Tier-three-induced boredom had me plumbing new depths to occupy myself on Friday, as I idly searched on Twitter to find out how this year’s – milquetoast, in my opinion – John Lewis Christmas advert had been received.

In case you haven’t seen it, the ad is themed around acts of kindness and does not exclusively feature white people. This small show of diversity has outraged the kind of person that types, “What next, a black Santa?” then slams their forehead against the Union Jack emoji 15 times before hitting send with their elbow. You know: racists.

If you move through the world in a white, left-leaning bubble then you have perhaps been fooled into thinking that in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter protests, some progress has been made in the fight against systemic racism. Maybe you diligently worked through the numerous suggested reading lists shared widely in May to better understand white privilege and your role in upholding it, or uploaded a black square on Instagram to signpost yourself as an ally. You might have noticed over the past few months greater variety in the ethnicities represented on magazine covers or, indeed, in TV adverts, and felt soothed that, on the face of things, our society has been taking positive steps to become more inclusive.

But it’s just a veneer. A Scottish Police Authority report last week revealed that between July and September, racially motivated hate crimes had risen in Scotland by 14.5 per cent compared to the same period in 2019, echoing statistics from the Home Office that showed crimes linked to race and religion in England and Wales in June and July had jumped by 34% year on year.

On a personal note, I had racist abuse hurled at me recently while walking through Glasgow’s southside, arguably one of the city’s most culturally diverse areas. Admittedly the woman who followed me down Kilmarnock Road screeching “eff-off home” seemed a few scoops short of a cone, but I was momentarily shaken by her words, the likes of which I hadn’t been subjected to since I was at school in the 90s. I knew the fashion was enjoying a resurgence, but the patter too?

The friendly, cosy and racially inclusive world peddled to us by big brands is at odds with what is actually happening in the world right now. We see a company like John Lewis hire people of colour to star in its ads and we’re satisfied on a surface level – which, let’s be honest, is all many of us can be a***d looking at – they’re doing their bit and we can browse their aisles without guilt. Yet a peek under the bonnet reveals that just 3.7% of the retailer’s employees are from a Black, Asian or other minority background (though John Lewis does say it is working on improving inclusivity, and is relatively unusual in that it voluntarily publishes its ethnicity pay gap). It strikes me that many companies want to reap the woke points of appearing to be racially diverse without having done any of the hard, behind-the-scenes work to effect real change.

My social media feeds have been awash with requests for BAME experts to sit on panels or write for publications; to provide services that are ephemeral but visible. Though some are well-intentioned, many smack of tokenism. It was reported at the weekend that Glasgow Caledonian academic Tahseen Jafry said the number of requests she’s had to speak at conferences has increased significantly over the past few months. She believes these institutions care more about virtue signalling than what she’s actually got to bring to the table.

“I got asked if I would give a keynote speech yesterday,” said the professor, who advises the Scottish Government on climate change. “The email made it clear I was being approached because of my ethnicity. I thought, ‘You’re not asking me because of my expertise on climate justice, you are asking me because you need to ensure diversity’.”

Professor Jafry is right to be frustrated, though having made the mistake of looking at the comments below the article, it’s clear some people believe she should be grateful the white knights have suddenly rode in to recognise her existence and achievements. It’s better than nothing, they say. But is it?

A friend of mine, who is mixed-race, worked for a large company where she was one of a baby-sized handful of BAME employees. Following the death of George Floyd, she was emboldened to go to the CEO and present her concerns about the organisation’s lack of racial diversity, along with some suggestions as to how they could improve it. A working group was set up (led by – naturally – a white, middle-aged man) where a few ideas were kicked about. A proposal to create a business-wide pledge to enact meaningful change was dismissed by a senior staff member, who deemed it unnecessary. The company went on to include a few more ethnic minorities in their publishing materials, my friend lost her job in a round of pandemic-related cuts, and now everybody who works there in a similar role to the one she held is white. Plus ça change.

Performative wokeness, where corporations (and individuals) are more concerned with the optics of appearing to be right-on than actually living their supposed values, is dangerous. They fool themselves and others into believing they are forward-thinking when in reality they are operating in the same way they always have, except now they’re profiting from public-facing inclusivity while maintaining the status quo behind closed doors. It dampens the impetus for genuine progress.

If you truly care about dismantling a system that subjugates those who aren’t white, it’s not enough to read a few books by Black authors and tweet about how you have a crush on Kamala Harris. Structural and political change has the most pronounced impact and this takes actual, non-Instagrammable effort. It’s much better to quietly do real work than noisily do nothing.

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