Over the last decade June Sarpong’s career has grown from TV personality in the UK and the USA, to becoming a respected international diversity speaker. She has hosted some incredible events, such as ‘Make Poverty History,’ Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday and founded an organisation called Women’s Inspiration and Enterprise. She has recently published a book, Diversify, as a hopeful antidote to an increasingly polarised world.
This April, Sarpong visited Bristol to talk about her book as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas’ Coleridge Lecture series. She spoke eloquently about her travels in America, and how a pivotal backstage moment with a tattooed sound man made her question her own unconscious bias. She felt afraid when confronted with someone so different to herself. This brief moment was to spur her on to write her first book, Diversify.
‘We’ve never really talked about diversity. Not honestly – and that’s why we’ve got these problems, we’ve always skirted around the issue when discussing it; because of this, we’ve never really addressed it.’
A key theme of Sarpong’s talk was ‘The Other.’ Whoever you are, whatever your background, the chances are that you’re unconsciously surrounding yourself with people like you. We all have an ‘Other,’ be it the other man, other woman, other body type, other way of living or other sexuality. We’re caught up in our divisions, and these divisions are widening because we don’t engage with our ‘Other’ often enough. Our cities are full of strangers, where individuals reject their neighbours in favour of empty online interactions.
Instead of continuing to ignore our everyday lives, we should connect more with other types of people. Sarpong believes that the 99.9% genetic similarity people share is a good enough reason for everyone to ‘get along,’ and that the remaining 0.1% difference is there to be celebrated. That’s all well and good, but is it a little bit idealistic in the era of Trump?
Sarpong argued no, that in fact integration makes great financial as well as social sense in the 21st century. And there’s nothing wrong with idealism. In fact, she still feels inspired by the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr from the 1960’s.
The question she rightly asked was, ‘Would King be disappointed in us?’ Arguably yes. Because today we’re more tolerant, but still we unconsciously have unhealthy attitudes towards difference. It’s the unconscious, limiting beliefs that need to be challenged.
The Next Step
What’s the solution to an increasingly polarised society? Sarpong has a practical framework for addressing inequality. Instead of staying in our comfort zone, we should celebrate our differences and surround ourselves with different sorts of people.
The framework she uses is called the ‘6 degrees of integration’ and here’s how it works:
1. Challenge your ‘ism’ (your blind spots, your uncomfortable areas)
2. Check your circle (look around you, if everyone is like you you’ll have a linear outlook)
3. Create a new connection (who don’t you have in your life, and how could you find them? What could you offer, what could you gain?)
4. Change your mind
5. Celebrate difference – there’s nothing wrong with difference, in fact there’s joy in it
6. Champion the cause (spread the word)
It was refreshing to hear a voice of positivity and change in today’s climate of difference and polarisation. Sarpong envisages a society where we’re not as reluctant to engage with other people, where we are less scared of each other and where workplaces, schools and social spheres are set up to cater for difference.
Perhaps this is what 2018 needs, a vision where our differences are what make us thrive, rather than a society where everyone strives towards unachievable homogeneity. Listening to June Sarpong speak so eloquently gave us all food for thought, and perhaps most tellingly, of all the talks I’ve been to, people stayed and socialised with each other afterwards. I met a really interesting couple and talked openly about age, gender and race with them. Perhaps this is the beginning of me challenging my own unconscious biases.