Dezeen Magazine

Michelle Ogundehin on diversity

"Let's talk about diversity"

We need to provoke discussion, not anger, when it comes to talking about diversity, says Michelle Ogundehin, who shares her personal experiences with racism, views on positive discrimination and ways in which individuals can make a difference.

So, let's talk about diversity in design. I am a woman of mixed-heritage (my father was black Nigerian, my mother is white British), and I was brought up to 'not' see colour (more on this later). My position was that I was living proof that racism was ridiculous. And if anyone ever said anything untoward, I considered it a factor of their stupidity and ignorance, not a reflection on me.

But in my introspection after the death of George Floyd, I recognised the significance of the fact that I do, nonetheless, remember every racially motivated incident that I have ever experienced. Thankfully, there were very few of which I'm consciously aware (which is also significant). However, as much as I may have seemingly confidently brushed them off at the time, they hurt. But one in particular stood out.

I was probably about 11, walking home from school, and a gaggle of about three or four schoolboys were approaching from the other direction. I thought nothing of it until, as they got within earshot, one of them said something unpleasant, and his friends all laughed. All except one, who on seeing my little face crushed by their words, said loudly and clearly, "Leave her alone". I had all but forgotten this scene. Then, via recent events, the memory was triggered. The point being, I don't recall the insults, only that one boy looking me directly in the eye, seeing my hurt and telling his friends to stop. He stood up. He said something. He didn't hesitate. He was probably 13. I walked home happy. I don't think I even mentioned it to my parents.

Trauma is never forgotten

So here's the thing: I think the root of all lack-of-diversity issues, whatever the industry, lie in the place where the following two realities coalesce: 1. How many children of a non-white background do not pursue this, that or the other career because they think they won't succeed/be accepted/fit in? And 2. Trauma is never forgotten.

For example, when I studied at University College London's Bartlett School of Architecture, the dominant question at the time was: why were there not more female architects? Certainly, there were fewer women than men on my course, and correspondingly fewer women went on to pursue it as a career for many different reasons, myself included.

But I think one possible explanation for the paucity of female applicants lies way back in childhood. Why would a little girl think that architecture was not a good path for them? Let alone any child of colour, or any other ethnic background.

Can it therefore be the "fault" of the industry concerned if it does not get the applications? Which, I know, immediately raises the response: but why, then, does the industry in question not do more to attract individuals who are non-white/female/insert here any other descriptor? Perhaps they could, but I think the answer still reverts to the same inquiry: why would any non-white/female/whatever child think that they could not do something, because they are non-white/female/whatever?

Bear with me, I am not diminishing the issue of race as a specific block here, nor am I saying that racism is on a par with sexism, ageism or any other ism. It is not. Only that I think the results have the same cause: fear. Simply for being different. Fear of doing something. Fear of others. Fear of acceptance.

And to quote the inimitable Master Yoda, "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." And this is even before you turn that fear the other way around, i.e. adding in fear from a white population of that very difference = racism.
I reflected, too, on the various teams that I have had the privilege to lead in the thirteen years that I edited the British edition of Elle Decoration magazine.

Arguably you could say that with me as the editor-in-chief, it was a big klaxon for inclusivity. And yet, although my teams were certainly diverse in gender, sexuality, religion and interests, they were not diverse in colour, and neither was/is the publishing industry as a whole.

I for one am deeply uncomfortable with so called positive discrimination

However, every time I had a vacancy, I have no idea if many people of colour applied, because I only ever judged applicants on the relevance of their experience for the position in question, and on the quality of response to the various tests that we set as appropriate for the job (sample layouts to do for art, editing for subs, and so on).

And all of this was done blind, in that I only ever chose who to interview after I'd received these results. So, again, the question is: where were all the black, brown, Asian and other ethnicity applicants? Or should I have actively advertised for such applicants?

I for one am deeply uncomfortable with so-called "positive discrimination". It seems to be a clumsy solution that does not address the root cause. I wouldn't want to be anywhere as part of a quota. I want to succeed on merit alone. And I want anyone who works with me to feel like they are there on the basis of being the best person for the job, and that alone, too.

In the same breath, no one wants to be the token person of colour. The one trawled out when "equality" credentials need to be proven. I think I find this just as potentially racist, as it's a judgment made solely on the colour of one's skin (I put it up there with the old, "I'm not racist, I have black friends!" thing).

It also makes me reflect on my riposte if ever it was implied that my place at the table had been earned by virtue of such measures: Wow, just think, if I'd been gay as well, they could have ticked every box!

And in this way, I think we need to be a little careful moving forward. While we cannot drop the baton that's been handed to all of us right now to let our voices be heard against injustice or racism, let's also not make it into a "look-here-are-my-colourful-friends" singular moment either. Or worse, think that now we've posted our black squares on Instagram, we've done enough, proven our hearts are in the right places, and signalled our intent to do better. It is not enough.

No one wants to be the token person of colour

We will inevitably make mistakes, possibly even offend, but if we're trying to do something to address the situation, then we are moving forwards. It's only by doing something that we can be corrected, and thus evolve. Let's try to stay in the space of provoking discussion, not anger. Let's try to accept that we're all individually, and together, trying to work this thing out. Surely in any endeavour of growth we need to stay humble enough to accept that which we do not know, and be open to learn?

Key to me is that we each work out what we can authentically do. What feels right for us individually. You're allowed to not like everyone's choice of self-expression (what they do, not who they are)! Arguably we're all on a quest to find our like-minded tribe. I guess this is simply a call to know that there might be people who are into the exact same stuff as you are that don't look anything like you. But be aware that other worlds have much to teach; isn't this why we travel?

Additionally, from a creative perspective, according to research by social psychologist Julie Van de Vyver and Professor Richard Crisp, both at Durham University, breaking with our "birds of a feather flock together" mentality "helps to challenge the heuristic-based thinking that shapes our automatic thoughts". In other words, the more diversity you actively seek, the better your brain becomes at looking beyond the obvious for answers.

This also underlines why being taught to not see colour is actually a disservice. Well-intended, but wrong. Pretending everyone is the same is a failure to appreciate that we all have different histories, backgrounds and formative experiences. And this is precisely what gives us all so much to learn from each other. We deny this at our peril.

Being taught to not see colour is actually a disservice

Certainly, this can be one of the greatest joys of Instagram in particular. Referencing my feed, @michelleogundehin, to do a deep dive into the rabbit hole of IG in pursuit of stories about a particular colour (ironically) and to then find people all over the world creating glorious art united by this single theme, is a sublime joy.

If I like what they do, I couldn't care less whether they have ten followers or a million, or where they're from or what they look like. But I'm not going to start sharing stuff that I don't appreciate because now I feel ‘obliged' to promote people that look like me. And I'm pretty damn certain they wouldn't want me to either. Neither am I big on marches and protests. I've never liked crowds. I get too claustrophobic. And thus, we each find our way.

So, what am I going to do? When I was editing Elle Decoration (October 2017 was my last issue), I was occasionally invited into schools to talk about my career path. And in many inner city London schools, many of these children were also non-white, and I was always amazed, specifically, at the number of non-white girls who would rush to chat to me afterwards and grill me for advice, full of questions about how they could get started in magazines and publishing. I was amazed because I genuinely didn't think that what I'd achieved was that big a deal. I'd worked hard, kept going, and so it was.

But that was my privilege. What I saw in some of these children were the intrinsic doubts they held at the very core of their being. Doubts about themselves, their abilities and their suitability for any so-considered elite job seen as beyond the average norm for a person of colour, i. e. not an athlete, footballer, musician, and so on. And this despite the ever-growing number of role models of colour at the very top of their game, in all manner of professions, both in Britain and elsewhere.

What I see in America is an entire society built upon a very very shaky foundation

And here we come to the second part of my equation about diversity, the poisonous effect of trauma. What I realised was something profound about my brilliant black Nigerian-born father who came to live in England at the age of 18 in the early 1960s. He'd enjoyed an upper middle class life and a private school education in Nigeria (important because it means his formative years were without prejudice or lack), and when he arrived in the UK, his first job was working for the BBC, as a cameraman, before he decided (note the element of choice there too) to study civil and structural engineering at Manchester University, in the north west of England.

So my father, my primary role model, despite the fact that he was subsequently a victim of harassment, racial profiling, had his career plans thwarted, was barred from entry to certain places, and was routinely racially abused throughout his entire life in England, despite all of this in his personal history, not for one second did he ever plant a single seed of doubt in my mind, or that of my siblings, that we could not be, or do, whatever we wanted. Not once.

The point being that my father's sense of self (in turn founded by his father) ensured my childhood foundation was rock solid, and this enabled me to just-get-on-with-it. I did not internalise the micro-aggressions that I was party to. I never saw colour as a block to my progress because I did not learn to wear my colour as a badge of difference. It simply never occurred to me to do so. Just as the much touted ‘white privilege' enables the average white person to remain oblivious to that which does not directly affect them.

But what I see in America is an entire society built upon a very shaky foundation. An interview with American civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, published 1 June in The New Yorker, summarises it eloquently. "I think everything we are seeing is a symptom of a larger disease. We have never honestly addressed all the damage that was done during the two and a half centuries that we enslaved black people. The great evil of American slavery wasn't the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that black people aren't as good as white people, and aren't the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people."

I believe that we are all inevitably the product of our foundations

Here's also a four-minute animated video that beautifully, and more importantly simply, explains systemic racism in America. In short, the deck is stacked against people of colour right from the start, at the very foundation of their lives.

In a sort of conclusion then, I believe that we are all inevitably the product of our foundations. We cannot help but take on board the biases, traits and hurts of those who taught us, at least until we're old enough to be aware enough to shake some of it off and make up our own minds. Until the point at which we purposefully choose to educate and question ourselves as to who we actually want to be. Or have help to do so. For some this happens early in life, for others much later, and for some, never.

In the America of 2020, black parents have to teach their children how to respond to the police in order to protect them. (Watch the video Black Parents Explain How to Deal with the Police on the @cut feed). And they face constant, accumulating aggressions over a lifetime. I can only begin to imagine how this might sow, at an absolutely fundamental level, doubts about their very right to be alive, or to be truly valued members of society, let alone whether to be a lawyer or an interior designer.

And to be very clear, I am in no way blaming those parents – they have to tell their children this sort of thing, or risk them being killed. That is the shameful reality that has been so painfully exposed with George Floyd's broad daylight murder. A murder committed not just by the police officer who felt the need to kneel on his neck, but also by the officers who stood by for those 8 minutes and 46 seconds and chose not to intervene. Any one of them could have stood up, like the 13-year-old of my youth.

Here in the UK, I'd have liked to believe that it's not quite that awful, although I already know this assumption to be naive. Author Afua Hirsch wrote in a powerful conclusion to an article in the Guardian published 3 June: "We have taken what we inherited and had no choice but to make sense of it. We have studied, read, written and understood the destructive power of race. And we are telling you that race is a system that Britain built here." It is one of many articles that gave me pause for thought.

Here in the UK, I'd have liked to believe that it's not quite that awful, although I already know this assumption to be naive

So, the point is, I saw those same seeds of doubt imbued in young British children of colour, most especially where both parents were non-white — there is so much I could say about the difference in experience for a lighter-skinned mixed-race individual, but that would take another 1,000 words!

Suffice to say, read even Barack Obama's Wikipedia entry for a small glimpse into the difference and insight that his foundation of mixed parentage and upbringing gave him. Something I absolutely believe contributed to his ability to become the 44th president of the United States. Possibly provocatively, I might also add that his not-complete ‘blackness' also made him more palatable to many in America too.

As a result, I now feel that I have a duty to instil in as many children of colour as possible, that they can be, and do, anything that they want. Mentoring and encouragement to challenge that seed of doubt as early as possible. (I should add, children in Britain, because I genuinely don't know what the solution is for America. Sadly, the corrosive rot of systemic racism is so very deeply entrenched there.)

If a child's eventual path follows mine, then fabulous, but it doesn't really matter. In this way, I believe I can do something towards seeing more diversity any which way. And what follows is the beginnings of notes for the talks that I hope to start giving.

Let's help each other make a difference in whatever way we can.

Do not let anyone diminish the fire of your potential, least of all yourself. But also, your parents and friends. Often people express their own frustrations by mocking other people's dreams, which is all about them, not you.

There is no reason that you cannot do whatever it is that you desire to do. None. There will always be detractors and doubters, ignore them. A degree of insecurity is normal, but do not let it stop you. It's just alerting you to the fact that you are challenging yourself. This is how you grow. Read this story of a deaf and blind medical student if you're still not sure.

Do not let anyone diminish the fire of your potential

Remember that everyone fails sometimes. And sometimes often! Failure only becomes a mistake if you let it stop you pursuing your dream. Nearly every so-thought successful person I have ever interviewed recounts a story of something, or someone, that tried to make them change path. While their stories were all very different, what they had in common was an absolute stubbornness in the pursuit of their dreams.

If one door closes, find another one to open. And if you believe that a door was slammed in your face on the basis of your race, religion, appearance or whatever, then you do not want to work for that company or institution anyway. On this I am firm, although I know it's controversial, as you could say "but why shouldn't I walk through that door, I deserve it?"

Don't waste your energy battering down an unappreciative door. Divert it straight back into your worthy self. Then move on and take your talent and potential elsewhere. Liken this to a relationship. Why would you want to be with someone who does not respect or value what you have to offer? It would be nuts. Don't do this with your professional skills either.

Respect yourself and honour your passion by just starting. Write letters. Have ideas. Make applications, even where no job is advertised. Get training. This is only ever good; it makes you better at whatever it is that you want to do. Develop expertise. Find your niche. Do your research. Experience never gets old. And along the way, my hope would be that you find a like-minded tribe of all creeds and colours who can support you, a partner too perhaps, but ultimately, who we want to be starts and finishes with you as an individual.