By Bonnie Chiu and Ngozi Lyn Cole

Being wrong is important to societal progress and human evolution. As we read the rich summary by Michael Little on the two years of conversations and exploration at the Ratio network, we learnt so much about how being wrong actually led to improved impact and learning. As both of us focus a lot of our work on racial equity, a thought kept popping up in in our minds: how can we learn to admit that we may be wrong about race, so that we can keep making more progress?

We have gotten race wrong in the UK but a lot of us are still denying that we got it wrong. When Black Lives Matter movement gained renewed prominence in the US and then the UK in 2020, so many of our friends and colleagues said, “Oh, I thought we have been here before.” And further afield, we heard people said, “I thought we’re done with racism in the 70s or 80s.”

Parts of our society are still trying to brush racism under the carpet – the famous “Sewell report” earlier this year caused controversies, by asserting that institutional racism no longer exists in the UK. The report was heavily criticised by the race equality sector, including the thinktank Runnymede Trust. Runnymede Trust’s criticism was, however, not well received by some. More than a dozen of Tory MPs wrote to the Charity Commission in April this year demanding an inquiry into the Runnymede Trust over its criticism of a government race report, and in September, the Charity Commission found that Runnymede Trust did not breach charity guidance to engage with the report. Generally, when people tell others are wrong, the responses are not rosy – but when it comes to race, the responses are often much more heated.

One of the greatest nightmares for any organisation is to be seen as racist. It doesn’t matter if they are actually racist or not – the truth does not seem to matter as much as the perception. But if we are so scared about being seen as getting race wrong, how can we ever move forward?

There have been a few rare instances where organisations admitted that they didn’t get race right. Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust published a statement in April this year, to say: “We are deeply sorry that the origins of our endowment have roots in shameful practices that caused deep suffering and created enduring harms.” The National Trust published a report in September last year, as “the fullest account to date of the links between places now in the care of the National Trust and colonialism and historic slavery.” The National Trust recognises “these histories are sometimes very painful and difficult to consider,” but they it is their responsibility to “tell inclusive, honest histories about our places and collections.” Unfortunately, honest reflections about getting race wrong are few and far between.

Human beings do not like to be wrong. But more than that, if we don’t admit we are wrong, the status quo will be maintained – and many people probably prefer it that way. The status quo that privileges a certain group of individuals, therefore, is maintained. Civil society and philanthropy, committed to reducing inequalities in our society, therefore have an additional responsibility to push the boundary, to make sure that we admit when we get race wrong so that we can learn and build an equitable future.

Background to the blog post: Bonnie and Ngozi have been supporting Lloyds Bank Foundation with their racial equity work, and as part of this, have been observing the work of the Ratio Network. This blog seeks to build on the Network’s reflections from a racial equity perspective.