An apology from Karen Middleton

The CSP's chief executive apologises for taking too long to let BAME members know that she is listening and hearing them.

by Karen Middleton

Protesters march through London city in England to US embassy , as part of the Black Lives Matter protests, protesting the death of George Floyd in the US

I was faced with a dilemma last Friday: I write a weekly email on Fridays to all CSP staff and I included a paragraph recognising how staff must be feeling about the distressing footage of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the sense of absolute outrage across the world at the implicit and explicit racism still so prevalent in our society and challenged by the Black Lives Matter campaign. I apologised for how long it took us as an organisation to respond and my personal responsibility for this.

And then I deleted the paragraph.

I reinserted and deleted it twice. The email went to staff without the paragraph in it.

Why? What was my hesitation about? What does it say about me as a person and as a leader of this organisation? Does it also explain any of the reasons for our organisational delay that was keenly felt by so many of our BAME members?

I know that my concern of ‘getting it wrong’ won out over my desire to apologise for my failing in the CSP’s slow response. But I have to ask myself, is that really all it was? Was there something more insidious going on?

What I do know is that I normally have no problem in admitting my mistakes, yet in this case I was hesitant – was it that the stakes felt higher?

I also know I was glad – yes, I admit, glad – to hear that other similar organisations were struggling to know what to say and when to say it, as if, somehow, that made my/our delay more acceptable and excusable.

And I know that as a white woman, I was worried about appearing trite or tokenistic in my personal response and also in my apology to staff.

The irony of all this is that to say nothing was actually the worst thing of all to do – both in terms of what I didn’t say on social media to members, the absence of an immediate CSP statement, and the absence of any apology to my staff.

The inadequacy of saying nothing might equate to ‘not being racist’ but it is not enough – I have to be anti-racist. And so does the CSP.

In addition to all of the above, one of the factors in my lack of a personal response was lack of time – and this relates to my earlier question to myself – was there something more insidious going on?

I was having a really frantic few days and barely able to keep up with social media and the news but over the last few days I have reflected on this too: I did manage to squeeze in other urgent issues that cropped up but did not find the time for this. I can use the excuse of worrying about an ill thought-out, misspelled response, but really what this says to me is that I, as a white woman, did not feel the enormity of what was happening and being experienced by black and minority ethnic people globally and so I said nothing. And what about the organisation’s action on equality, diversity and inclusion issues – does it ever get to the top of the to-do list? ‘Inclusivity’ is one of our organisational values for God’s sake!

So I am writing this blog as an apology – and I can only apologise for its clumsiness – from me. But I am also writing it to ensure that all our BAME members know that I am listening and reflecting and discussing what we need to do as a membership organisation and also as an employer. I am determined to take action that is sustainable and transformative and not simply reactive. I am determined to keep the conversation going but talking about it is not enough, it is what we do – and don’t do – that counts.

I want to systematically look at what we do and how we do it, root and branch. We started with the governance of the organisation at the top and during the governance review in 2016, we consulted with our BAME network for specific action we could take to improve the diversity of Council and the committees. I specifically took advice externally on this and was advised that this was unlikely to be achieved at the same time as reducing the size of Council, so we focused on the 2020 Council elections, with Council members reaching out to BAME members and bringing them to Council meetings. One reason for cancelling the elections, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, was that we knew we were extremely unlikely to improve the diversity.

So we have time for further improvements ahead of the elections next year. We will revisit this with our BAME network.

But whether it is seeing our BAME members on Council or in our Frontline magazine, there has got to be something much deeper to the action we take and I lead in terms of the organisation and the profession – both by our own direct action and by influencing others to act. Whether unconscious bias or implicit racism, we have to stop it.

Together as a profession and as a member-led organisation, it is not good enough that we are not racist. We have to be anti-racist.

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