royal College of Nursing