This is the second part of my fascinating conversation with Nick Davis, the Director of Engagement and Inclusion at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In the first part, we talked about removing systemic and structural barriers in organisations. In the second part, we explored why he has a particular interest in surfacing these invisible barriers.
‘The real reason why, is that I have been a victim of systemic discrimination and racism my whole life. I’m very aware of how systemic and structural barriers exist and of the impact they have on people who are often from, what I say, equity-seeking groups, or from disenfranchised groups or people who have no power. The system is set up to always support the status quo and the structures are put in place to meet and support that status quo. Everywhere I’ve gone I think that we have to attack the systemic and structural barriers because people don’t often even see those as acts of racism, oppression or exclusion. I was fortunate enough that one of my co-workers who worked with me at Metro Morning, God rest her soul, Ing Wong-Ward, was a woman who used a wheelchair. She drove home to me how systemic barriers made her life impossible. She couldn’t get into certain buildings. Once our show was successful they wanted to send us around the country to tell people how we became successful and I experienced the challenges of going to a shop and she can’t use a washroom because none of the washrooms are for people with disabilities. I was thinking, “What world are we in? You knew Ing was coming, why haven’t we made an accommodation for wheelchair users? But it’s outside of their system and structure and they didn’t think about it. I thought, “But it’s real simple, just freaking put a ramp down here so she can get into the building,” Like, “Why are we carrying her chair?” To me, these are very unthoughtful things. They don’t even understand how it was discriminating against her because of the system and structures that they had in place. Things that they felt they couldn’t change when I think they had the power to change them.
Experiencing systemic racism
I’ve had my own experiences with systemic racism. I’m a black man in my mid-50s that grew up in Toronto. I got my license when I was 16. Between the age 16 and maybe 30, I’ve probably been pulled over by the police over 100 times and never got a ticket. So people can say whatever they want to say about that. They can say, “Well, maybe you were speeding.” Well, I didn’t get a ticket, so I clearly wasn’t speeding. They asked me a lot of questions. They held me up lots of times. This was a consistent pattern of behaviour and to me that’s systemic. For some reason, a black man driving a car that wasn’t crappy needs to be talked to because we need to assess whether they’re a safety risk to everybody else. That’s only one thing. I have so many other things that made me think, “Holy mackerel. Why is this happening? It never happens to my white friends.” They don’t have those experiences and they don’t understand. To them, it’s bad luck. But it’s a system that’s in place that oppresses young black men in my community because of the way they perceive me in my community. I’ve always tried to knock down those barriers as best I can. I think it’s the best way to attack racism. It’s not flashy, but to me, it’s the best way to attack it.’ Another example of systemic discrimination is before I got the job at CBC, I was invited to this event by a group of people who call themselves the Friends of the CBC. These are people who are trying to help CBC in the eyes of the public, but they’re not connected to the CBC in any way. At the time I was an editor of a successful newspaper. We never had pictures of the people who wrote the articles in the paper, but we had recently won some journalism awards. Friends of the CBC invited me to a big event to come and talk about making sure CBC was a much more diverse place. I go to this event and I’m at the door and I’m saying, “Yeah, I’m Nick Davis, I’m here.” And they go, “Are you sure you’re Nick Davis?” I say, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m Nick Davis.” “Can we see some ID please?” And so I say, “Yeah, sure.” I pull some ID and show them. They go, “Oh, we just thought you were somebody else.” I said, “Okay. Whatever.” I walk in and I’m not even able to take the event in. Instead, I’m thinking, “Okay, this is odd. You’re invited here to speak, it’s about diversity, so they must know I’m black and so that’s why they have invited me, I assume that’s why. And I’m running this successful newspaper yet they ask, are you sure you’re Nick Davis?” I was eventually introduced to speak by Rita Devereaux. Rita is an American black woman who was living in Toronto. In her introduction, she noted the fact that we are the only two people of colour in the entire room, remarking “Think about it, this is a conversation about diversity.” I got up, delivered the speech and when I sat back down I said to Rita, “Why are you embarrassing me like that?” Rita said, “Nicky, they didn’t even know you were black. They are inviting you thinking you’re a white man who has figured out diversity and that’s why your paper was good.” They had no idea that the editor of this paper could possibly be a black person. They invited me because of my name, Nick Davis. It doesn’t sound very ethnic since I come from a long line of people who were colonised. Whoever had colonised my family back in whenever were Davis and that’s why I am Davis. That was an experience that speaks to me about a real system where people just can’t even imagine that someone who looks like me could be running a successful newspaper in Toronto. It happens in the UK too. I remember when I was doing unconscious bias training at the BBC. The trainer was a black woman. She told us that she never shows up to the BBC wearing a black suit because people automatically think she’s one of the security guards. Nick said, ‘That’s systemic to me. I don’t think people were intentionally trying to discriminate. What they don’t understand is the cumulative effect of all those structural and systemic things. Eventually, you snap. You know, I’m tired of going in elevators. When I was younger, even now, I’ll get in an elevator with a white woman and she puts her purse on the other side of her. Are black men going around and robbing white women in elevators? I’m not aware of that crime spree that’s happening. Why would someone think that way? But that’s because a system and a structure exist where, as black men, we’re painted as dangerous in some people’s eyes.
The impact of structural discrimination
Managing emotions from that cumulative impact of those kinds of systemic and structural discrimination takes energy. When I was growing up, every summer my mom sent us to live in Brooklyn with my aunt. I did that every year from eight years old until I was eighteen. I appreciated the overt racism I faced in the United States more than covert racism because at least you can deal with it in the moment. The structural and systemic stuff is more like a realisation. Like, I don’t understand why I’m not getting these jobs… And who do you blame? I can’t be mad at the guy who is the senior producer of the show because this is what he was told a good story is. This is what he’s learned from the system. Do you get mad at the whole structure and the whole system? You get so frustrated, but then it creeps up on you. One day you realise that the weight of this thing is killing me. It’s taking a toll on me.’ I recalled that when I was at the BBC I started as a project manager but eventually I wanted to retrain and become a production manager because there were so many transferable skills. I went through the training and I knew I could do production management with my eyes closed. But when I was trying to make the career switch I kept coming up against small, subtle micro-barriers. It wasn’t until I had a mentor who was assigned to me through a diversity programme that the BBC was running that I had a frank conversation about this. My mentor said, “We’ve had some feedback from somebody that you can’t be a production manager because if you went on location, being in a wheelchair you wouldn’t be able to lift heavy equipment.” I said, “Come on! Somebody else could lift the cameras and I could do their spreadsheet for them. We just need to be a bit more creative.” Honestly, I didn’t want to work in a genre where I was going to have to fly off and work in the middle of a desert somewhere. I’m quite happy working in a nice cosy studio doing some sort of factual TV programme interviewing some boring politicians.
Changing the system
I asked Nick what he thinks are some of the barriers commonly found within employers and businesses, both within broadcasting and other sectors? In broadcasting, a common barrier is what people think is a good story. So the structural barrier is the story meeting – how are we holding the meetings and how do we decide? How do we decide who gets to do a story? How do we decide whose perspective a story is told from? People have said to me, “Well, that depends on who your boss is.” I’ve had many, many different bosses and it’s the same thing. So I have to assume that people believe this is the way you do things and to me, that’s a system, right. Or we can call it a process. And if the process is keeping my voice out of it…. remember, I’m at the table pitching those stories. I pitched a story once, which I thought was an amazing story. A very powerful person in the story meeting said, “Are you only pitching that story because it’s about black people?” They shut it down immediately. That system felt that any story that they couldn’t relate to wasn’t a good story. I learned quickly how to pitch to get around the system. That meant I pitched but never divulged whether someone was black, Asian, had a disability. I just said, “So-and-so has this great thing they’re doing and here’s why they’re doing it. I think it makes a great story because of this, this, this, and this. I think people in Toronto need to care about it because of this and this.” That’s how I had to get around the structural barrier until I was in a position to change that system. When I could, I changed what is considered a good story, changed how we perceive stories should be told and what lens they’re told through. I’ve always thought, even thinking about my time working on our local morning Toronto show, when people would pitch ideas that were not from the status quo it’s like, “Oh well, well no, no, we don’t do those kinds of stories.” I’m asking, “Well, why don’t we do them?” And their answers were always, “Well, what would so-and-so in some remote part of Canada think about that show if they heard it?” My reply was “Well, actually we only broadcast in Toronto and you can’t throw a stone in Toronto and not hit across diversity.” Like you can’t. It’s impossible, right? Yet they had a system of working in a structure that was set up that supported the types of stories they thought were good stories. “This is what makes a good story. This is how you pitch stories. Here’s how we evaluate stories.” I thought that that system was not a very inclusive system. I’ve always said if we rebuild the system we can change the frame because I’m the senior producer now so we don’t have to do it that way. We can change it. When you break down these systems and make the place more inclusive, that is when you see some growth. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect because it takes time, but you see growth there.’