On Wednesday evening, I got to attend an Under the Radar gig hosted by NME and Starling Bank. To put it in millennial speak, the evening was lit. Drinks were flowing, the music was great, and the company even better. The place was swarming with social media influencers (which I absolutely am not), but this eclectic mix of people led me to meet a group of guys from a collective called Last Night in Paris. They were a cool bunch of guys who create music, film, and merchandise. Of course, I am who I am, and somehow the conversation wound its way to politics.
I asked them if they’d voted in the recent General Election in the UK. A few of them said they had, but most of them responded with the following: Hell no, why would I vote? Nothing I say or do matters. I’m stuck in the system and it’s a system run by white people who don’t know me or care about me.
Oof. Talk about real talk but I can’t say this took me by surprise. The conversation then wound its way to the topic of Obama (how much we miss him and how he is the ex who is doing just fine without you thank you very much, sigh). They told me how much they admired him, how at least he was fighting the good fight.
Then yesterday on Twitter, a conversation thread emerged about a particular FinTech panel “looking like the board of a bank” which is to say, white and male. This isn’t surprising, because let’s face it– there are a lot of white dudes in FinTech, especially in London. But there are also a lot of POCs and women too. Several people I look up to in the industry jumped in with their comments. It reminded me of an essay I wrote a year ago for the London School of Economics blog about gender redesign in the workplace. It revolved around a talk that Dr. Iris Bohnet gave at the school about her book. The basic premise was counter-stereotypical examples change perception of what can be.
Say that again in non-tweed-wearing-academic speak? Simply put, we need role models. Why? Because role models show us what we can be. Role models show us that we can achieve what we want to achieve if we’re willing to put in the work. For me, President Obama showed me and so many millions around the world that a mixed-heritage POC can become President of the United States. More recently, Emmanuel Macron showed the world that a young man with zero experience in politics could form a Centrist political party and succeed. Xavier Bettel, Prime Minister of Luxembourg and Leo Varadkar, Prime Minister of Ireland have come crashing out (pun definitely intended) as openly gay politicians. Sadiq Khan became the first Muslim mayor of a Western city. But this extends far beyond politics.
Model Winnie Harlow became the first model with vitiligo (a skin pigmentation condition that causes light patches of skin) for Nike. Last year, an all-female flight crew from Royal Brunei Airlines became the first to fly and land in Saudi Arabia. In 1903, Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. This year, Viola Davis became the first black actress to win a Tony, Emmy, and Oscar (just a Grammy short of an EGOT now!).
The point is, when we see non-stereotypical people fill roles or accomplish great things, it changes the perception of what we are capable of achieving. This is important for everyone, but so much more so for marginalised people. I’m not saying we should hate on white men. There are undoubtedly young people who relate to white men (socioeconomically, religiously, etc) and so white men are absolutely valuable. But the world is more than white men and white people and as our societies become more diverse, so too should the roles that represent our people, be it in politics, banks, television– wherever.
I wanted Hillary to win, to show me a woman can do it, and I didn’t get that. So now, I’m putting it all behind Kamala Harris because she looks even more like me than Hillary. But maybe if I don’t get that, it’ll be my turn to step up so a little girl who looks like me can have someone to look up to. Seeing is believing… in yourself.