I was in two minds as to whether to put out the article below in the light of the publication of the Sewell Report. We will cover the report in full very shortly…urgently. Its message, if the extract below is anything to go by, must not get a hold on the popular consciousness.
This is what prompted me to write yesterday: my colleague Anna Andrews wrote an article on the appalling statistics for maternal and infant mortality in pregnancy and childbirth for women of colour. Both she and I searched for a good image to go under the headline. We searched in all the usual places for licensed, free-to-use pictures, hoping to find something that would draw the eye and convey the poignancy and importance of the subject.
Neither of us had anticipated that the search itself would prove to be a depressing encounter with structural racism. Searching for newborns, mothers and babies, pregnancies and parents brought up pages and pages and yet more pages of white infants and mothers. There was a scattering of Asian mums and a tiny handful of black women and kids. And I mean tiny.
We both tried searching specifically for black mother and baby images and that is where the full horror hit us. The search threw up animal photos. Apes, monkeys, lemurs, even a black panther. Amongst these were the few mother and baby pictures. Then I remembered Google Gorillagate.
In 2015, software engineer Jacky Alciné found that Google kept tagging pictures of him with his girlfriend as ‘gorillas’. He tweeted the company to point out that something had gone badly wrong with their algorithm:
Google Photos, y’all fucked up. My friend’s not a gorilla.
— diri noir avec banan (@jackyalcine) June 29, 2015
The Google photo app had a facility by which users’ images could be tagged and filed according to subject matter, making them easier to search. The algorithm is only as good as the artificial intelligence (AI) behind it and the AI behind it relies on users training it to correctly identify subjects and not to make deeply offensive mistakes based on incorrect information. By the way, you and I are used to help train a machine to learn when we are asked to pick out zebra crossings or bicycles or traffic lights in what purports to be a security procedure. Free labour!
Google’s chief social architect Yonatan Zunger was clearly mortified, responding quickly to Jacky’s tweet:
@jackyalcine Holy fuck. G+ CA here. No, this is not how you determine someone’s target market. This is 100% Not OK.
— Yonatan Zunger (@yonatanzunger) June 29, 2015
Agreed. It was 100 per cent not OK, but Google were unable to fix the app in a timely manner and gave up, opting instead to simply block its image recognition algorithms from identifying gorillas altogether.
At the time, Wired magazine was reported as having
“performed a number of tests on Google Photos’ algorithm, uploading tens of thousands of pictures of various primates to the service. Baboons, gibbons, and marmosets were all correctly identified, but gorillas and chimpanzees were not. The publication also found that Google had restricted its AI recognition in other racial categories. Searching for “black man” or “black woman,” for example, only returned pictures of people in black and white, sorted by gender but not race.”
It would seem from our image search that not a lot has changed.
I then thought back to another aspect of structural racism – the under-representation of people of colour in books generally and in children’s books, in particular (something which is, happily, changing at some pace now). I have written three picture books featuring toddlers. The first of these has done steady business since its publication by Andersen Press in 2010, especially in China and South Korea and it has been translated into 9 languages.
I am white and my illustrator, Georgie Birkett, is white. The first two titles depict an all-white family and, to be frank, it had never occurred to me for a second that they should be any other way, not helped, probably, by the fact that I live in rural and not particularly diverse Devon.
But in 2014, the second book was up for the Dundee Picture Book Prize, run by the city’s fantastic librarians. It’s a lovely award because the titles are nominated by the local school children in years 5 and 6 and they choose based on which books they most enjoyed reading to siblings or the reception and year 1 classes. So, it’s a huge honour to make the shortlist.
Anyway, off I went to Dundee to take part in the final award ceremony which involves hearing each shortlisted book read aloud by its young sponsor who also articulates the rationale for their choice. How cool is that?
As I stood on the stage with four fellow authors, I looked down at the sea of eager, upturned faces. They were a glorious, multicultural, cosmopolitan bunch and I suddenly felt deeply ashamed. Where were their faces represented in my books? Where was all this rich diversity?
I made up my mind there and then to ask my editor and Georgie to make the last in the series reflect the UK as it is and to celebrate diversity.
I’m Big Now features a mixed-race family. Mum is black, Dad is white with a ginger beard. The little girl has wonderfully braided hair and both have dark complexions. I am proud to say that it has drawn some of the most rewarding comments I’ve ever had from the public , with expressions of gratitude to me and my illustrator for giving them a book their “kids can finally recognise themselves in”. We should not live in a world where we need to be thanked for this, should we? But reviewers singled out the mixed-race aspect saying:
“An especially good feature here is how the mixed racial background of this family (an African American mother, a Caucasian father) is presented matter-of-factly.”
“Rhyming text and exuberant art follows a little girl in an interracial family getting used to her status as big sister. The narrator has brown skin and tightly curled black hair in small braids with bows. Her mother and baby brother share her skin color and hair texture, but her father, her grandmother, and a friend are white. Race is unmentioned in the text, which introduces the girl’s ‘baby big girl game, ‘ in which she playfully regresses and tries to wear her old baby clothes and squeeze into her baby bed.”
Now I am not sharing this with you to crow about my books or to imply some sort of do-goody/virtue- signalling agenda. In fact, you could say it’s a shame that race has to be singled out at all and I’d agree.
My latest book, a novel for teens, comes out on 1 April and I am a little anxious about how it will be received. It features a young Muslim girl from Somaliland, living temporarily on the edge of Dartmoor and deeply engaged with the climate cause. In fact, it’s all about young climate change activists and I wanted to bring home to people the fact that what we do here has a knock-on effect in countries thousands of miles away and that women and girls are disproportionately affected. Somaliland was in the list of ten countries to be hit worst by the climate crisis and the effects of galloping desertification.
I have done my research as best I can, but the fact remains that I am a privileged white woman writing about another culture and religion and yes, I did have a diversity and inclusion agenda and I do want to be part of positive action to improve the representation of minorities in books for young people. I am deeply attached to Zaynab Egal, my character…and her white Devon friend Lucas… and I hope that that respect and affection will be evident to the reader.
Today the government-commissioned report on race and ethnic disparities will try to tell us that the UK is not institutionally racist. I call bullsh*t on that. Absolute bullsh*t. Windrush. Grenfell.The policing of the Black Lives Matter Protests. The skew in search, arrests and jail time for black youths. Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, the murdered black sisters whose dead bodies were reportedly photographed by police officers and their pictures shared on WhatsApp. No public outrage. No vigil for them. Francoy Hewitt and Leroy McNally, living in leaking, mould-ridden flats only able to get help by using their surnames and omitting their first names. The shocking LBC Jean/David Lammy call. Windrush. Windrush. Windrush.
As Naomi Smith tweeted:
These stories are too big and too important to sit with my tale of white privilege. We will be covering the Race and Ethnic Disparities report separately. Please contact us if you have a story to contribute.