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Making our industry more diverse

A personal view from Paul McLean of Integrity Funeral Care

Back in October, Funeral Service Times kindly published an article I’d written for Black History Month bemoaning the lack of black funeral directors in the UK. I’d pointed out that fewer than 1% of our number are black and that people from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds had very different expectations of how and when a service would be conducted, the use of music and recitation, Nine Night celebrations and so on. I had urged my colleagues in the business to seek out young people from ethic communities to encourage them to consider it as a career and to enthuse them about how rewarding the work can be – not to mention having the opportunity to better provide a suitable level of service for all the people of this country, regardless of their heritage.

Then the magazine came back to me and said: “Well if there’s such a problem, how do we solve it?”

Which set me thinking.

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There is always an argument put forward whenever representation is discussed that goes, “Well, we would be delighted to employ more black people but they just don’t apply.” For me, this is a line which just won’t wash anymore. Take a look at what’s happening at the Golden Globes and the outrage at the lack of diversity in the organisation which runs it, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. In a hastily scrambled attempt to avoid a mass boycott which has already seen the show taken off air by mainstream broadcasters, the association says it’s “trying to do better.” It’s always unfortunate, and greeted with significantly less sympathy, when the problem has to be pointed out before people try to do something about it.

It would be very understandable for you reading this to be thinking, “Well if you don’t think there’s enough representation why not get involved with one of the industry associations and make change from the inside?” I have a lot of respect for our membership bodies. However, for a black man like me, getting involved is a more daunting prospect than you might imagine. I look at the websites of organisations in the trade and the lack of diversity is noticeable. Certainly I would say most of the leaders within the trade are universally white and all the mourners in the stock photography are white too. I want to make clear that I’m not having a go at a specific organisation because I’m sure it’s never occurred to them that they need images of black people.

You may wonder why that matters. I offer this as an explanation. How comfortable or confident would you feel about joining an association where every picture on its website was of someone black? This leads me on to what is widely known as the, “See it to be it,” argument. If people from minorities don’t see people like them in a particular role in society, they won’t be able to imagine themselves in it either. I cite in evidence the perhaps unlikely case of Nichelle Nichols, the actress who became globally known in the role of Lieutenant Uhura in the first incarnation of Star Trek. A little black girl called Caryn Elaine Johnson watched that series with her mother and recalls being amazed at how a black woman was in a senior job and telling other crew members what to do. It was a lesson she carried all her life, and it inspired her to become an actress. We know her today as Whoopi Goldberg. During the first series of Star Trek, Nichols became disillusioned with the role and considered leaving the show. She was persuaded to stay on by none other than Martin Luther King Jnr, who told her he let his daughters stay up to watch because then they could see what a black woman could become. Role models are of huge importance to minorities if they are to harbour significant aspiration. More pictures of black funeral directors please.

Then there’s the question of how black people enter the industry in the first place. The NAFD offers a number of extremely good courses – I’ve done some training with them myself. The costs range from £150 to £795 – not unreasonable for someone wanting to run their own business or to train up a new junior. However, I would question why there aren’t apprenticeships on offer through the Further Education route? If young people could study for free at FE colleges, just as if they wanted to become a nurse or an accountant or an engineer, more black youths would undoubtedly come forward seeing it as accessible and affordable.

Please believe me, from the outside our industry looks very much like a closed shop which is not an option for young black people. If we believe in diversity, we have to do more than say so.

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