Diversity: A black life

In this new monthly column for TBI, the Creative Diversity Network’s executive director Deborah Williams reflects on her own role and explores how the industry can deliver change rather than simply talk about it

A year ago, I was in Minneapolis. It was my birthday. I should have been in NYC with my mother celebrating Stonewall as I was born on Stonewall Sunday. But my mother had passed in January and the world and his mother was going to be in New York for World Pride. So I got me some creative inspiration from Paisley Park and soaked up Prince and his creative emporium on my birthday.

A year on, Minneapolis has the world at its door. This time, it was in response to the murder of a black man because he was a black man. This – matched with the global pandemic – has given me time to think about my role and the work that we do at the UK’s Creative Diversity Network.

Inequality and injustice is built into the bones of this industry. In fact, every industry is built on institutional racism. We don’t like to talk about it and acknowledge it but it’s true. It is now clear that seeking to be part of the institutions, structures and networks that already exist is a fruitless exercise if what you are looking for is truly transformational change. And to avoid any confusion, that is what I am working towards. If Black Lives Matter means anything, it means transformation.

I’ll admit that my way of working is very much the Gordon Ramsay approach to diversity – and I am proud of it. I get called on to do things, come in and transform, as a result there is change, there is success. I then get hatred and doubts, as well as recriminations, for doing what I said I would. If I am honest, it took me a while, but I’ve now got used to it and in truth, when it is followed through with the action prescribed, the outcome is so supreme that I can’t help but let things go. And then I wander off into the darkness to start all over again, somewhere else.

There are however downsides. It leaves you open to ‘allies’ who think they are better placed to tell you that lynchings are not a ‘black thing’, and organisations that flex muscles and head at you like a bull out of the gate to knock you out of what they perceive to be ‘their space’. And then there’s the chattering voices off stage left, made up of those people who read something once and are now experts in your life’s work. It hurts. It’s personal and it’s relentless and real.

I believe that we all need to take this time now to reflect and to consider what we are seeking to achieve, how to achieve it and most importantly how we do this together.

First, I will say that recent developments should be celebrated and enabled to take seed. We also have to make sure that the doors do not close after the noise has stopped.

Secondly, there are so many more indices that need to be considered as the debate is opened up.

Finally, the whole business of diversity is overcrowded and unmonitored – and there is little to no quality control, which it needs.

I hope that with this monthly column we will bring big thinking and ideas to the fore, so we can discuss and debate things that are less shared: real people, insights from academics, thinkers and influencers. And, of course, the most important thing of all: that the talent, quality and creativity of diversity will highlight how the lack of plurality is having a negative impact on our industry.

I also want to show that it doesn’t need to be as difficult as we are making it; that collaboration is the key to our success. Ultimately, it will prove that we never have to go back to normal, as we all know that ‘normal’ was not good enough. ‘Normal’ was daily injustice, large and small. Personally, and professionally, I need to be sure that when we say Black Lives Matter, we mean all black lives, including mine.

Deborah is executive director at the UK’s Creative Diversity Network and has worked in arts, culture and the creative industries for more than three decades

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