If tokenistic gestures towards diversity worked, Sayeeda Warsi would be a Secretary of State

by Huma Munshi

Diversity has been leading the news this week: from women bishops, to the Conservatives Cabinet reshuffle. Listening to Bonnie Greer in conversation with the MP Linda Grant at the National Theatre recently about her memoirs, brought home why representation and the ‘D’ word matters.

The audience at the National Theatre was a rare mix in that it was mainly filled with women of colour. I was reminded that having a space for diverse voices to share their stories matters. It matters because racism and sexism exist and society cannot have art and culture devoid of this. When we have the arts, culture or political structures for that matter that are predominantly white, straight and male, they are unreflective of the many cultures and stories that should be shared and heard.

Bonnie Greer was born in Chicago and experienced first-hand the grave and dehumanising effects of racial segregation. She may have left segregation behind but racism has followed her and she is often caricaturised as the angry black woman. When she was unexpectedly placed next to the then leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, at BBC’s Question Time programme in 2009, she knew that the producers were looking for a scene with an angry “black woman with the rag on her head”. She has long been accustomed to this stereotyping but her calm and intelligent demeanour did more to unsettle the bumbling BNP leader than any expletives would have. As she described this to the rapt audience at the National Theatre, one couldn’t help but be reminded of the portrayal of Michelle Obama by the media and her experiences of being mocked and subjected to ongoing racial stereotyping.

Black playwrights and actors are not particularly well represented at the National Theatre, indeed they are not well represented in their audiences. The National is one of my favourite haunts in London with its high rise building and a good mixture of Shakespeare, youth theatre and a variety of contemporary theatre in between, but I look around and I am often the only person of colour in the audience. More needs to be done to make the arts inclusive.

What would help would be to give a chance to the black playwrights, women, LGBT people and more who often lack the opportunities and networks of their white male contemporaries. It is not that the audience needs to hear a “black story” or a gay one, indeed many of our experiences are not simply based on our race or gender, it is more because the nuances need to be heard. As Bonnie Greer eloquently stated, there is “more to theatre for black people than Othello”. She noted that she only gets a space at the theatre when she is hosted for a platform talk.

It would be mistaken to believe that simply having black people in positions of power will be the answer. As Lee Pinkerton argues here the occasional token voice is really not sufficient.

Pre reshuffle

Pre shuffle

Representative arts, culture and indeed politics is important only if it is done effectively. Effective means a breadth of voices. Sayeeda Warsi as Cabinet Minister did not represent me as a woman of colour with her homophobic views and her stance against sex education in schools. But it did create an opportunity for the Conservatives to declare that they had the first Muslim woman in Cabinet.

The Conservatives cabinet reshuffle tells us once again that representation is nothing if done in a tokenistic fashion. The new Minister for Equalities, Nicky Morgan, has previously voted against equal marriage . She will take on the role but without LGBT equality as part of that brief – this has been given to Nick Boles. David Cameron might have been trying to promote more women into senior positions but it beggars belief that a Minister for Equalities has to give away part of the equality brief because she cannot stomach LGBT equality. It illustrates the price one pays for token gestures of representation.

It has indeed been a fortnight when diversity in the UK has remained at the forefront of the agenda. But perhaps what the discussions that took place at the National Theatre demonstrate is that there needs to be substance to any diversity initiatives. Otherwise they ring hollow and make no difference to the very people they should support.

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Huma Munshi started the #fuckhonour hashtag to express her anger at the oppression women have experienced. She is a writer, poet, blogger and trade unionist. She is a regular contributor to Media Diversified, F-Word and Time to Change.

She has written widely on honour based violence, mental health, film and intersectionality. Her weekly column will reflect her passion for activism, a feminism that reflects her own experiences as an Asian Muslim woman, film reviews and current affairs. Read more of her articles here

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