Diversity Nirvana, and How To Achieve It

Baroness Floella Benjamin, OBE, now Secretary of the All Party Writers Group (APWG) looks back on her lifelong campaign for diversity within the creative industries.

There has been a welcome breeze of diversity action gliding through society recently which I find so refreshing, encouraging and exciting. Yes, things really do look as if they are changing for the better and not just in television but across the whole of the creative industries, who are finally starting to grasp the true meaning of inclusion.

Personally, I have longed to see this transformation, as I have been battling with the issue of diversity all my life and professionally for over forty years. I have campaigned, persuaded and cajoled persistently and, as a result, have even been told to back off if I wanted to continue working in television.

Come to think of it, I have been on the receiving end of discrimination in all its forms since arriving in Britain in 1960 as a ten year old girl. I was spat upon and told to go back to where I came from. My older sister was told to her face that the company she wanted to work for did not employ “coloured” people. Thankfully, those dark days are long gone but there is still a considerable way to travel before discrimination on the grounds of age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion or race is consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

After a fruitless search in the children’s and autobiography sections I finally found it tucked away in a section reserved for black & ethnic books.

But I’m an optimist and doggedly determined to see lasting change embedded in society’s DNA before I die. What the whole of society has to realise is that, as we move towards an age in which diversity and equality is looked upon as the norm, not as a problem, there has to be real sustainable change.

I recently spoke on behalf of ALCS at the All Party Parliamentary Writer’s Group (APWG) Summer Reception at the House of Lords. Incidentally, I am honoured to step into the shoes of the late, great Ruth Rendell, as Secretary of the APWG. At the reception, I highlighted the plight of many Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers whose books are often not given the prominence they deserve. I remember excitedly rushing into a large bookseller in central London and looking for my book Coming to England when it was first published in 1995. After a fruitless search in the children’s and autobiography sections I finally found it tucked away in a section reserved for black & ethnic books.

When you read about other people’s cultures it enriches yours.

Back in the 1980s, I remember being asked by a publisher to write the foreword for a children’s picture book, which was very flattering but I declined, pointing out that there were no black, Asian or Chinese faces in the illustrations and I represented all children. The shocked editor defensively said, “But Floella, this book is set in a fantasy land!”

I know it’s not as bad now, but the perception that, for example, Afro-Caribbean authors only write books which appeal to Afro-Caribbean readers, or that Chinese authors only write books for Chinese readers, needs to be dispelled. The main issue facing BAME writers is how they get their books read by a wider readership. Their books should not be pigeon-holed as books by diverse writers. They have to be promoted as books laden with universal emotions that tell stories from a different perspective. When you read about other people’s cultures it enriches yours.

Maybe that’s why my speech seemed to really strike a chord with those present at the APWG Reception and I have since received many positive messages from people in the publishing world supporting and agreeing with what I said.

…all we need to make change, is to have empathy with others…

I have never been afraid to challenge the status quo and have always had the moral courage to speak out for fairness and equality. Way back in 1976 when I first appeared on the iconic children’s programme Play School, I asked why couldn’t there be illustrations of black, Chinese and Asian faces of children represented on screen in stories? The producer said “Oh, we hadn’t noticed”. Thankfully, she acted upon it immediately and, from that day on, Children’s BBC programmes became the most diverse genre on television and a great example of how differences can be so brilliantly represented on screen and, in turn, in society.

Almost 30 years ago, I was asked to chair the Smarties Book Prize and in my speech at the awards, I asked why there was so little diverse representation in children’s books, especially picture books. The next day a newspaper’s headline read, ‘Floella says – Snow White should be black!’. That was a typically flippant and frankly dishonest interpretation of what I said.

Thankfully, many people who were there on the day from the world of publishing, took my comments a little more seriously and acted upon them. I remember the wonderful Shirley Hughes telling me she would start to reflect diversity in her Alfie stories, which meant so much to me.

The fact is diversity is a no brainer: all we need to make change is to have empathy with others. Sadly, this is something many still find difficult. I believe it’s partly because people are afraid to step outside their comfort zone and would much rather stick to what they feel comfortable with. So I see my role as a bridge builder whose job it is to open minds and change attitudes and, for the past six years I have been working with the Government, in particular Ed Vaizey at the DCMS, to address some of the diversity issues within the arts and creative industries and successfully finding ways to deal with them.

Britain has always been a country which has assimilated different cultures. This has given it a unique quality that has created a rich cultural tapestry which is the envy of the world.

I was proud to be part of the Round Table meeting he held last month for movers and shakers in the world of publishing, as he wants to include publishing in his holistic plans to address diversity issues.

During the meeting, ideas of how this could happen were explored, such as finding ways publishers can encourage those from BAME backgrounds to apply for positions, paid internships, debates on diversity at literary festivals as well as how best to promote titles by BAME authors as mainstream books. I know the ALCS sees this as a priority and is campaigning vigorously on this and many other issues affecting writers and authors.

All this proves my enthusiasm is not unfounded: yes, things really do look as if they are changing. But there is still work to be done as recent events such as the diversity controversies concerning the Oscars and the Brits and, even more recently the NHS, confirm.

To truly reach ‘Diversity Nirvana’ everyone needs to be informed about the benefits of embracing diversity. Also to understand the aspirational and positive message it sends out across society, especially through literature and storytelling, which are major influencers of people’s opinions and thinking.

One in four nursery school children are from diverse backgrounds. They are the future and they desperately need and expect to see role models in books and represented on our screens to inspire them. This in turn will encourage them to find their place in society where they feel valued and appreciated. Without having this feeling of aspiration, the gap of ‘the haves’ and ‘have nots’ will forever widen.

Over the centuries, Britain has always been a country which has assimilated different cultures. This has given it a unique quality that has created a rich cultural tapestry which is the envy of the world. We must not hold back that evolution just because of skin colour or cultural and physical differences, but embrace these additions to the nation’s wealth. I long for the day when everyone is given an opportunity to continue the process of making Britain the great country we know and love.

Baroness Floella Benjamin, OBE DL is an actress, businesswoman, independent TV producer of award winning programmes, author of over 30 books and children’s television presenter, best known for appearing in or presenting many iconic TV programmes including Play School & Play Away.  Born in Trinidad she arrived in a cold, unwelcoming UK in 1960. Her book Coming to England gives an account of her challenging early experiences in Britain. This year she steps down as Chancellor of Exeter University after ten years. She has always been a political campaigner and she was elevated to the peerage in 2010 as Baroness Floella Benjamin of Beckenham. She is married with two children. Her main hobbies are singing, photography and changing the world!

© Floella Benjamin