Royal Pharmaceutical Society

I will do more to advocate for BAME pharmacists

by Sandra Gidley, RPS President

A week ago I made some comments on Twitter which I know caused considerable hurt. I will admit that the anger and strength of feeling surprised me.

It shouldn’t have.

Those who know me, know that I am very plain speaking and sometimes shoot from the hip. I don’t aim to be deliberately offensive. The fact that I unthinkingly caused offence has not only upset me but given me cause to reflect long and hard on my comments. Particularly on how I made others feel and how I could learn from the experience.

I want to apologise sincerely and publicly to Aamer Safdar and Mohammed Hussain and anyone else who read my comments. I want to acknowledge that Mohammed Hussain has probably done more than anyone else in pharmacy to challenge organisations, including RPS, to do more on inclusion and diversity. Aamer is a respected colleague, I was wrong to involve Aamer in the twitter thread.

Sorry may be the hardest word but I mean it. I am apologising to everyone I have offended through my actions.

Many people will know that I am a Liberal Democrat. The values I believe in are all about “liberty, equality and community” and tackling poverty and ignorance. So, despite the fact that over the years I have taken up a range of equality issues (mostly in the areas of gender equality and disability rights). Even with my experience, over the last week I have been, to put it bluntly, ignorant. I am sorry.

As a mother I have always tried to encourage my children to try to put themselves in other people’s shoes and look at an issue from another perspective, think how the other person is feeling. Last week I did not follow this advice myself and I now realise that appearing to deliberately and selectively challenge people on their records on inclusion and diversity issues was wrong and unfair.

My initial, unthinking reaction was to challenge the first two people who came to mind because I knew them both. I recognise now how my approach applied unnecessary and unwanted pressure to both Mohammed and Aamer.

I am so sorry, because I would be the first to say that the discrimination faced by Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) pharmacists can only be tackled if we all work together to resolve these huge issues.

I have always thought that actions speak louder than words, but what can I actually do to make a real difference? Although I have a position of influence I have asked myself whether there is something I need to do at a more fundamental, personal level in order to truly understand and to make a difference?

I need to be advocating for change, not challenging others to do that for me. But an apology is not enough. I need to do better. So I have asked myself what I, as a white woman in a position of influence, can do to help redress some of the factors which led to the present picture of inequality?

Over the years, I have tried to listen and learn. Last year, working more closely with pharmacists who are Black, I learnt even more about some of the things which people can say that cause hurt– and generally learnt to avoid them.

I’ve been reading widely over the last week and realised that these often well intended questions are known as ‘microaggressions’. These comments may not have the intent of causing offence, but they make the recipient feel uncomfortable.

And, wow, don’t I just know some of those micro-aggressions which are used against women and which set my hackles rising!  I now realise that I am not nearly so sensitive to those similar comments which might make my friends and colleagues from a BAME background feel uncomfortable or worse. All of this is currently set against the Black Lives Matter movement, which makes my comments seem even more insensitive.

If anyone looks at my Facebook page they will notice that I added the Black Lives Matter to my Facebook picture. It was a well-meaning gesture of solidarity but my reflection over the last week has helped me to realise that the occasional badge is nowhere near enough.

I recognise that this is work in progress but the first thing I really must do is listen more closely and make a special effort to pay more attention to friends and colleagues who are from the BAME community. And I mean really listen.

I was recently talking to a friend about the recent COVID-19 deaths that have disproportionately impacted on the BAME community, which exercise me greatly. I was trying to understand some of the underlying factors and whether there were any cultural or genetic influences but now realise that it was wrong of me to expect him to have had all the answers, despite the fact he has done a lot of work in this area. So, the second thing I have realised is that it is my responsibility to educate myself – but I am open to suggestions for good reading material!

I have never thought of myself as privileged as I come from a very humble background. Both of my grandfathers were farm-hands and one of my grand-dads ended his working life as a toilet cleaner. My dad improved himself by joining the army and we travelled around quite a bit and I was lucky in that my parents both believed in education for both their children. I was the first child in my family to go to University (on a full grant) and my parents were so proud.

Over the last week I have also been reading a lot about white privilege. But until recently I have never stopped to think that it was definitely harder for BAME children to secure a University place. By comparison, I am privileged.

The most difficult question I was ever asked on the party political campaign trail was “Why God had put me on the planet”. I’m not religious but the best answer I could give was, “to leave things in a better place than I inherited them”. Funnily enough, I still believe that, but the sentiment is very apt in the here and now and has prompted me to think about how I can use my privilege and my position to do more to address racial bias and inequality. Which leads me on to the third thing I can do.

Last year I attended a BAME event at RPS during Black History Month. I met some truly fantastic people and questioned why I did not meet them at other pharmacy events. I want to do my bit to address the lack of representation.

Sporting a badge is no longer enough and I feel as though I am at the start of a journey. If it had not been for lockdown I would almost definitely have been on a march. But that is not enough either. Action has to be more than one day and more than one gesture.

I have always spoken out against injustice and challenged overt racism but the bigger challenge is to understand, and then take action to address, the very real racial inequalities that exist in our society. By taking the time to educate myself further, and working with others, I can play my part in making pharmacy the profession become truly equal.

I have reflected that there is an unconscious bias in the people I follow on Twitter and made a conscious decision to follow more people from BAME communities, not just pharmacists, in order to help me understand better.

I am also going to write to my MP, the person who succeeded me as the local MP. My MP is also the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, and I want her to take this issue more seriously so I shall write the letter and use my knowledge of the political system to ask for action.

But, whilst I now know that this has to be an area of personal growth and development and I do not want to idly rely on others to fill in my knowledge/understanding gaps I also know that I need to work with others if we are truly to effect change. I will be reaching out to the pharmacy community, asking to meet for a coffee and visit any groups working on this issue.

I will be learning and growing my network to include new voices - voices from the Black Lives Matter campaign and other activists who want change.

I will use my status to give those who have felt excluded and marginalised the platform they need and deserve within the profession.

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