'We have to stop thinking of ourselves as "minorities" – we are the majority'
Marcus Ryder MBE and Lenny Henry want to change the conversation about diversity.
Too often, issues of diversity – in corporate spaces and workplaces – are diluted into meaningless buzzwords and performative action that serves the reputation of an institution – and little else.
Marcus – a media diversity specialist – alongside his long-time friend Lenny Henry, is calling for real, structural change in the world of TV, but also far beyond that.
He says the starting point has to be a closer interrogation of the concept of who is a ‘minority’.
‘We perceive ourselves to be a minority,’ Marcus tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Which means that we often allow the framing to be us begging to be given crumbs off the table.’
‘We asked the Office of National Statistics to crunch the numbers. When the figures came back, Lenny and I were shocked. We don’t even realise that we are the majority.’
Those figures revealed that white, heterosexual, able-bodied men make up less than a third of the population – 29.5%. And when you add in location – those who live in London and the surrounding area – that number drops to 3.1%.
In fact, those who fall outside of this criteria, those who are typically thought of as ‘minorities’ or ‘diverse’ groups, make up 96.9% of the population. And yet, it is the 3.1% that we tend to think of as the majority, and this tiny percentage hold the majority of power.
‘I want to get to the point where people are asking, “why is the 3% so over-represented?”, as opposed to saying, “let’s help the poor women”, or “let’s help the 20% disabled people”, or “let’s help the 15% non-white people”,’ says Marcus.
‘A fundamental part of the book is to reframe the entire debate and flip that perspective on its head.’
The book that Marcus and Lenny have written – Access All Areas – is a passionately argued polemic against racial prejudice within the media, laced with a relatable warmth and humour that makes it hugely accessible.
‘Media diversity is really important. For so many different reasons,’ argues Marcus.
‘If you think of news and current affairs, it informs what our politicians are talking about. It informs the the agenda of what is discussed, and what our politicians do in Parliament. If we don’t have diversity news and current affairs, then our politicians are on the wrong track.’
But this issue is integral in other areas of the media, too. Marcus says that everything we watch on TV, listen to on the radio, read in magazines and books, needs to better reflect the realities of the 96.9% majority of this country.
‘Drama defines who we are, what stories we tell about ourselves, how we perceive ourselves,’ he says.
‘So, if we want to truly know who we are, we need diversity in the stories we tell and from our storytellers.
‘On Thought for the Day on Radio 4, just before Lenny and I were on for an interview, they were talking about Shakespeare. Shakespeare is drama, Shakespeare still defines what it means to be English, what it means to be British.
‘If we want to define what it means to be British, we need to make sure that women have their voice, we need to make sure that disabled people have their voice we need to make sure that Black people and Asian people have their voice.’
In the book, Marcus and Lenny describe a feeling that minoritised individuals will know all too well – loneliness.
‘Loneliness in our careers is a disproportionate and constant experience of people from under-represented backgrounds,’ writes Lenny in the book.
He adds that this loneliness ‘can perpetuate or aggravate mental health issues and many other problems faced by these people already.’
Marcus says the way to tackle this isn’t through diversity training schemes and initiatives. He says these schemes can actually function as a form of victim blaming.
‘My favourite quote, from Lenny from seven years ago, is about Idris Elba. He said Idris went to America because he needed a break, he didn’t need more training.
‘In so much of the diversity training, we are blaming the victim, we are saying, “we would hire you, if you were just a little bit better.” “You would actually get that job, if you went on this diversity management scheme.” “We would hire you if we just had a diversity scheme for women writers.” We have got to stop blaming the victim.
‘Idris did not need to go on yet another diversity acting course. He just needed a job. And invariably, we don’t need to go on diversity training schemes. Just give us a break. Give us the job.’
And when people from diverse backgrounds do get the job, if they jump through the hoops and find themselves with a position within these institutions, Marcus says a culture change is crucial.
‘If you look at the stats, retention is a problem. People just leave,’ Marcus explains.
‘But poor retention is really a symptom of people feeling as though the culture of a place doesn’t help them fit in, that they don’t feel part of it.
‘There are lots of studies that show that if you don’t have a good friend at work, if you don’t have somebody that you can relate to, your work suffer, and you’re more prone to leaving, so it becomes a vicious cycle.
‘The culture is bad for you, and then employers end up blaming you for under-performing. So, when we talk about diversity, we need to find a way of creating a critical mass, so that we can change culture. We need to find a way to make workplaces more hospitable and less hostile.’
In a way, Marcus explains, the increase in remote working and working from home because of the pandemic has been a respite for many people from diverse backgrounds.
He says not being in office spaces removes the pressures of code-switching and adapting behaviour for environments that are not built to be inclusive.
‘The number of people of colour and disabled people who, surprisingly, have said that they have found being out of that office environment – often toxic environments – liberating. Anecdotally, I have heard that lots of people are thriving.
‘If we are able to breakdown the conventions of traditional office spaces, and make remote and flexible working part of the culture even post-Covid, it could be freeing for a lot of us.’
For Marcus, one of the key lessons he wants people to learn in the wake of this summer’s galvanizing swell of interest in racial injustice and diversity, is the individual responsibility we all have to be aware of our privilege – and how we can all be allies for each other.
‘Invariably, when we talk about allies, we talk about white men being allies,’ says Marcus.
‘I don’t want allyship to be reserved as a “white saviour complex”, that white men are allying with us to save us.
‘We all have privilege, in different contexts. There will be times where you – as an able-bodied woman, will have privilege. There will be times where I, as a Black man – the fact, that I am a man and able-bodied and heterosexual – I will have privilege.
‘And as such, we should try to be allies for people who might not have as much privilege as us in any given situation. We all need to be allies.’
Access All Areas: The Diversity Manifesto for TV and Beyond by Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder is out now (Faber, £7.99).
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