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Chief Executive

Is the British Psychological Society institutionally racist?

01 July 2020 | by Chief Executive

This blog is adapted from BPS chief executive Sarb Bajwa’s opening address on day two of BPS Conference 2020.

A member asked me yesterday about the lack of BAME speakers and delegates at the conference, and I was challenged by a member of my own team who asked me whether I thought that the BPS is an institutionally racist organisation.

My immediate reaction was to issue an emphatic denial of this, and to try to claim that the lack of diversity in the speakers is a function of the lack of diversity within the profession as a whole.

However, that raised a troubling question for me.

Surely, it is the role of the BPS to speak up on behalf of the profession? To just deny our own challenges with racism doesn’t move us forward.

I then took some time to reflect a little on my colleague’s question, and I want to share those reflections with you.

It is interesting that, as a profession, psychology is predominantly white and female. This is not reflected in leadership positions across the profession, which are disproportionately white and male. We do not talk about that enough.

But, when it comes to ethnicity, as an organisation, we haven’t talked enough, and we definitely haven’t done enough.

I recall meeting with some fantastic clinical psychology trainees in February this year. A black trainee had the courage to speak up and say that they would not attend a BPS event because they felt unwelcome.

That is not an organisation that I would want to be a part of.

I reflect now on the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on the BAME community. As an Asian, I can say that this does not surprise me in the slightest. What surprises me is that people are surprised.

I am also old enough to remember the Macpherson inquiry in 1999, which accused the police force of institutional racism.

The report described institutional racism as a “form of collective behaviour, a workplace culture supported by a structural status quo.”

That description makes me reflect on our own committees and working groups, our governance structures and everything within the BPS that seems to be built to aid the structural status quo.

I also reflect on the fact that many of our members are angry and frustrated. They feel that their voice is not heard and that they do not trust us.

So, what if my colleague was to ask me again? Are we institutionally racist? I think my answer would be that, if it feels like we are, then we probably are.

I think it is time to admit that we have been deaf to the pleas of our members and slow to address their concerns. We have ignored them and we have consistently failed to take action on this issue.

In order to move forward and be the truly representative organisation we want to be then I think we have to admit our mistakes. 

I do want to thank our President David Murphy for his work in establishing the Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce, and I look forward to working with the new chair, Nasreen Fazal-Short.

We will do everything in our power to make sure that the taskforce does not run in isolation, and it becomes an integral part of our day-to-day work.

Addressing our historic lack of action around race and equality will take time, but there are a number of things that we can do now:

  • Benchmark ourselves against other professional bodies
  • Use The Psychologist to explore our own professional history and biases
  • Commit to run a survey with clinical psychology trainees on BAME trainees’ experiences of racism
  • Embed and integrate issues around diversity and inclusion in all our day-to-day work by making this one of the central planks in our forthcoming strategy

I am not saying that this can be fixed overnight. It can’t.

But, perhaps, the most important first step is admitting that we haven’t spoken up when we should have and we haven’t acted when we needed to. Especially when you, our members, told us that we needed to. For too long we have been on the wrong side of this issue.

If we really want to positively influence psychology, to encourage it to be the diverse profession that it needs to be, then we have to get our own house in order first.

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