PORTRAITS AND GIFTS
Last Autumn I worked with the talented artist, Heather Agyepong as part of a forward-thinking collective at Seen Fifteen gallery, entitled VISIBLE:IN. The exhibition provoked conversations about race and multiculturalism also featuring Lea Nagano’s ‘Mixedness’ – which forms part of a new workshop, Market Fresh, looking at different ways to connect with workplace diversity.
In her work ‘Too Many Blackamoors’ through a series of powerful portraits, Heather assumes the persona of Lady Sarah Forbes Bonetta – with a starting point of 1850 and the arrival of Lady Sarah, a ‘gift’ to Queen Victoria from King Ghezo of Dahomey (a part of modern day Benin)
Freed from slavery, to become the adopted charge of the Queen, Lady Sarah was a regular visitor to Windsor Castle and moved within in the most privileged echelons of British society. Queen Victoria herself, having once declared there were ‘Too Many Blackamoors’, was ‘impressed’ by her “regal manner and exceptional academic intelligence”.
Lady Sarah Forbes Bonetta in 1862
This was almost two centuries ago. In 1862, Lady Sarah would have experienced such vastly contrasting environments in her journey from West Africa to Windsor. Imagine the societal expectations and sadly, extreme biases she may have experienced along the way. Think about how much has changed since those days. So much, and yet in some respects, so little.
Two days ago, Members of Cambridge University’s Afro-Caribbean Society (CUACS) posed for a photograph outside St John’s College to challenge the stereotype of a Cambridge student. #blackmenofcambridge went viral highlighting the fact that in 2015, only 15 black, male undergraduates were accepted into Cambridge. One of the students involved, Dami Adebayo commented: ‘Young black men don’t grow up thinking they’ll make it here. They should.’
When I talk to Heather about her work, she draws parallels with the barriers Lady Sarah may have faced and those experienced her own life. Racial biases, particularly those in the workplace or highlighted by the young black men of Cambridge university. Heather refers to some of the more subtle barriers as ‘micro-aggressions’ – disappointingly still part of our post-Victorian society and perhaps felt more strongly in the corridors of our oldest educational institutions. The “harmless” banter. The small-talk questions that only serve to divide. The ‘where are you from – originally?’. At a base level, it’s tiring – and can even go on to prevent people from fulfilling their authentic potential in day-to-day roles as well as their entire careers.
It’s no surprise that in mid 1800s Lady Sarah Bonetta didn’t take a role with (or at) Brunel. Despite being bi-lingual and extremely bright, Victorian attitudes towards women in the workplace, on top of racial prejudice, prevented Lady Sarah from fully utilising her gifts. On top of her exceptional academic intelligence – consider her exceptional insights, her connections with the world, her ability to flex and thrive within vastly different environments. What an asset to the Brunel engineering team she would have been.
So, fast-forward 150 years. Research broadly shows that less 1% of people working at tech companies are women of colour. The tech industry is well aware of this problem, aside from the moral imperative alone, the lack of employee diversity limits innovation. It’s a complex and nuanced challenge and one they’re trying to fix. Well documented, contributory factors include lack of visible female role models in Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM), unconscious racial and gender bias in the workplace, institutionalised gender bias in STEM education and societal attitudes to ‘genderised jobs’. On top of this centuries of racial prejudice and gender hierarchy limiting access to opportunities.
SO, IT’S 2017 – WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Workplace inclusion ideas: Inspired by Heather Agyepong last autumn, the Members of Cambridge University’s Afro-Caribbean Society this week and Lady Sarah Bonetta, from 150 years ago:
- UNITING CONVERSATION: When asking personal questions, make them uniting. Instead of ‘Where are you from?’ how about ‘Where do you like going at the weekend?’ Find common ground, instead of highlighting divides.
- CALL IT OUT: If you think a comment is a racist micro-aggression, then have the courage to call it out. If you are a people manager, reward this courage in others.
- ROLE MODELS: Holding up role models allows others to have visible validation of potential success.
- THINK IN 3D: While ethnicity, race and background form a significant part of identity, it’s not the full picture. These characteristics are the 2D proxies to 3D selves. Think in 3D- global connections, unique perspectives, resilience and innovation.
Heather Aygepong next to her powerful work ‘Too Many Blackamoors’, as part of Visible:IN at Seen Fifteen Gallery