My perspective on this, particularly with regards to diversity in the construction industry where I work, can only ever therefore be my own, influenced by my own upbringing, circumstances and personality.
My opinions are by no means the only ones, or even necessarily the right ones, but my hope is that in writing this, someone else’s perspective and actions may be altered for the good.
I am from Jamaican-Anglo heritage – and being born in the 1970s meant there were a number of phrases used to describe me that were commonly used back then, and would be regarded with horror now.
I was born into what would now be classed as abject poverty, with the demographic statistics at the time openly predicting that I would end up in prison, with an addiction of some kind and without a stable family life: unable to make a positive impact on society, in other words, and unlikely to amount to anything personally or professionally.
But I was taught by my mother that I could do or be anything that I wanted to be, and thankfully her vision was the one I took as my own.
As I’ve made a space for myself in the construction industry, with a thriving sustainability consultancy, I’m constantly approached by all kinds of people, curious about where I am ‘really from’.
I would guess that I’ve been asked that question a million times (I kid you not!), and my answer changes depending on my mood and the time I have.
That first ‘Where are you from?’ question inevitably turns into ‘Yes, but where are you from originally?’ when I say that I’m English, from England – even when asked by fellow English people in England!
There are a few people in Newcastle who think I am Bob Marley’s nephew from Kingston, Jamaica; a group of five guys working in a kebab shop in Bristol that think I am from Damascus in Syria; a couple in New Zealand, and many people in the US that believe that I am Maori; and a number of people who think I’m Egyptian.
I’ve also found that when I approach that heritage question playfully, people who don’t realise I’m joking then treat me differently depending on where they think I’m from.
Do I think there are barriers in the construction industry for people from minority ethnic backgrounds? Yes I do, and it’s not the only industry with the problem.
The specific industry is not the issue: it’s the people in it, and the societal framework that informs their perspectives without their necessarily being aware of it.
The thing is, having biases, fears and snap judgments is part of the human condition: it’s something we developed eons ago to keep us alive.
But this can also stop us from living!
Just as old beliefs like ‘if you sail too far across the ocean you’ll fall off the world’, or ‘if you go more than 30mph on a steam train you won’t be able to breathe’ have died out as new knowledge and light poured in, we can change our innate judgements about other people when we approach those judgements in a spirit of honest curiosity.
And once we’ve opened our minds to other people, whole new worlds become ours to inhabit.
I have found that the beginning of changing false beliefs always needs a challenger. Someone who is able to go where others have not. Someone who is inquisitive, not enraged. Someone who is kind, and not condemnatory.
Perhaps our first efforts towards equality as individuals are less about statistics, and more about interrogating how we see other people?
As we get to know others better, it becomes obvious that all human beings want the same essential things, have their own interior lives, need the same dignity and respect to flourish.
My invite to you, the reader, is this: do you see the person next to you as a person? Do you see people or do you see origins? Ignore the urge to conclude what the person is capable of within a few short moments, and give people the opportunity themselves to show you who they are by what they do.
But what if you’re the one being discriminated against?
I don’t discount the pain of that, but I also believe that with time and consistent effort on the part of people from all institutions and walks of life, we will get to a stage where we realise the world is not flat.
But the world needs you to keep going, keep being bold, brave and courageous. Be the first, be the kindest, be the one who defends and enlightens, be the one who stands up for what is true – because then you’ll be the one who’s truly alive.
Like you because they hold your values, like you because they have to work harder than others seem to work, like you because they get knocked back, like you because their life is hard and they feel disappointment.
But when I look back at how society has changed even in my lifetime, I can see how far we have come. I believe that we will go further and that we will make progress quicker.
Now is a good time to be in the construction industry, now is a good time to make your name known – so let’s come together and do it now.