As we head into November, many UK organisations have wrapped up their Black History Month activities. A month filled with wonderful celebrations of black culture and the community’s contribution to society.
But that’s all it is: a month. So this also means it will be a whole year before the organisations once again actively demonstrate support for anti-racist behaviour. A whole year of potential complacency encouraged by people thinking they have “done their bit” during the month of October.
And so my complicated relationship with Black History Month continues: can we really embrace and understand the contributions and, to an extent, the necessity of black culture that influences so much across the arts, cultural and political movements and, indeed, in our whole society, in a single month?
The challenge starts young. The lack of black history taught in schools means the past experiences of black people, and so many other minority groups, just aren’t present in the curriculum. For me, denying young people a full picture of their history and all the stories and experiences of those who lived before us, inevitably contributes to the racial struggles and misunderstandings that many are subjected to in their adulthood.
Since it is not addressed in the “traditional” curriculum, I’m proud to see programmes such as Gamechangers, pioneered by P&G’s Gillette and Football Beyond Borders (FBB). The launch of this educational programme (designed and delivered by football pundit and former player Ian Wright) gives young people the opportunity to study British black history. To date, it has been rolled out to more than 250 young people in 16 schools across London and Manchester.
Gamechangers tells the story of people like my grandad, who came here in the 1950s as one of the Windrush generation. Arriving in the UK, not a single household would lodge him. We know why. Eventually, a Polish family took him in and gave him somewhere to live.
It’s hugely important to me that more people know about, and are aware of, the sacrifices and contributions many, like my grandad, made. They left their families behind to start a new life in the UK, to help fill the post-war labour shortage. School-led education on the history of the Windrush generation would help people understand why communities are outraged at the poor treatment of Windrush descendants – even in recent times.
The history of immigrant contributions to this country is one that needs greater focus, and a way to achieve this is to ensure that black people are “seen” across every facet of society. Pockets of diversity here and there aren’t good enough. And this insight needs to spread beyond the month of October. When I look back at where my family has come from and my role today within a global company, I feel I have a duty to ensure better representation of diversity in each of my work streams. This is how change comes about in an organic way, when it’s no longer seen as “tokenistic” or a reaction to the greater issue.
For example, when creating everyday products such as skin and haircare, we must ensure they are being tested on every skin type and everyone’s needs are taken into consideration. Pantene’s Gold Series is one example of a mass product created specifically for Afro hair by scientists who are part of the community. This sort of project can be undertaken only when there is a diverse mix of people and experiences at every stage of product development, marketing and sales. This is why, on Olay, we’ve partnered Dr Ateh Jewel’s Education Fund to provide bursaries for black and mixed heritage young people to enter the cosmetic science industry and help address the lack of diversity in STEM.
I hope we can get to a stage where black British history and its interaction with education can be fused into the fabric of our learnings from a young age – and that the efforts of brands and businesses are no longer heralded and celebrated, but just an expected part of a fully representative society.
Only then, through the lens of our past, can we truly understand what builds an empathetic future. One that doesn’t split our narrative. One that doesn’t call us out. One that joins all of us together, in hopefully, the same way this year’s Black History Month has tried to do for the past 31 days.
Yasmin O’Neal is the skin and personal care brand and sales director at Procter & Gamble, Northern Europe