We need to be uncomfortable… let’s talk about how we treat our BAME members

On the third time I went canvassing, at the age of just 13, I was sent to a complex of flats. These flats were mostly owned by people of Indian descent and I, as someone born in the UK but whose family originally came from Bangladesh, was confused as to why I was being sent there. At a meeting later that day, the senior figure who made me canvass that area, proudly declared how we had gone to an ‘Indian’ complex of flats and that I had performed very well in the role of connecting with this particular community. It was very clear from this speech that this was planned to use my race to win votes. I was embarrassed but, more so, confused at why he thought I was meant to be the one to do this, and why everyone else (who was white), including an approved PPC, all smiled and murmured a chorus of approval.

Not too long after the election, we bumped into another senior local party figure in our town centre with his family. As he walked away I heard him explain to his son I was the ‘new Indian boy’. This made me uncomfortable. My parents and I were born in this country. It was, in fact, my grandparents who came from Bangladesh (not even India). I should’ve put my foot down at the way I was made to feel, how I was tokenised and racially (mis)profiled. But I didn’t want to kick up a fuss as an individual.

Many could call my experience an isolated incident, but I have spoken to other BAME members and former members who have had similar experiences. One young female BAME member told me how she felt ‘tired of being tokenised’, with her culture ‘often being misunderstood by members’ and her ‘objections not being taken seriously’. Other young BAME members I had spoken to like her felt very similarly – the feeling of being isolated often cropped up.

The issue isn’t necessarily open, “National Front”-style racism. It’s racism born out of ignorance, stubborn ignorance at that, where, for instance, on Facebook some white members fail to acknowledge the issues, instead taking offence when they should take this as an opportunity to learn how to better treat racial minorities.

But it doesn’t even have to be this obvious. Members at social gatherings asking you ‘where you are from’ until they get the name of a foreign country or constantly being asked to be in random local party photos at conferences because I’m young and brown is very tiring and awkward. White members need to be more understanding, they need to treat and expect from minorities the same they do for one another.

We must end the vicious cycle of the perception of a white party leading to minorities feeling they cannot get involved by creating an environment they find easy to get involved with. Yes, It will take difficult conversations such as the ones we are being forced to have during this time of upheaval, but after decades of dealing with barriers and racism to this day, is asking white party members to have a few difficult conversations and be a little more considerate really too much?

*This article is part of a series put together by Young Liberal’s BAME Officer Pushkin Defyer. If you are a Young BAME member with experiences of racial prejudice in party politics and want to get involved to write an article for this series please contact [email protected]

* Pushkin Defyer is the Young Liberals’ BAME Officer and has been a member since 2017. He was also Green Lib Dem Youth Officer before becoming the Environmental spokesman for Centre Think Tank.

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  • Michael Bukola 2nd Jul '20 - 10:23am

    Many Congratulations on starting the ball rolling with this one Pushkin. This level of treatment by local parties up and down the Country is borne out of their lack of confidence with engaging with minority communities generally. I’ve recognised this behaviour during a long period in the Party. It appears that BAME activists are utilised for political expediency and not as valued party members.

  • Thank you for this. I think that those of us who have never experienced this need those who have to explain the situation as clearly as here.
    I remember some years ago being in a pub with a group of colleagues. At the time I was a branch officer of a Trade Union, and was representing one of our members, who was one of my colleagues there.
    I was surprised to put it mildly that having obtained full pints, but before we had a chance to drink, one of the group said we should leave. It was only when I stood up that I realised what was happening when someone at the next table said – no offence we were just having a laugh, when I was told about the racist remarks directed against one of our group.
    He told me that this was his daily experience, and there was no need for us to leave. I slowly got to know that the chances of prejudice and disciplinary action against who were identified as different. Was very high. We do need to at least recognise the problem.

  • James Belchamber 2nd Jul '20 - 11:02am

    I think a prevailing example of the lack of engagement with these issues in the party is that great articles about BAME experiences from BAME members keep being posted on LDV, only to see little to no engagement.

    This party does not deserve to exist if it cannot be a wholeheartedly Liberal party. In some dimensions we fall woefully short of our ideology, and our constitution – and yes, to fix that we need to have some hard conversations.

  • Candy Piercy 2nd Jul '20 - 12:02pm

    Thanks for this excellent and helpful article Pushkin.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd Jul '20 - 12:21pm

    The comment by Pushkin reflect the reality of his experience. They reflect his reaction to those other people. He realises that his reaction to them is largely due to their reaction to him.

    My understanding is such antiquated reactions to anyone BAME, must be due to a lack of diverse population in a given location. And as a consequence, a lack of a diverse party , with regard to members.

    The sort of tokenism Pushkin and the admirable Michael, here, reveal, is because those, often, older, certainly, uncertain, activists, practice, might not quite be due to using for expediency, the BAME member, rather, a notion that as a party we need to reflect the areas we seek to represent. Phrases like ” here is the Indian boy,” might be the similar attitude that says, ” my coloured mate, ” from somebody older, working class, and in a region other than London. I know elderly working class, non racist people in the regions north of the capital, think to say coloured is good because to say black,must be the racist way to describe a person. If you understand regions, language, attitudes, they all play a part.

    I work regularly with and for the Ustinov Prejudice Awareness Forum as a writer, contributor, member, a project started by the late great Sir Peter Ustinov, actor and unicef ambassador and writer. His efforts to try to understand prejudice, are continued, led by his son, and the efforts of those of us in that and related projects. Racism, is not prejudice, it too, is based on ignorance but often, on hate. The sort of experiences of Pushlin, reveal little or no hate, perhaps not really ignorance. Maybe, the main factor is indifference which can be as bad.

    To combat all these we need this dialogue. And we need to listen to each other. As the son of an italian immigrant, i am , though white, offended by references to being, because now in young middle age, “male, stale and pale.” I am none of these other than male. To refer thus is common amongst leftish young men and of course, women of similar leanings. i think i read or hear it regularly, even from people i like. It is sexist, ageist, racist.

  • I think sometimes that some of the actions Pushkin mentions are born out of trying and failing to grasp the problem – the thing with the photos happens so often, the old white man organising the thing will often cheerfully say “women and brown people to the front!” and this is them trying to be more inclusive without realising that what they are actually doing is pointing you out… 🙁

    Anyway, thank you for writing this, Pushkin, and I’m glad to see that engagement has been mostly positive

  • I am genuinely confused by this piece and by the reactions to it. The thrust of the article, as I understand it, was that party members from minority ethnic backgrounds want to be treated exactly the same as any other member. And absolutely right too ! The stories about about being asked where you are from or being sent into specific blocks of flats to canvas make one cringe. That’s why I always insist that we should be completely colour blind in the way we treat each other – and I have been well and truly roasted on LDV for my trouble !
    And yet we deliberately mark out our ethnic minority members by having special committees and officers to take care of their interests. And the whole business of photos. We fill our party photos with BAME members to show how unracist we are and yet poor old Pushkin was clearly put out by being ushered into photo shoots at conference. Do we need to try harder to try less hard ?
    And as for @George Scott, as a (semi) retired teacher I wonder who told you that ageism was still ok ? And all this “you have to see it to be it” is BS. You join because of the ideas, not to find new best mates – or perhaps that’s where we’ve gone wrong.

  • The sorry mentality revealed by the anecdotes in this article is directly related to the party’s response, which has been to treat BAME as a separate interest group and with quota arrangements imposed upon internal elections in an attempt to make the party “look” more diverse.

    Whilst doing nothing to take us toward a truly liberal society where everyone has opportunity to fulfil their potential regardless of their identity, gender, ethnicity or sexuality.

  • Pushkin, the experiences you describe make me cringe. Especially when you were such a young age. I agree with Jenny that such incidents probably stem from people trying to do the right thing – but missing the point. And regarding the photo thing. er… I’m afraid I have to admit to doing that at times myself back in the days I ran a few campaigns. I know that was wrong, and I apologise.
    The way to tackle this problem – and we do need to tackle it – is by educating our members, not in a hostile or finger-wagging way but just by explaining what happened to you and then gently asking, “How would you feel?” And your article is doing a great job of that. We all need to join you in spreading that message.

  • Meral Hussein-Ece 2nd Jul '20 - 11:11pm

    Pushkin, thank you for writing such a clear honest account of your experience in the Party. It mirrors that of many members of BAME background over many years. It also shows how we have a very long way to go to educate those who think reaching out & engaging with the UKs growing BAME communities, is somehow our job, when promoting diversity & combatting racism is everyone’s responsibility, starting with those holding leadership positions.

  • suzanne fletcher 3rd Jul '20 - 9:27am

    Oh my goodness, cringe only begins to describe your experiences, Pushkin. Mind you nobody, whatever age, should be sent to canvass on their own like that, never mind a thirteen year old. As for photos, a bit difficult, at one time I would be asked to be in a photo or “on the stage”, as a woman, and I hated that – but important you didn’t feel you weren’t asked as they didn’t want anyone who “looked ethnic”.
    But reading a brave first hand account like this is a very good way of us understanding what it means to “look different”, rather than worthy motions to conference, policies and procedures.
    Thank you a lot for writing.

  • We were set back a decade in addressing this problem when a decision was made to spend all our diversity budget on training developing and mentoring women in our party.
    It’s great that we now have professional, well educated women coming up through our party, but it has left a massive diversity hole in our party, especially in urban areas.
    The party decided we could either support women or BIPoC.
    History will judge the people who made that decision,

  • Great article!

    The biggest obstacle is stubbornness and defensiveness. We need to be a party where minorities and under represented groups can raise issues without being forced to justify themselves and tread on eggshells.

    There is no shame in trying to do the right thing but not quite getting it right, but we must listen and learn so that people feel comfortable and empowered as party members.

  • David Garlick 3rd Jul '20 - 1:33pm

    Thank you for this. As a 70+ year old white male I know only too well how entrenched the inbuilt bias can be in my age group and other groups too.
    I still start out with the view that I have a culturally biased and inbuilt racism and I therefor have to counter that as best I can by making sure I consider my words and actions carefully at all times.
    I mostly get it right But i know I don’t always. When I get it wrong I will always acknowledge my failings, apologise when it is appropriate and try to continue to do better. Unless we acknowledge our bias we will not be the people we want to be or the Party we want to be.

  • Sue Sutherland 3rd Jul '20 - 3:52pm

    Thank you for having the courage to be so honest with us, but I think we need even more help. Could you tell us what we should actually be doing to make BAME members feel welcome in the party? A lot of us are well intentioned but ignorant.

  • Echo what SUzanne said about sending a 13 year to canvass.

    I’ve had several arguments with members of my local party about treatment of our (lack of) BAME members and candidates. I also recognise the “put the BAME person at the front” mentality as well. I’d suggest it is more subtle though – it’s only giving the BAME person prominence in that respect, and not giving them prominence in others that is the underlying problem.

    Thanks for the article.

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