John Amaechi OBE expertly described the gut punch many people of colour felt on reading the findings of the Sewell Report when he tweeted: ‘The conclusions drawn in the #InstitutionalRacism report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities contradict everything Black and Brown people know, and have experienced, to be true. I fear the repercussions will be devastating.’
The conclusions of The Sewell Report have put additional pressure on anti-racist charities already operating in a viscerally hostile atmosphere, to watch how they express themselves. For people of colour, actively working against racism, we already feel the impact of Priti Patel’s use of the term ‘activist lawyers’ to wreck the public trust in those upholding the legal rights of immigrants. We have watched mainstream institutions like Barnardo’s and The National Trust, two huge charities with over one hundred years of history, come under the spotlight for simply acknowledging that White privilege, colonialism and slavery affect their stakeholders.
Many of us who take a complex approach to challenging intersecting systems of oppression are already wary of being misunderstood. Entities like the Common Sense Group, a bloc of Tory MPs that accused the Trust of being ‘perverted by political posturing,’ have the power to exhaust our limited resources simply by complaining about us to the Commission, which is their right.
Gut punch. The conclusions drawn in the #InstitutionalRacism report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities contradict everything Black and Brown people know, and have experienced, to be true. I fear the repercussions will be devastating. #JediReflections pic.twitter.com/9UUeqHPYrb— John Amaechi OBE (@JohnAmaechi) April 1, 2021
While I would never take away the right to complain, I would urge funders to consider that The Sewell Report now further legitimises such complaints when it describes anti-racist campaigners as ‘lobbying groups’ who value ‘“lived experience” of the groups they seek to protect with less emphasis on objective data,’ as if our experiences haven’t been confirmed by numerous quantitative reports.
Many funders have released responses to convey that they understand the Sewell Report impacts millions of people in the UK. I commend them for this, but I fear the urgency of this gaslighting crisis hasn’t hit home and that funders aren’t attuned to how they too participate in gaslighting.
Some funders have, for example, highlighted their Diversity, Equality and Inclusion strategy as the site of their efforts towards anti-racism. But if your Diversity, Equality and Inclusion strategy fails to name systems of oppression like racism, ableism, sexism, that result in a lack of DEI, you haven’t identified the problem you are trying to challenge. Refusing to name systems of oppression does not inspire trust from people who experience those systems, nor does it communicate that you understand the goal of inclusion. This is very much what the Sewell Report does: refuses to acknowledge the problems it says we can solve and in doing so denies the realities of the people most affected by those problems.
Remember too, that the Sewell Report has been put together by a panel of mostly people of colour and yet it upholds racial oppression. This should cause funders to look again at their notions of representation and diversity and how to make their work in this area facilitative of real change.
This opportunity to radically re-think how to fund anti-racist work is rare and now, more than ever, is the time for senior leadership teams to make the case to their trustees for a specific focus on supporting charities working on the root causes of systemic oppression.
I would urge funders to consider, where relevant, using terms like injustice and ‘systemic oppression’ in your institution’s communications. Especially in places where internal stakeholders, grantees and applicants will see it: your newsletter, your website, your application forms and your intranet, rather than just your downloadable policies and strategies. The words you choose should reflect the words your grantees use with each other to convey their experiences. I say with each other because often charities will adapt their language to that of the funder. To truly support your grantees, consider an exercise in understanding the language they choose to use when carrying out their work, not only when they tell you about their work. Some funders already happily acknowledge sexism, transphobia, ableism etc and this practice supports charities and activists working for long-term change to access funding and achieve their goals.
Lastly, consider working at an urgent pace on collaborative efforts to mitigate the oppression of Black people. The Sewell Report comes on the back of the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020. The coalescence of the Black Live Matter protests and the Coronavirus pandemic have provided us with a unique set of circumstances in which to make irrevocable change. Our day to day lives have become detached from our usual patterns of working, our embedded ways of thinking have been challenged and this has allowed us to act on issues usually relegated to the back burner.
Some funders have been able to devolve and share powers within their own structures. They have finally implemented the recommendations of long-term campaigners like Charity So White and numerous disability rights groups. This opportunity to radically re-think how to fund anti-racist work is rare and now, more than ever, is the time for senior leadership teams to make the case to their trustees for a specific focus on supporting charities working on the root causes of systemic oppression.
Naima Khan is a writer and the Director of Inclusive Mosque Initiative. She has previously worked in grant-making in arts, culture, the youth sector and with faith-based organisations.