DfID is internally permitting one-sided activism to the extent of appearing to adopt it
At what point does the official licence afforded to senior civil servants to promote and proselytise about their political activism shift from permitting a forum for department-wide debate and thought leadership to a mechanism for instilling only one authorised opinion that everyone else is expected to applaud or, at a minimum, keep their dissent to themselves? The Critic often receives examples of how government departments permit full licence for one side in the so-called “culture war” to have free rein over official departmental communications without affording alternative views the same legitimacy. By such means, conformity to a progressive agenda is condoned and any other view rendered unspeakable.
To illustrate this agenda, take the example of the Department for International Development (DfID). It’s internal intranet features a personal manifesto, written in confessional language, by a deputy director at DfID. Allowing a senior civil servant to present her instructions about how colleagues should think and activate her agenda on a departmental platform in this way lends her pronouncements the air of official sanction. As a private citizen, concerned about racism and how best to tackle it, she is welcome to her views. But as a civil servant communicating with other civil servants, this is intensely problematic and the fact that DfID clearly doesn’t see that this is so is all the more disturbing.
Sarah Sanyahumbi, deputy director, Special Projects, wrote the following – which we produce in full below – on DfID’s intranet. Self-evidently she did not feel that there was any reason why she, as a civil servant, should not use the resources of the civil service to communicate such highly politicised and contentious opinions to other civil servants. So the question is simply this, who’s waging the culture war? The people who can say what they want out loud or the people who can’t?
“I’d just accepted the status quo,” wrote Ms Sanyahumbi, “The white status quo. The white version of history and the white glorification of history.” Put to one side whether these opinions are questionable or not, just consider the position of civil servants who dissent from such views. Would they be able to? Would the culture of DfID permit such disagreement being voiced? Has any in fact been voiced? We’ve established that the Permanent Secretaries of both the Foreign Office and DfID have taken to signing off emails with – fully capitalised – “Black Lives Matter”. It would take a brave bureaucrat to disagree with that rank of consensus and as far as we’ve been able to establish, none has.
Responding to The Critic, a DfID spokesperson said, “we are committed to fighting racism and passionately support diversity and inclusion among our workforce. ”
How to be a White Ally
Deputy Director, Special Projects, DfID
I’ve found the past couple of weeks quite challenging and they have really made me think about my whiteness in a way I haven’t before.I would have said before all this that I am generally quite aware of colour – we discuss and talk about it quite openly at home and even joke about it at times: I have a black (African) husband and mixed race (brown) kids (I’m “peachy” apparently, not white), and my husband has definitely been the victim of racism from time to time. But the events since the murder of George Floyd in the US have brought a new awareness to me and challenged my thinking.For example, I was born and brought up in Bristol. Colston Girls School was the posh school up the road from mine. Colston Hall where I played in orchestra. Colston Street in the centre of town. Colston was synonymous with Bristol, and yes I knew he was a slave trader, but I never really questioned why he was still so prevalent in the city and so unspoken and unchallenged.
When I saw the footage of the statue of Colston being torn down I admit I was at first shocked and a bit sad that history was being defaced. Then a young black girl was interviewed who said that she was angry and upset every time she had to walk past his statue as it glorified Colston and the slave trade and “whitewashed” the death and misery that that trade inflicted on thousands of black people like her.
I was taken aback and forced to think from a new perspective. For all my supposed racial awareness I hadn’t thought of it in that way – I’d just accepted the status quo. The white status quo. The white version of history and the white glorification of history.
So I clearly need to do better and stop being complicit in the role of “white silence”. For the sake of my beliefs, and for the sake of my kids.
Below are some ideas I’ve found over the last few days about how I, as a white person, can better support black, Asian and minority ethnic family, friends and colleagues, and I promise that I will try to do better:
• Be prepared to get involved – There isn’t a quick fix to this systematic problem. Racism is not a new thing – it has been a feature of our society for hundreds of years and affects millions each day. We need to have continuous and at times difficult conversations with others and ourselves, long after the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) headlines have faded
• Educate yourself: ignorance is not an excuse – there are some great resources out there. Be aware of the disproportionate disadvantage that many BAME staff face across a range of systems (healthcare, justice, social care, housing, employment, etc) and how that is now being replicated within the impact of COVID-19. Be aware that the lived experience of BAME staff in DFID may not be so positive
• Recognise your white privilege, and use it – which means giving time, energy and power to create safer spaces and opportunities for others. Make it clear you are open to challenge your own prejudice and behaviour. If you want to engage with staff on an individual level, it should be an offer and not a required conversation: nobody has to share their emotional pain with their colleagues but, an offer to talk, listen and understand can be made
• Be better than “not racist”: be anti-racist – We should never let racism happen around us, we should work to dismantle it. Be ready to challenge and change – yourself and/or your way of doing things
• Call out racism in your family, friends and colleagues – When you see racism in any form (unintended or not) call it out, challenge perceptions. This can be use of language, assumptions, generalisations, stereotypes and others
• Listen when BAME people talk about racism and racial inequality: and don’t get defensive – Avoid drawing parallels with other types of social injustice such as sexism or discrimination of lower socio-economic groups. A sharp focus on race is not at the expense of other areas of injustice but often connected. Recognise and acknowledge the anger and emotion a lot of BAME, and particularly black staff, are feeling right now. Sometimes a bit of anger can push us to take action. It will be uncomfortable at times, but we have to get over our own discomfort so that we can appreciate and understand diverse perspectives and start making change
• Uplift BAME colleagues in your day to day life – Put black people forward for stretching work, mention their names when they are not present, give them the same time and respect you would to other colleagues
• Join the Race Network, and work to embed the Race Action Plan in your business areas and continue to talk about the Race.
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