‘I’m really bloody ordinary’ – identity, prejudice and race in the workplace
Our November masterclass saw over 90 folk gather in the cosy conservatory of Bloomsbury Books UK, for a talk on what it means to be British, by a very British Man; Kamal Ahmed.
From student newspaper to Editorial Director of News at the BBC, Kamal Ahmed talks about his route to journalism – spoke in about in depth in his recent book ‘The Life and times of a Very British Man’. Bringing words from his book to life, Kamal discussed his experience growing up in Britain and his journey to a career in journalism. This month’s masterclass was set in the very place his story was made into print, Bloomsbury Publishing.
The son of a white, Yorkshire-born mother and a Sudanese father, Kamal spoke about growing up under the shadow of two existential threats, one being ‘nuclear war’ and the second, the threat that someone was going ‘to send him home’.
Having attended a local state school in Ealing, Kamal headed to the University of Leeds. His love for journalism was instantaneous as he stepped through the door of his university’s student newspaper. He then completed a Masters at City University’s Department for Journalism in London.
‘The notion of reporting and helping people make sense of the small suddenly became a massively important thing and was my vocation – this was the thing I wanted to do forever.’
On how to be successful in the workplace Kamal believes that ‘luck, cunning and passion is a really important part of success. A setback is an opportunity.’ He advised the audience to:
‘Think about where you want to be in five years and then work backwards. Consider the opportunities in front of you and work with them to your advantage.’
Starting his career journey at a local Scottish newspaper, communicating local issues really motivated him. As his career progressed, via Scotland on Sunday, The Guardian and then The Observer, where he became the first non-white Political Editor of a newspaper in Britain, Kamal maintained that he did not want to be known as just the ‘brown person’ in a business. This was despite growing up in a generation of people who wanted to ‘hide’ who they were and ‘be more British than even the white British.’
‘When I was young I changed my name to fit certain situations. I’d change my name to Neil, to try and fool people into thinking I was British, or less foreign.’
Kamal recalled the first time he, and other ‘brown people’ were invited into a news conference during the Stephen Lawrence enquiry. Suddenly, he became a ‘spokesman for brown stuff’. He cautioned that we have to be careful about typecasting and spoke about his own role now in helping others to have successful careers by ‘deploying 21st-century skills, like listening to the quiet people in the room.’
He spoke about the retention and progression of diverse people in senior roles, claiming that ‘people leave because they don’t see their community and culture reflected’.
‘Creative organisations will only be successful if they look like the communities they are trying to serve.’
Kamal ended by quoting Martin Luther King, saying he wants to be judged not by the colour of his skin, but by the content of his character. He then answered questions signed copies of his book for our interns and alumni.
With enormous thanks to our hosts at Bloomsbury Publishing for hosting the evening and to Kamal Ahmed for such an entertaining, inspirational and informative night.