‘We need to broaden the conversation to institutional bias’

We hear from Nasreen Fazal-Short, Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce; and from Sarb Bajwa, Chief Executive.

Are we institutionally racist? Yes. But making this statement is not straightforward, it’s not as simplistic as saying it and expecting applause. It’s about saying we’re doing something that will mainstream this agenda. ‘Noticing’ is not enough. God knows we should have noticed. Sure, it’s a step change, it’s a start, to hear Sarb Bajwa say it as Chief Executive of the British Psychological Society. But then we have to have a strategy. We have to have a plan. We have to have people in charge of delivering the strategy.

It’s really difficult for me, as a brown person, to say that people are being racist. Because then you have to sit with the reality that you face on a day-to-day basis. And all of us wanted to have been able to move along, nobody wants to still be in this position. But if we don’t talk about it, how are we going to get to grips with the complexity, to move to a point where we have long enough to do the work? It’s like my clinical work: when I see people with borderline personality disorder, we struggle to get to speak about their trauma because the fires are too big, we’re too busy putting them out over there. I would like all psychologists to be able to talk about racism, without people criticising our attempts, when they are not perfect.

Talking about institutional racism starts us down a path. But we need to broaden the conversation to institutional bias. Even if you’re not visibly different, even if you’re not in a disempowered group, you can relate to institutional bias.

There are loads of people talking about this stuff out there. They might not hang with the BPS because they think that we haven’t got the right values for them. We need to demonstrate that more actively, by talking about it in complex ways through all the vehicles that we have access to. The idea of the taskforce is to think about inclusion in broad brushstrokes, and to make those conversations available to everybody. Otherwise people are thinking the threat is on the inside. The real threat is that psychology won’t be taken seriously, because we’re busy fighting each other… in quite difficult, entrenched ways.

At the moment the balance isn’t right. Hardly any people who even visibly look slightly different are reflected because the institution has got itself in a position where it’s perpetuated things that go on outside, but in a way that’s noticeable. Where you look on any criteria of inclusion – visible difference, disability access, where people are neurodevelopmentally different – we’re a way off. Yet this is psychology’s bread and butter.

Racists might call themselves a psychologist, but they need to understand something about what that means. There are values embedded in that. And I get that those values can’t be that we all agree with each other. But those values have to be that you have open debate and don’t simply throw rocks from the outside. And it’s got to be about humanity being better than it is – the fact that we hate people, that we kill people because they happen to be slightly different from us, is not a good plan for humanity. We have to talk about human behaviour. What is it about human beings and their make up that makes us behave in the ways we do with difference? What is the psychology of racism? What is the psychology of hatred?

I think psychologists are very clever people. And that goes in two directions… a power for good or for evil. Debates can be a deflection away from action. Psychologists can talk a thing to death, only produce a paper if it’s perfect and backed up by 30 years’ worth of research… I think that can be a way of stopping moving forward. A lot of people are being killed, so you can see why some members are angry: it’s not an intellectual discussion for them, it’s their life. For them, we’re completely missing the point. We have to make a ‘good enough’ plan, implement it and see where we are.

No police officer is going to put their foot on my neck. They think of me as some nice Asian doctor. That’s a privilege I hold. We need to talk about those complexities. If you’re a Black man in that case, and if you look at the data, the same privilege does not apply… when I see what happens, it has the feel to me of a lynching. It’s quite a long way from a civilised society.

We’re not going to sit for a year and a half writing a long report that nobody could implement. Psychologists like micro faffing. Three years on a committee to write a paper. By that time, nobody’s reading it. What is this about? It’s just wasting time. Instead, we’ve got senior managers of the Society on the taskforce with us, we’re collaborating with many different groups inside the Society and outside, we’re going to have dedicated staff resource. What we will do is input into the five-year BPS strategy, with a dedicated diversity and inclusion strategy and the resources to make it happen. We need to mainstream this agenda to make the systemic changes needed.

Let’s talk instead about the values of the Society. Is it reasonable to say that the BPS is institutionally racist because our values are that we would be shocked and shamed about being institutionally racist? Otherwise, what is the purpose of saying it? If we’re joining in with Black Lives Matter, that’s one thing, but because we think we should. But if we actually truly believe that our values are that if we were to be institutionally racist, as we are, that we have to do something about it and sharpish… that’s our values, isn’t it?

My job will be to agitate everybody to get started. Not to tell them what to do, or the right way to do it, because nobody knows that. But we’ll get each of us believing individually we can do something. You will hear from lots of different people. Inclusion isn’t just about brown people or black people or women. It’s about things like disability, mental health distress, understanding places of disempowerment. I want our work to be a broad inclusion agenda.

I feel like we don’t behave like psychologists sometimes. But then I have a view of psychology that’s probably a bit ridiculous, a bit highfalutin. I think we should change the world by actually understanding human behaviour and getting humanity to be a bit kinder and more compassionate. Maybe that’s ridiculous.

We need to get people to understand that there’s more than just a few people trying to make the change. And it’s not just about Sarb speaking, not just about the taskforce speaking, it’s about all the other people, working on the inside and outside of the Society. This cannot turn into a minority interest.

There are the people to make it happen, but the BPS needs to adjust its traditional way of doing business. There has been this metaphor of the oil tanker turning very slowly, but to me that’s a bit benign. At this stage in its history, if it doesn’t move on this, the BPS is like the Titanic… it doesn’t even know there’s an iceberg coming.


From the Chief Executive

Igniting the conversation
A couple of days before my speech at our virtual annual conference last month, a member of our team asked me whether I thought that the British Psychological Society, the organisation that I lead, is institutionally racist.

Then, at the conference, one member challenged me directly about the lack of BAME speakers and delegates. My answer – that it’s a function of the lack of diversity in psychology as a whole – simply wasn’t adequate.

I can’t, and won’t, ignore the depth of feeling about racism within the psychology profession and the lack of leadership that the BPS has shown in this area in the past.

“If it feels like we’re institutionally racist, then we probably are.”

That was what I said in my conference address [tinyurl.com/sarbbajwa2020], but as some have since pointed out, this was still ambiguous.

So, let me be clear – the BPS is institutionally racist, and we need to change.

Neither this fact, nor our acknowledgement of it, is unusual. Ever since the 1999 Macpherson inquiry, which showed institutional racism in the police force, organisations have been coming to terms with their past and present, and how it can lead to a better future.

We now need to rise to that challenge as one BPS. Our diversity and inclusion taskforce, led by chair Nasreen Fazal-Short, will have a key role in formulating our five-year strategic plan.

Above, Nasreen explains how the group is going to make this agenda mainstream. How it will broaden the conversation to include institutional bias and inclusion in every context, and draw on the views and expertise of a diverse range of members.

She also draws on a topic that I’ve discussed a lot before – the values of psychologists. What are they? What should they be? How can they drive our work in this area, and allow us to have a reckoning with the difficult path that has brought us to where we are today?

The only way that we will truly understand this is by talking to each other. By thinking about the unique qualities that psychology brings. How it has understood difference, discrimination and hatred, through its chequered past up to the present day. The Psychologist will remain a vital forum for these discussions.

Talking, however, is no longer enough. It should never have been enough.

So, we will develop a properly resourced strategy for diversity and inclusion, including giving the taskforce what they need to do the job properly.

We will seek out the widest range of voices that we possibly can - the cover of this issue is the BPS making that call.

If it prompts you to get in touch with your vision for a diverse and inclusive society, it will have served its purpose. Both the taskforce [[email protected]] and I would love to hear from you.

- Sarb Bajwa is Chief Executive of the British Psychological Society. 
Contact him at [email protected]

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