One afternoon in the 1950s, a man is listening to The Boat Race on the radio. He is partaking in an activity so quintessentially British that it is of little concern to anyone outside the United Kingdom. But the man is not listening in Oxford, Cambridge or London. He listens on the island of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean Sea. Britain is his self-described ‘mother country’, and he is, himself, British.
This picture, of the man in the Caribbean tuning into radio waves from London, was painted with vivid affection by his grandson, Martin Forde QC, during the ‘Race in Britain’ conference. This anecdote went straight to the heart of the event: who is included in our imagined community of fellow citizens, and who is not?
'In 2018, the Windrush Scandal, the Grenfell Tower fire and the Brexit negotiations have all made issues of exclusion and inclusion more personal, urgent, and undeniably contemporary'
Researchers, activists, academics and policymakers had all gathered at Cumberland Lodge for two days, to explore how inequality, identity and belonging intersect with race in Britain today. The conference, which was convened in partnership with the Runnymede Trust as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, could not have been timelier. Seventy years ago, the Empire Windrush moored in London; 50 years ago, Enoch Powell delivered his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Yet, this conference was far from caught up in the past: in 2018, the Windrush Scandal, the Grenfell Tower fire and the Brexit negotiations have all made issues of exclusion and inclusion more personal, urgent, and undeniably contemporary.
‘The way we talk about race says a lot about who we are as a nation’, argued one of the conference participants. If this conference had served as somebody’s introduction to the British conversation on race and inequality, what might they have deduced about us as a nation? That Britons harbour a keen interest in history, perhaps. Several presentations on Britain’s colonial past and post-war migration policies by guest speakers at the conference helped to contextualise the current state of affairs. That they know the diverse manifestations of group-based inequality to be real. We heard a lot of personal stories from activists that helped bring to life the comprehensive analyses and research findings of academics. And finally, that there is a hunger for difficult conversations.
In fact, this call for ‘more difficult conversations’ ran through the conference’s many sessions like a 24-hour-long red thread. It left me wondering what exactly we mean when we default to ‘more difficult conversations’ as the answer to all questions on reducing inequality.
Difficult conversations take us beyond opinion-based echo chambers, because they bring together people who disagree – sometimes fundamentally – on issues that matter. But difficult conversations need to be more than just exchanges of proverbial blows where the outcome, often even the sequencing of arguments, seems inevitable from the outset. If we call for difficult conversations because we want to generate viable solutions to pressing problems, then we need to recognise that conversations are essentially dialectic: people in conversation listen to one another and build arguments in response to, rather than in spite of, their conversational partner’s propositions.
Maybe difficult conversations are rare because what makes a subject difficult is that it is construed in ‘winner-takes-all’ terms, where conceding any ground in the argument is profoundly threatening. These conversations are difficult because they require trust and generosity in spirit. When the stakes are high, and the subjects as emotive as ‘political blackness’ or ‘white privilege’, few of us are ready to explore any sort of grey area, any middle ground.
‘We are not yet able to talk about racism in a grown-up way’
Were the conversations that emerged throughout this conference difficult? There were glimmers of disagreement on whether inequality is best redressed through ‘top-down’ changes or individual citizens’ choices, on matters of reparations to victims of Britain’s colonial past, and on the power (or not) of data when it comes to changing hearts and minds. Nevertheless, despite the diversity of attendees’ life experiences and job titles, there was little disagreement on the fundamentals: racism is real; social diversity is an asset to be treasured and protected; skin colour and cultural background are never the whole story, but interact in intricate ways with gender and class.
Of course, Cumberland Lodge was not shy when issuing invitations to participants who might have disagreed with some of these tenets. One participant put it succinctly: ‘We are not yet able to talk about racism in a grown-up way’. Another described this country’s relationship with racism as almost laughably British: awkward and squeamish.
This conference could never fully reflect how British society at large engages with subjects like racism and inequality. And yet, by bringing together people across sectors and disciplines who share a vision for a more equitable and integrated society, it will have helped to foster more nuanced views amongst the many participants and encouraged them to look outside of their familiar communities for allies in a common cause. It has laid the groundwork for new collaborative, cross-sector and interdisciplinary initiatives to emerge, and ultimately for more productive and honestly difficult conversations around race in Britain to flourish.
Let’s now embrace the challenge of finding partners for the many controversial and yet solution-oriented ‘difficult conversations’ that Britain so dearly needs!