There is a sequence in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where the protagonist is repeatedly chastised by Brother Jack, leader of pseudo-Marxist organisation the Brotherhood, for inflaming what is termed “Negro sentiment”. He is reminded that to be successful, they have to be colour-blind even if that means knowingly retarding the economic and social welfare of African Americans in their constituency. He is, in effect, told to forget the fact of his own Blackness.
I have been invisible. We have been invisible.
By failing to celebrate and affirm my ethnic minority identity I have made myself invisible. My community of BAME colleagues has been invisible. We have not chosen to do so because we are ashamed, or because those identities are incidental. We have done so, in large measure, because we are scared of how affirmations of our identities will harm us professionally. It is an unspoken but universally acknowledged rule: identify as a racial or ethnic minority and prepare to be branded as a trouble-maker, spoiling to play the race card when things don’t go your way.
And yet, while BAME staff suffer under the radar, other minorities have liberated themselves to celebrate their identities in the workplace. Women and the LGBTQ community are prime examples. They are (rightly) open, proud and organised. The BAME community? Atomised, demoralised, and disorganised.
Not all minorities are equal
It is time to openly acknowledge some hard truths. Firstly, depending on institutional context, some minority identities are privileged and others are marginalised. Secondly, minorities can oppress and fail to support other minorities. Just because you may have been the victim of discrimination yourself does not immunise you from discriminatory behaviour. Lastly, being a certain type of minority does not mean that you speak for all, represent all, or can identify with the struggles of all.
Launching the BAME Network at the University of Southampton
I write all this to announce that I have committed to setting up a Black and Ethnic Minority Network, open to all staff and PGRs at the University of Southampton. I do so with the explicit support of our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Lead, Professor Nyovani Madise. I am now looking for a co-chair to join me, and members to form the network. We will nurture, protect and support BAME staff at the University of Southampton at all stages of their careers, including as ECRS and through the probation and promotion processes.We will only speak and act from a position of love and pride, and we will openly affirm and celebrate BAME identities. In so doing, we will help the university retain and recruit BAME talent.
The time for invisibility is over.