Blackwash – What It’s Like To Be Black In Northern Ireland

Does Northern Ireland have a race problem? I’d say yes.

But that’s just my opinion and as a marketer who believes in data, I’ll have to support that statement with both empirical evidence and qualitative data. Actually, the qual is probably closer to an anecdote, but stick with me.

The Numbers

Kicking off with the cold hard numbers. At the last census in 2011, Northern Ireland’s population was 1,810,863.

Breaking that down by ethnicity, you find that Asian or Asian British make up 1.06%, Black or Black British 0.2%, Mixed 0.33% and Other 0.13%. In other words, all non-white populations of NI add up to 31,113 out of 1,810,863 people.

There is some evidence to suggest that these figures may have changed. I hosted an event in October about the food industry in NI. At that event, many employers presented evidence that migration has grown since 2011, even if Brexit has caused a recent reversal of that trend. And net migration figures from NISRA show that net migration is up slightly in 2017.

However, a census is a census and probably the only number we can agree on. So, while some other data may suggest the numbers above have changed, let’s stick with census data.

Onto the data the police keep.

Between July 2016 and June 2017, there were 1,025 racist incidents reported to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). In the same period, police recorded 879 incidents involving traditional religious sectarianism.

Now, anyone with a basic understanding of Northern Ireland will have heard the phrase The Troubles and know that it was a Catholic v Protestant thing.

Along with most people, I’m overjoyed we’ve largely left the stupidity of those days in the past. It does, however, still dominate local politics, which in turn influences the media and the local discourse.

Anyway, back to the numbers and think about them for a moment:

  • 1,025 attacks on a population of 31,113
  • 879 attacks on population of 1,779,750

Take a moment and let that sink in.

There is, perhaps, a possibility that some of the racist attacks are being committed on people who would be classed as ‘white’ in the census. Polish migrants, for example, could be subject to racial abuse.

If that’s correct, those figures might be sensationalising the issue, so I looked at some other data. In the same census, 81,453 people or 4.5% of the population were born outside of the UK and Ireland, with 1,534,268 people living in Northern Ireland being born here (91.04%).

So if you think I’m over playing the issue, these better figures are:

  • 1,025 attacks on a population of 81,453
  • 879 attacks on a population of 1,534,368

I’m sure you’ll agree these are much better numbers…

The Anecdote

A fair question to ask at this stage is this:

What the heck has this got to do with your business blog? While it’s an important subject, it’s not normally in Eximo’s wheelhouse.

I’ll forgive you for missing the BBC local news last week or for not listening to Talkback on BBC Radio, so I’ll give a brief recap and you’ll join the dots to see why I’m talking about race in Northern Ireland.

On Wednesday 14 November, I’d been booked to speak at an event in Cookstown. Mid Ulster District Council had appointed Daryl Conway to pull the event together and he’d asked me to come and speak on digital strategy. I sat on a panel discussion with Naomh McElhatton from SMART Global and Aiden McGale from Affinity Digital, then presented for an hour in the main auditorium of the Burnavon Theatre.

mid ulster council digital marketing event

All just a fairly standard day out really.

Before everything had kicked off, we all posed for photos and the photographer hung around and took some more of the panel, the speakers and the audience.

Just a typical event.

A week later my Talkwalker Alerts picked up a mention of Eximo Marketing in the news – the local paper had published the story on their website. Then everything went downhill.

I’d been cropped from the official photo of the event.

I had a copy of the photo from the Council’s tweets the previous week, so I checked to make sure it was the same pic. It was.

I looked to see if there really was a reason to take me out: was I pulling a funny face, was there a shadow issue, was I too far away from Aiden, was I included in the pic but had just been overlaid with an (exceedingly ugly) ad?

The answers: nah, no, nope, definitely not.

With no rational reason making any sense to me, I was left with an irrational one – the colour of my skin.

At this stage I was still mildly amused, in an annoyed way, that I’d been mentioned in the story below the pic, been the main speaker at the event and done some post event PR for the organisers, yet not been suitable to be in the pic.

I took a screen shot and sent it to a few mates and the missus, to show them what had happened.

I left it for an hour or so before deciding to post it to Twitter.

But This Isn’t Racism

This wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. You don’t start inferring that people and organisations are racist without understanding the implications of it.

I run a new-ish small business based in Northern Ireland and the parent company of the Tyrone Times run a lot of newspapers.

I could be labelled as a trouble causer which could make it harder to get more work.

Social media, a field I know pretty well, is a curious thing – what if I was the subject of a backlash?

All of these things went through my mind, but the main reason I wasn’t sure about posting it was this: would people consider it to be racist?

Racism, to many people, still invokes images of the National Front chasing black people down streets or smearing shit on houses to let them know they’re not welcome in an area.

That’s racism.

But cropping me off a pic, that’s not racism. Come on Andi, it’s just a technical thing.

I used the hashtag #blackwash on the tweet by design, because I thought I had been whitewashed out of the event. My attendance at the event wasn’t important enough to leave me in the pic.

I’m certain if I had been in the centre of the picture and anyone else had been at the edge, the picture wouldn’t have been cropped. But I was easy to take out because I don’t fit the narrative of what an event in Cookstown should look like.

And that, to me, is racism.

Social Storm

On Wednesday I was contacted by Daryl Conway and the Council, the organisers of the event. Both were superb in hearing my concerns, confirmed they hadn’t cropped the pic – it’s always been used in full on the council website.

From there the RTs clicked up, the shares continued on Facebook and the comments poured in on LinkedIn. Much to my surprise, they almost all agreed with me and demanded some sort of explanation from the Tyrone Times.

I got nothing.

By Friday the BBC had picked up on the story and I featured on the lunchtime Talkback show for 40 minutes and did a short interviewed for the evening TV news progamme. JPI Media, the parent company of the Tyrone Times? They refused to be involved and instead issued this statement:

blackwash johnston press statement

To say it’s underwhelming is an understatement.

I’m now a technical issue. Maybe a framing issue. Or a composition issue. They couldn’t even give a direct answer, just a cut a paste none-statement that looks like it’s been issued hundreds of times before.

And, amazingly, after the BBC got involved, they managed to get the original picture to fit on the website. Did they stumble across more pixels on the website on a Friday afternoon?

Raheem Sterling

If you watch the Premier League, you might have seen that Raheem Sterling has been talked about a lot recently. He was subject to racist abuse by Chelsea fans in a game recently and went on to pass some of the blame on to the media. Why? Because they treat black players in a different way to white players.

This, from the BBC Sport article about  the incident:

“In his post, England international Sterling cites newspaper headlines about team-mates Tosin Adarabioyo and Phil Foden buying houses.

The headline referring to 21-year-old defender Adarabioyo – who is on loan at West Brom – focuses on how he spent £2.25m on a property “despite having never started a Premier League match”.

By contrast, midfielder Foden, 18, “buys a £2m home for his mum” and is later described as having “set up a future”.”

And Sterling has a back catalogue with the media that would test anyone’s patience. He’s been vilified for his bling lifestyle and buying houses for his family. Then hung out to dry because he was seen shopping at discount retailer Primark. He just can’t win with the media.

Again, I hear the calls of “that’s not racist” and “he’s just high profile and paid millions so he should have to put up with it”, but the evidence shows more and more than he’s treated differently and he – and I – firmly believe that’s because he’s black.

The connection between what’s happening to Raheem and what happen to me is clear. The narrative of the story is selected based on how the main protagonists look, then the words and images are cropped to fit that narrative.

Phil Foden – nice (white) chap setting his mum up with his money

Tosin Adarabioyo – bling (black) spoiled brat throwing his money around

Andi Jarvis – doesn’t look like a businessman from Tyrone

Raheem Sterling – money grabber with no redeeming features

The Bigger Picture

As one of the other commentators, Tim Brannigan, mentioned on Talkback mentioned, there have been issues in Mid Ulster with negative stories surrounding the migrant population. Disagreements with local residents, problems with housing, a mantra of them taking jobs from locals have, apparently, been part of the local narrative.

Andi Jarvis and Tim Brannigan

As someone who actively avoids the local news, I can’t comment too much on how accurate these stories are, but they’re certainly something I’m aware of, as the big food processors in Mid Ulster are hungry for workers to keep production going.

In this case, there was an opportunity to showcase a different story about race. Albeit by not actually mentioning race! I have no desire to be known as a black speaker – I’m a marketer, a strategist and, if I do say so myself, a bloody good speaker on those issues (I’ve even got data to back this up) – and want to be known for that. The picture from this event would have done all of the work, without ever having to mention race. People can join the dots for themselves.

But by blackwashing me out of the picture, that story was never told. Moreover, by refusing to join the discussion and  ignoring the issue, JPI Media has missed a chance to draw a line in the sand on race issues.

If they’ve got staff who don’t understand the power of a picture, they’ve got a training issue. I know the company is going through some well publicised financial issues, which usually means huge cuts in training budgets but this is a cultural issue that they can’t afford to fall behind on.

Maybe the reason they didn’t do anything about it is because of the financial problems. Newspapers still typically sell their advertising on a per impression basis. On the basis that there’s no such thing as bad news, my social stats show that they had a huge number of page impressions over a five day period, something that I’d guess is much bigger than their usual on a fairly dreary story of a local business event.

The Future

As you can see from the Raheem Sterling story, a Spurs fan throwing a banana at a black Arsenal player and Aberdeen fans abusing a Celtic player, racism hasn’t gone away in the rest of the UK.

So this isn’t just an issue for Northern Ireland. But, I believe because of the small population of people from a BAME background in Northern Ireland, we are starting from a different place. Remember, this is the place where 52% of respondents to a recent survey said they wouldn’t accept a Muslim in the family via marriage.

The context is definitely different.

I’m a big believer that whinging about something rarely solves it.

I’d still like to hear from someone at JPI Media. It can’t be that hard to find me on social media or my website. I mean, I tweet them every other day! But I’m not holding my breath.

So positive steps are what are needed to help move things forward.

Possibly the most uplifting thing since this story is the number of conversations I’ve had with people who said something like:

“I didn’t realise we had an issue with race in Northern Ireland. Now we’re talking about it.”

I spent an hour talking with Aaron, PJ and Scott from the Sunnyside Podcast talking about this in more depth and having a really entertaining and fun discussion about race in Northern Ireland. If you like podcasts, I’d encourage you to have a listen – it’s here.

If it’s kick started a long overdue discussion, then that can only be a good thing. And a positive step I’m going to take is to keep having discussions about race and promoting the positive role diversity can play in business, especially in Northern Ireland.

I’ve had some great conversations with the Institute of Directors (IoD) about what we can do as a business community to raise the awareness of the BAME business community, showcase a pathway for younger people from minority communities and champion diversity as a good thing in business.

I’ve helped out with the North West (of England) IoD on a programme that focuses on work with the African diaspora and in Northern Ireland, we’re talking about events in 2019 where we can start to make a difference to the debate.

These are, on the whole, good, positive outcomes from what was, to use a Yorkshireism, a shitter of a situation.


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