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10 June 2021
The assumption of precisely what a police officer should look like can be damaging to colleagues from diverse backgrounds.
BAFTA Award winner Robert Beckford told delegates at a PFEW Virtual Annual Conference session titled ‘The Challenge of Difference’, that officers who differ from the perceived norm within the service can suffer simply from being perceived differently. He also added these individuals have to constantly adapt to circumstances, rather than being true to themselves.
The Professor of Intersectional Justice at the University of Winchester, who has made television documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4, is renowned for his research into the intersection of race, class, gender and the social and religious environment.
In his presentation to conference, Professor Beckford highlighted the challenge faced by individuals from what are still viewed within parts of the service as non-traditional backgrounds.
Answering a series of questions from Peggy Lamont, PFEW’s Equality lead, and Zac Mader, PFEW’s BAME and BAME Belief Secretary, he highlighted his own experiences in academia as a starting point and admitted: “In my profession the average academic does not look like me.
“The same things work withing policing – what is the norm? If you fit the norm, you are more likely to get on. So, how do you challenge the norm and recognise that this norm is linked to power, and does more damage than good?
“The norm is problematic – say, for instance, the images we have on the wall represent one group of people and legitimatise one group of people. This actually does psychological damage to others who are not part of this group.”
The academic and TV presenter explained that being different to this ‘norm’ brought challenges, and many people chose to suppress their beliefs and backgrounds to fit in at work with colleagues.
He explained how he had a different work mode to his home mode with his family, and even as a distinguished academic constantly had to think carefully about the setting he was entering and how he would relate to individuals.
He said: “If I could get a pound every time I had to explain my culture, I’d be living like David Beckham. But when you have to explain yourself, it puts a pressure on the person explaining themselves.
“I have to be very careful around issues of race and racism. I also have colleagues who are black people and have changed their name in order to fit in. It’s another burden – and about how much of the ‘real’ us can we take to the workplace.”
Professor Beckford said the challenge for policing was how to change the dynamics for those who were from minority backgrounds within the service.
He concluded: “The challenge is ignorance – people not knowing or wanting to know. You have to give up power to effect change, as our professional lives do not take place in isolation.”