Sky News anchor Gillian Joseph delivered a brutally honest account of being black in Britain in the LJMU Roscoe Lecture on Wednesday.
But she also spoke of winds of change, led by the Black Lives Matter and other movements, which offer hope of a more equal society.
Recounting her childhood, early career in Merseyside and her reporting of the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, perhaps her most poignant experience was explaining racism to her own children.
“To sit your children down and have to tell them they will be treated badly because of the colour of their skin is awful. To frighten them and end their innocence, if you like, is vital for black families; a coming of age moment that white people don’t have to face.”
“It is especially tough on my son, who, like his father in his youth, is likely to be stopped by the police simply for being who he is.”
Coventry-born Gillian, who has worked on Radio 1, The Black Britain programme, Newsnight and the BBC One and Six O’Clock News, first became aware of race as a six-year-old, when she moved to the Caribbean. Her first experience of being in the majority brought it to the fore.
At her primary school back in the UK she says, “We played kiss-chase at school but no-one was chasing me...my best friend told me I’d be really pretty – if I was white.”
“So at my junior school I felt marginalised and at my secondary school I felt that I was an outsider. I just didn't seem to fit in anywhere. But when you feel you don't fit in anywhere, guess what, you can make anywhere your home.”
Being black in the media industry, she says, gives her two roles: journalist and ambassador for black people. “Rightly or wrongly I felt I was also representing my race. It is a yoke, an added responsibility, if you like. A burden, but not one that you can shirk.”
Gillian admitted she was humbled by her role as a Roscoe speaker, following in the footsteps of the Dalai Lama and Prince Charles, and confessed she was entirely unremarkable, but that the unremarkable could be inspirational.
She wished the audience spectacularly unremarkable lives, but added “make no mistake, be clear in your pursuit of success and equality. Make it your reality. I task you with making your excellence unremarkable - your eminent magnificence mundane.”
She also offered hope for a less racially divided future, praising Sky’s diversity strategy and LJMU’s Black Lives Matters website and mentoring schemes, and describing the murder of George Floyd as much more than a moment. “For the first time in my life I have actually been approached by white friends and colleagues apologising and asking what they can do to help. People want to be allies, they want to be a part of the solution to ensure equality.”
“We must educate one another about the journeys we’ve been on and how we are where we are.
For too long, this history has been untold, unheard, mis-taught or misrepresented.”
Touching on William Roscoe’s campaign for the abolition of slavery, Gillian noted that although this lecture in his name coincided with Black History Month, hundreds of years of shared history can’t be crammed into four short weeks. “I’m black 12 months of the year!” she said.
“Our history is shared. Our experiences are interlinked and cannot be separated. And until our collective history is routinely shared then Black History Month serves only a transitional function...it is necessary at present because without it there is a void, but it isn’t the final destination. We need to get to a point where our COMBINED stories take their rightful permanent position on our school curricula.”
Answering questions, which were mediated by the BBC’s Roger Phillips, Gillian rejected the premise of positive discrimination, recalling how she was slighted as a young reporter on Merseyside, when people thought being black and a journalist were mutually exclusive.
The only answer she says is “ to know your worth. Your excellence will be your definitive answer. Your brilliance will shut down the doubters. Thirty years on from my time in Liverpool, I would hope that the concept of a black female professional wielding a microphone walking around Albert Dock isn’t an oddity anymore.”
The Roscoe Lecture – our first virtually – was introduced by Vice-Chancellor Ian Campbell and Roscoe Lecture Series chair Sir Jon Murphy.
Gillian presented the annual Good Citizen Award to Ceana Khonje, a Year 10 pupil at the Christian Fellow School, Liverpool L7.