Letter: Rise and shine
May 5, 2013
June 3, 2020
Kate Watson-Smyth of website and IG handle Mad About The House, podcast host, fellow writer and champion of all things wonderful in interior design asked me if I would comment on the lack of diversity in interior design. I am immensely grateful to her for asking as otherwise I may not have felt the drive to put all of my thoughts down here.
I’ve watched a lot of other friends and colleagues in our industry, of all shades and backgrounds, try to make sense of what we witnessed in America, wanting to do something, understand, stand in solidarity against racism and so on too. But also, I, alongside many of them, felt awkward, clumsy, uncomfortable, and a little afraid of saying the wrong thing. So because my answer to Kate’s question could not be summarised in a soundbite, I wrote this post. And I will probably need to keep amending and adding to it as my thoughts develop too (36 revisions and counting thus far!). I rather subscribe to the Joan Didion school of thought in that she said, “I write entirely to find out what I am thinking.” So here I shall begin…
You see, as a woman of mixed heritage [Edit: previously this said mixed-race, but, there is after all only one human-race, so that phrase suddenly feels quite inappropriate!] (my father was black Nigerian, my mother is white British), I was not brought up to 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 over the last few days, 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). Crucially, that 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 3 or 4 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.” It actually brings tears to my eyes as I write this, because I had all but forgotten this scene. Then, via recent events, the memory is 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.
Two things actually… I’m not sure ‘Why is there not more diversity in interior design?’ is the right question to ask. I think the real question is, how many children of a non-white background do not pursue a career in any industry because they think they won’t succeed/be accepted/fit in. And also, trauma is never forgotten.
I think the root of all diversity issues, whatever the industry, lie in the place where these two realities coalesce.
For example, if we start with the why… when I studied architecture at University College London’s Bartlett School, the dominant question at the time was why were there not more female architects? Certainly there were less women than men on my course, and correspondingly less women went onto pursue it as a career for many different reasons, myself included. But I think one possible explanation for this 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.
Is it therefore the ‘fault’ of the industry concerned if they do 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? Yes, 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 x y z because they are non-white/female/whatever?
I am not diminshing 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 effects have the same cause. Fear. Fear of the unknown. 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, ie adding in fear from a white population of ‘difference’ = racism.
I reflected too on the various teams that I have had the privilege to lead in the thirteen years that I edited ELLE Decoration. 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 rarely diverse in colour, and neither was/is the publishing industry as a whole. However, every time I had a vacancy, I have no idea if many non-white people 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 etc). And all of this was done blind. In that I only ever chose who to interview after I’d received these results. So again, is the question, where were all the black, brown, Asian and other ethnicity applicants? Or, should I have actively advertised for such applicants? [Edit: Adding a note that I’ve failed to acknowledge the reality of businesses who dismiss an application purely on the basis of an un-right-sounding name.]
I for one am deeply uncomfortable with so called ‘positive discrimmination’. It seems to me to be a clumsy solution of sorts 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 annoyed riposte if ever it was implied that my place at the table had been earnt by virtue of such measures: Wow, just think, if I was gay, 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.
We will inevitably make mistakes, possibly even offend, but if we’re trying to do something to address the situation, then we are all 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. In any endeavour we need to stay humble enough to accept that which we do not know, and be open to learn. [Edit: For example I’m learning that I might be wrong around the issue of ‘positive’ discrimination. But I’m leaving my original thoughts in here as I try to understand more.]
Key to me is that we each work out what we can authentically do. What feels right for us individually. Don’t suddenly follow people on Instagram if you don’t like their style. You’re allowed to not like everyone’s choice of self expression (what they do, not who they are). We’re all surely on a quest to find our like-minded tribe. I guess, maybe, this is simply a call to know that certainly in the creative sphere, there might be peoples into the exact same stuff as you, that don’t look anything like you. [But also, I’m adding something here prompted by one of my readers messages… be aware that other worlds have much to teach. Surely this is why we travel?]
[Adding also this link to a BBC Crossing Divides article explaining how exposing yourself to different cultures is so fundamentally good for you, and especially creativity. Also to underline 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 experiences. And this is precisely what gives us all so much to learn from each other. We deny this at our peril. I have not learnt enough about my father’s Nigerian heritage because of this, and that is my loss.]
Certainly this can be one of the greatest joys of Instagram in particular. Referencing my feed, 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 singular 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. (Caveat: I do read their captions though to cross-check that they’re not creative but also spewers of hate etc etc). 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 so it is that we each find our own way.
As a slight aside… I remember thinking when President Obama was inaugurated, that we’ll only ever really have equality when every newspaper stops referring to him as the first black president. Yes, what an achievement, but I think he was also the first Harvard Law School-educated President too. And it’s that latter qualitification that helped to make him so truly noteworthy. In the exact same way I didn’t feel the need to insert my lovely ‘white’ friend Kate into my opener, nor any other definition of the way she looks, her age or life choices, because they are not relevant. Shouldn’t it be the same for everyone with race? [In terms of how we describe people certainly, however to understand their deeper stories, we need to understand where they have come from – and this goes for any background.]
Certainly, as I’ve been promoting my recent book launch, no-one has considered my heritage as worthy for inclusion in any interview. I suspect this might change when the book launches in America though, which will be an interesting learning-point in itself.
When I was editing ELLE Deco, 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, what I understand now as, my privilege. What I saw in some of these children were the intrinsic doubts that they held at the very core of their being. Doubts about themselves, their abilities and their suitability for any so considered elite job that was seen as beyond the average norm for a person of colour, ie not an athlete, footballer, musician etc. 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 here and in America.
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 this country at the age of 18 in the early 1960s. He’d enjoyed an upper middle class life and a public school education in Nigeria (important because it means his formative years were without facing predjudice or lack), and when he arrived here, his first job was working for the BBC, as a cameraman, before he decided (note the element of choice there) to study Civil and Structural Engineering at Manchester University. 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 had been routinely racially-abused throughout his life in this country, 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 little 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 never even 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 we see in America is an entire society built upon a very very shaky foundation. Film Director Spike Lee interviewed for the BBC puts it very well in the linked clip. An interview with American civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, entitled The Frustration behind the George Floyd Protests, published 1 June in The New Yorker, also summarises it eloquently. And yes, I had to look up references like the Jim Crow laws and google when segregation purportedly ended in America to really get my head around it too. Here’s also a 4 min animated video that beautifully, and more importantly simply, explains Systemic Racism in America. That is the way in which the deck is stacked against people of colour right from the start, at the foundation of their lives.
In a sort of conclusion then, I believe we are all inevitably the product of our foundations. We can not 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 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 found on the @cut feed. Warning, it’s heart-breaking to hear an 8-year old practice saying I am unarmed and will not hurt you). 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 a truly valued members of society, let alone whether they could 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 of 2020s America that has been so painfully exposed with George Floyd’s murder in broad daylight. A murder committed in my opinion not just by the police officer who felt the need to kneel on his neck, but also the ones who stood by for those 8 minutes and 46 seconds and chose not to intervene. Any one of them could have spoken up like the 13yo of my youth.
Here in the UK, I’d like to believe that it’s not quite that awful, although I know that this assumption is naive [I edited this as a result of the conversations I’ve been having to ‘I know’ this is naive, from ’I have a feeling’ this is naive]. This Guardian article by Afua Hirsch is one of many articles, alongside those conversations, that gave me pause for thought. But 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-heritage individual, but that would take another 2000 words!
Suffice to say, read even Barack Obama’s Wikipedia entry for a small glimpse into the difference and insight that his 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.
PS On the #blacklivesmatter slogan. I’ve often heard people say in response, but surely all lives matter. If I’m truly honest, I think this was probably my first instinctive reaction too. And of course they do, but the point of this campaign is to highlight the harsh truth that white lives have always mattered. This is about black lives consistently mattering too.
PPS An addition I need to flag louder than just adding as an edit. There have been many books recommended to me that lay bare the situation in Britian about which I do not know enough. I need to read these. The top three seem to be Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (Reni also hosts the About Race podcast); Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging; and David Olusonga’s Black+ British — A Forgotten History. And I need to stress again that my viewpoint can only ever be through my mixed-heritage eyes. I can not speak for the experience of my darker-skinned countrymen and women. Only to say that I have much to learn from them.
I have realised that I have a duty to instill in as many children of a non-white complexion as possible, that they can be, and do, anything that they want. Mentoring and encouragment 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 includes interior design or publishing, then fabulous. But it doesn’t really matter. In this way, as a woman of colour, I feel I can do something towards seeing more diversity any which where. And what follows is the beginnings of notes for the talks that I intend to start giving. All input appreciated via my comments.
Let’s help each other make a difference in whatever way we can.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Remember that everyone fails sometimes. And sometimes often! Failure only becomes mistakes if you let it stop you in pursuit of 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 pursuit of their dreams.
4. 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? Save your energy. Divert it straight back into your worthy self. Don’t waste it battering down an unappreciative door. 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.
5. 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 colours who can support you, a partner too perhaps, but ultimately it starts and finishes with you as an individual.
You might also like this post: My rules for life.
PS Thank you for reading this, and if you’d like to know when I next post something, please subscribe.
Michelle Ogundehin is internationally renowned as an authority on interiors, trends and style. She is an influencer with expertise and the multi award-winning former Editor-in-Chief of ELLE Decoration UK.