Do I tick the box?

Takyiwa Danso, 24, London

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“We don’t see the likes of you around here very often…how refreshing.”

If someone said that to you today, how would you feel? Special? Unique? Extraordinary? Or, like the odd-one-out, subtly reminded that you grace a space not really made for you? A middle-aged white man said those words after I spoke at an event. I realised then, that I was the token trophy of diversity in that room – the only young female person of colour. My response? To smile and nod, mask my disbelief and anger at yet again being patronised because I was different, here to tick a box. I was the subject of an illusion, one we have convinced ourselves of achieving - that within its spaces of power, the UK is diverse and representative of the people that live here. But if I am still seen as a ‘refreshing’ addition, then how much of this is actually true? Have we really achieved a diverse society that our young generation can be proud of?

To answer that, we first need to understand what we mean by diversity. Generally coupled with equality, the two terms illustrate the values of a liberal society; a society free from prejudice and discrimination against differences such as gender, race or age. More importantly, this ideal society protects these differences, allows them to exist in their own, or shared, spaces ring-fenced by the common understanding of respect. Like pieces of a puzzle, we all come in various shapes, sizes and textures, yet all with the same value, without one, we would be incomplete.

Different yet the same. Together, equality and diversity speak an absolute truth. However, the juxtaposition of these terms reveals the difficulty we have in achieving this. How can we all be treated the same but also be different from each other? It’s a simple but difficult concept to grasp as people not of the norm are always made to feel different. The minority. The outliers. In fact, the very notion of ‘inclusion’ reminds us that one did not belong in the first place. Specific programmes targeting minority individuals highlights this ‘invitation to join the table’ feeling as those individuals are often restricted to exist within one box.

We are not working hard enough to achieve diversity everywhere. Considering how much attention our society gives multiculturalism, why are we still waiting to see the outcomes in real life? A lack of diversity stems from the inequality of opportunities and access - minorities cannot even imagine the table on which to be invited to because they don’t even know it exists. The focus on diversity should be less of a box ticking exercise, and more of a box breaking movement, to open opportunities for minorities, make them less of a minority.

As young people, we are growing up more connected, more open-minded, more accepting to what our identity is and can be. For us diversity is ‘normal’. Yet we struggle to see the representation of people like ourselves in influential spaces, from business to politics to sport and entertainment. This does not reflect us. Imagine, young trans-gender individuals leading working groups on social change, or refugee and diaspora youth presenting policy ideas directly to the government? Does this happen every day? No. When it does, it’s just a photo-opportunity to ‘youth-wash’ the situation. This isn’t progress. As minorities, we are burdened with representing our one defining feature at the table. Presumed to always speak on ‘behalf of’ because we’re the only one there. Always questioning our own credibility in a room – am I here of my own merit, or because I tick a box? Why must I represent the whole, rather than just myself?

Up until recently, a board with one female would’ve been seen as diverse. Acceptable then, this is laughable now. Now we see how wrong this was, yet society still does this for many other minorities. Getting diverse individuals into a room is a step in the right direction. Many people see the UK as champions of diversity because people from all backgrounds are welcomed here. But as advocates for ‘equality and diversity’, progress has been slow. We need to take the next big step, recognise our changing environment and push efforts further than just getting young people like myself into the room.

Marginalised groups are actively spreading their voices through more debates and conversations with each other. They realise the world today is so divided, that now more than ever, we need to embrace and appreciate diversity.

It’s time you paid attention. Hear us, engage with us, help us to break out of these boxes you’ve put us into.

My generation needs to see representation they can relate to; we need to see young people at the top. We need you to listen to the young urban Muslim rapper on their housing policy. Listen to the rural working-class gay blogger, campaigning for better social care. We’re already making change on our own level, so work with us to make our platforms compatible. Your systems and structures need to change, to make youth representation a part of all processes.

Young people do not want to be invited to the table, we want to build that table with you; claim our rightful place as a group of capable, active and knowledgeable individuals. We’ve always been ready to share our experiences on an equal and credible platform, because that is what equality and diversity means to us. Only with a genuine collective effort can we truly change our society for the better.

For me, progress is to speak at another event, make small talk with a similar man, and comment on the colour of his tie rather than the colour of my skin.


 

Takyiwa is a member of our Young Leaders programme. The Almeida Young Leaders is a scheme giving young people with something vital to say, the tools and platform to do so. Each young leader has been mentored by a writer and director to develop their ideas, structuring a speech and skills in public speaking.