May 27th marked one year since the murder of American hip-hop artist George Floyd, a crime that galvanised widespread protests and political organising in the USA. The world took notice and conversations, protests and other actions against racism spread internationally.
Within the wine industry, there were many long-overdue conversations about diversity and inclusion, along with discussions about how to open the doors to Black and other marginalised groups. These conversations were also happening simultaneously in other industries, particularly the arts and publishing. But what was striking about the many articles that were published, was how often they quoted American voices, although wine articles often included examples and voices from South Africa. Local voices, however, were often missing entirely.
In October 2020, a British journalist called Tomiwa Owolade wrote an article in Persuasion called “Please Stop Imposing American Views About Race on Us”, which criticised this tendency.
“When asked to analyze the experiences of black people in the United Kingdom, we now talk with an American accent,” he wrote. “But Britain is not America. And importing American race discourse into the United Kingdom not only prevents us from recognizing the specific ways in which racial injustice manifests in this country—it cloaks the reality of black British lives behind an abstraction that flattens our humanity.”
“When asked to analyze the experiences of black people in the United Kingdom, we now talk with an American accent. But Britain is not America. And importing American race discourse into the United Kingdom not only prevents us from recognizing the specific ways in which racial injustice manifests in this country—it cloaks the reality of black British lives behind an abstraction that flattens our humanity.”Tomiwa Owolade
In that essay, he details the ways that the Black British experience is significantly different from the American one, and argues that imposing American ideas only serves to obscure what’s really going on in the UK. “There has, for example, been a lot of concern about the underrepresentation of black Britons in professions like the arts and publishing,” he wrote. “But why would you choose to go into theater or journalism—rather than law, medicine or finance—if you are a talented child of ambitious but not well off immigrants?”
It’s a question that cuts to the core of the wine conversation.
In countries like Britain, is the wine trade blindingly white because it excludes others—or is the poorly paid wine trade simply not very appealing to people who are moving up the social ladder? Or is it both?
In March, ARENI had a wide-ranging conversation with Owolade, parts of which are reproduced below. It’s a fascinating discussion, which is worth hearing in its entirety.
In 2018 we worked with the London School of Economics and the International Inequalities Institute, led at that time by sociologist Beverley Skeggs. We ran a little study through the International Inequalities Network to ask people around the world what fine wine meant for them. We were expecting a lot of answers, but the one we didn’t expect is that “wine is whiteness”. We spent a lot of time thinking about that, and about how fine wine is referred to in terms of colonialism and cultural dominance. And, of course, 2020 put the conversation around diversity front and centre. That’s a good thing, because we needed it in the wine world.
But one of the criticisms you raised in an article you wrote is that those conversations about diversity are led by Americans.
Could we begin by explaining in what sense these conversations are American-centric and how they need to be adapted?
I think that many conversations about race are led by an American perspective. And I think that this is understandable because we in the West consume lots of American media and lots of American culture. The way in which we understand ourselves, especially in the age of social media, is filtered through an American perspective. So, it’s quite understandable why the racial components as well are also filtered through an American perspective.
After the death of George Floyd in Minnesota there were lots of protests around the world. In Britain we had many intense conversations about race, but the problem was many of the conversations about race did not take into account the important fact that the Black population in the UK is different in many significant and relevant ways from the Black population in America. I think there are many ways in which the Black population in the UK is different. The majority of Black people in the UK are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Whereas the vast majority of Black people in America are the descendants of slaves. That’s one significant element.
There are language components as well. Many African immigrants or children of African immigrants can at least understand a language other than English. I should also say that there are lots of Black Caribbean people in the UK. Black identity in the UK is a sort of melding between the Black Caribbean wave of immigration that took off after the Second World War, that’s referred to as the Windrush generation.
I think that we should consider Black British identity on its own terms, rather than trying to analyse it through the perspective of America, which has a very different history and culture. I should also say that even in America, the Black population is becoming more diverse.
We’ll talk about France a bit later, but is the UK less racist than the US, or does it express racism differently?
That’s a very good question. It depends on how you define racism, actually. Increasingly, a popular definition of racism says that it’s fundamentally structural, so racism is not simply about racial prejudice. It’s also about institutions. With this definition of racism, people say we should not look at anecdotal evidence of racial prejudice, but at the education system, at employment. We should look at criminal justice. We should look at all the institutions in a particular country and we should examine racial disparities within those institutions.
I can understand why this definition is so appealing, because historically, of course, racism was very much embedded into institutions. There was discrimination in terms of employment, housing, and also the criminal justice system, not just in America, but also to an extent, in the UK as well. The problem of that definition of racism is that it doesn’t really account for the fact that there are many Black communities that do well in terms of education, in terms of employment, or who are less like to be trapped, so to speak, within the criminal justice system. So, people don’t actually develop the analysis in a granular way.
For instance, if we compare West African pupils to Caribbean pupils or West Indian pupils in the UK, Caribbean pupils or West Indian pupils are twice as likely to be excluded from school as West African pupils. If you compare something like free school meals, which are an indicator of socioeconomic deprivation, about two-thirds of Somali and Congolese pupils are on free school meals, whereas the figure for British Nigerian or British Ghanaian pupils is about 20%.
“When we talk about structural racism in terms of education, for instance, we need to be more specific in our analysis, rather than generalising about Black people in the UK.”Tomiwa Owolade
This is a more fundamental problem, which is that the discourse homogenises Black people. It treats Black people as a uniform identity, without being specific about the important cultural differences between Black communities.
I know also that you’re not a particular fan of the BAME (Black, Asian, Minority and Ethnic) acronym used in the UK.
I have lots of problems with the acronym. Where should I start? Let’s go through them, one by one. The term “Asian” groups together British Indian people, British Pakistani people, British Bangladeshi people and Britain’s Chinese people. If you look at the education and employment outcome of British Indian and British Chinese people, it’s remarkable. Those two ethnic groups are the most successful in terms of education and employment, and they’re also the least likely to be stopped and searched by the police, I believe. If you compare British Indian with British Pakistani people, there is a divergence in terms of education and employment. One of the most remarkable facts is that they constitute about 30% of all doctors on the NHS (National Health Service). Another staggering fact is that 46% of all doctors in the NHS come from an ethnic minority background. That’s just on the Asian side.
On the Black side, the problem is conflating the experiences of Black Caribbean people with Black West African people, with Black East African people. There is a significant population of Black people in the UK that came from Francophone Africa, from Congo, from Senegal, from Cameroon. It conflates all of these divergent cultural identities under this homogenous label.
Another problem is that when people think of BAME they think of a person of colour, but you can also be white and come from an ethnic minority group.
When we prepped this podcast, you mentioned that one of the most underserved communities here in the UK is Irish travellers, more commonly called gypsies.
Bringing all this complexity under the same umbrella does a disservice to all that complexity, but could we say it also does a service because it brings them all into consideration?
I think if you want to identify racism, you should just say, “this is racist” and try to be specific in what you mean. Another problem is that it’s patronising and condescending to be lumped in with people from different continents. It also doesn’t acknowledge the fact that there is racism between communities as well.
When we started to think about the problems of racism and diversity in wine, the first thing we said is that everyone in the wine world is white and we should bring in more Black people to increase diversity. One of the things you said in your article is that maybe there’s another reason for under-representation.
There’s lots of talk about trying to get more Black people in the arts and publishing as well, which is kind of weird, because the creative industries are very poor at the moment and they don’t offer routes to a comfortable, affluent life. That’s one of the reasons why many young ethnic minority people are encouraged to go into engineering or law or medicine. Many of these families don’t have a lot of wealth, so they can’t really afford to go into an industry that doesn’t pay well or which doesn’t offer job security.
There are always three factors that are studied to understand system inequalities, which are race, gender and class. We’ve been talking about gender for the past ten years and we’re talking more and more about race, but the dimension of class has kind of disappeared.
Why don’t we see the problem through the perspective of both race and class?
It’s an interesting question. Going back to what people mean when they talk about structural racism—those things that we think about such as education, employment and the criminal justice system. A more useful way to think about those things is through the prism of class. Just to speak about my own experience with class. I attended a state school in England and the school was ethnically and culturally diverse, but it was also diverse in class. There was an insignificant ethnic/cultural segregation in the school, but there was a sharp divide along class lines. The middle-class kids and the upper middle-class kids were far more likely to be friends with each other than they were to be friends with working class kids. Middle and upper-middle class white kids were far more likely to be friends with ethnic minority kids than with white working-class kids.
You were saying, as well, that that white working-class boys are continuously amongst the one that fail their education the most.
Yes, definitely. They are the group that do the worst in terms of educational outcomes and it’s such a significant issue, but it’s not really addressed by equality campaigners.
If you think about diversity and inclusion, it can only be meaningful if it acknowledges class background. The fact is that Britain is still an intensely class-bound society. It’s been this way for centuries and one of the problems with trying to import an American perspective on race is that it obscures the fact that, in Britain, class is one of the principal ways that inequality manifests itself.Tomiwa Owolade
In the future, when there is a more visible Black upper middle-class population in the UK, I wonder if the conversation will switch more into class than race.
Do industries like wine or the arts have a responsibility to increase diversity and how can we make sure that we are really serving the community and not just ourselves?
I think all the industries that want to try to increase that diversity should, first of all, come up with what they mean by diversity. And then they should also try to gain a greater understanding of the particular context of the Black communities that they’re trying to engage with. What would inclusion look like?
One of the problems with lots of measures to try and increase diversity is that not much thought actually goes into it. It’s done on this very superficial, moralizing level, which doesn’t actually engage with the fact that the interests of Black people might not be consistent with the interests of the particular industry that you want to promote.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. It is only a section of a wide-ranging, fascinating conversation that is well worth a listen.
For additional insights on the topic of diversity and inclusion in the world of Fine Wine, please also read and/or listen to:
- On Money, Transparency and Diversity -In Conversation with Andrew Jefford
- Revisiting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – In Conversation with Dr Akilah Cadet
- ARENI @Batonnage – All Cards on the Table
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