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Minority Groups: Rivals or Allies?

Dominic Davies

St Anne’s Equalities Forum
Minority Groups: Rivals or Allies?
Mary Olgilvie Lecture Theatre, St Anne’s College
10th May 2013

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Last Friday a small group collected in the Mary Ogilvie Lecture Theatre at St Anne’s College, Oxford. They formed an interested audience prepared to give up a couple of hours of their Friday evening to attend an event ran by the St Anne’s Equalities Forum. As the audience participation throughout the event revealed, for many their commitment and interest extended beyond this one evening’s engagement into various other outlets and forums for campaigning, volunteering, and generally initiating social change. Though this provided fertile ground for some productive discussion, one of the event’s major concerns—raised throughout the evening by an audience member—was that everyone in the room was ‘preaching to the converted’. That seems an ugly phrase, and it might be better termed, here at least, as ‘informing those already socially and politically aware of the issues at stake.’

Nevertheless, there was a huge amount of information to be absorbed from such an incredible panel, even for those who work on these issues on a daily basis. It is only a shame that there weren’t more present to hear some of the inspiring accounts and meet some of the astonishing speakers, all of whom have dedicated their lives to campaigning for the rights of minority groups. Their firsthand experience of the different forms of oppression—sometimes subtle and sometimes overt, sometimes obvious and sometimes complex and unpredictable—suffered by minority groups across the United Kingdom quickly dispelled any illusions that Britain is, as some (though, in recent years, surely not that many) may believe, an ‘equal’ society. Chaired by Rosemary Radcliffe, CBE, a St Anne’s alumni and PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Chief Economist in Europe before her retirement in 2001, the panel spoke both to questions submitted before the event and to live audience responses and queries, covering various inequalities that still permeate almost every sector of society.

The ambiguous question that the event initially posed—”Minority Groups: Rivals or Allies?”—seemed to be asking whether or not minority groups were rivals or allies with each other. The intersections between comments made by the panel members, comprised of speakers working with a whole range of different minority groups, quickly answered this question. Peter Purton, the Trade Union Council policy officer for disability and LGBTQ rights, answers it simply by giving his job title. Denise Milani, the current Director, Diversity and Citizen Focus Directorate at the Metropolitan Police Service, was the first African-Caribbean and non-uniformed female member of staff to complete the Strategic Command Course (the highest Police Officer Development course in the country) in 2006, also embodying these intersections between minority groupings. She told touching stories about her children, a disabled daughter and black son, who have managed to thrive despite the statistical odds against them as minorities. Perhaps the intimate nature of the event, with the discussion taking place between a fairly small group, added weight to these accounts. But I’m inclined to think that such an informed and aware group of speakers know what they want to say—what, in fact, they need to say—and are prepared to offer their insights to any who will listen.

Peter Quinn, the Head of Oxford University’s Disability Advisory Service, Fiona McClement, the Equality and Diversity Adviser at University College London, and Suzanne Holsomback, the outgoing Vice President (Women) at OUSU, completed the panel. Each offered a unique insight into the formations, intersections, and persecutions of minority groups on varying social, national and international levels. Though the event ran over, a day-long conference would not have been long enough for the debate to exhaust itself. Indeed, one of the points that surfaced during the session was that these issues will always be debated, and necessarily so. Society as a whole, if one can conceptualize such a thing, will tend to maliciously discriminate against, or sometimes just thoughtlessly overlook, the various minority groups moving within its structures. As educated and informed citizens, it is surely a responsibility to share knowledge, to spread insights, and to initiate small social changes on a daily basis. These combine, as the panel themselves proved, into broader social movements with positive effects and impacts for so many of the minority groups of which our society is comprised.

It is, however, hard not to come away from such an event a little frustrated, with a healthy dose of disillusionment sticking in one’s stomach. Initiating social change might be one thing, but given the proliferation of discriminatory headlines in the media and the range of stigmas and stereotypes that pervade popular culture and society, the question that the event initially posed seems to be thrown into a different light. Minority groups may not be rivals with each other, but are they seen as rivals with mainstream society, by that society’s members? Some of the horrific statistics quoted by the speakers might suggest that this is indeed the case. But when we look at the grass roots experiences brought to the table by this panel, the gap between representation and reality manifests itself. Minority groups are almost always people who have contributed, or are willing to contribute, to that society in a way that only allies would, so long as the structures are in place to give them the opportunity to do so. Though much of the discussion revolved around the negative statistics and forms of oppression suffered by minority groups, the positive is embodied in the work and lives of the people in that room. Next time an event such as this takes place, we can only hope there are more of them in there.

Dominic Davies is reading for a D.Phil. in English literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.