The RHS, in their monthly magazine ‘The Garden’ (which, if you haven’t seen, I can thoroughly recommend), briefly mentioned that there has been a ‘worldwide discussion on diversity, race and inclusion within the horticultural industry’, initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement. It must have passed me by. And in fact the only mention of it in ‘The Garden’ was in the introduction to the letters page, where there were three letters from members on the subject.
Is the industry racist? If so, that’s a particular shame; because if the interest of gardening, and the connection with the natural world it brings can’t bring people together and make them forget any prejudices they may have, I don’t know what can.
The letters were certainly critical, but they concentrated on what we actually see – too many white faces in the media; a general lack of racial diversity in images shown in ‘The Garden’; complaint about ‘the number of white hands highlighting a flower or demonstrating how to plant things’. I don’t feel this really gets to the heart of the problem. It seems rather superficial to me. I suspect the proliferation of pale skin reflects the ethnic make up of the industry, rather than being a problem in itself. Using more dark-skinned models wouldn’t change anything – just make it look as though everything was fine, destroying any impetus to make real changes.
If we want to do something, we need to address what it is that’s holding back people from different ethnic backgrounds. An assumption seems to have been made that it’s all down to simple discrimination, but is that right? Can we reasonably assume that the ethnic (and indeed gender) make up of a particular interest group or industry should exactly match that of the general population? I wonder whether that lack of ethnic diversity in the industry might not be as much down to two other factors.
I know that people from East Asian cultures have a history of preferring apartments to houses. In Sydney, for instance, Chinese people account for a large part of the market for apartments. Might it be possible that people from a culture where domestic gardens are a rarity might be less inclined to think of gardening as a career? And my experience of South Asian communities in the UK suggests a significantly lower proportion of households show an interest in their garden. Please correct me if you think I’m mistaken. I don’t have sufficient knowledge of Afro-Caribbean communities to know whether the same is true there.
These are generalisations – I know there are a lot of people from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds who have a love of gardening and plants. Many will already be working in the industry. Others may be keen to enter it. From watching Gardeners’ World on the BBC for many years it seems as though allotment holders are a very diverse bunch, although ethnic minorities may have been disproportionately represented because of their great ingenuity and skill in growing produce that is more exotic, and therefore interesting, than the usual peas and beans.
One of the main aims of the RHS is to enthuse people in gardening and plants. It may be people from some cultural backgrounds present more of a challenge, but it must be worth making an extra effort, because plants, gardens and the natural world should be an integral part of all our lives, whatever our background.
A thorny issue, this one, but from my perspective it looks as if the industry is dominated by the plummy accented and the double-barrelled; the spouses and offspring of those who have already made it to the top. Could it be the colour of your skin is far less important than who you know, and what school you went to? This is probably true across much of society. Most opportunities that arise find their way to the privileged. If what we hear is true – that ethnic communities are on average considerably less wealthy, and less privileged than the indigenous white communities, then the class system will be a huge barrier to people from ethnic minority backgrounds getting the breaks; a huge obstacle in the way of equality.
Could it be that gardening – horticulture in general – is something that those of us in the racial category ‘white European’ have a particular interest in – an interest that isn’t generally shared by people from other groups? Is it the class system that’s holding people of other denominations back – jobs for the boys; nepotism, a game the whole family can play? Or is there a sinister shadow of racism lurking among the herbacious borders? Personally, I’ve not experienced or witnessed any discrimination in the industry, but up until now at least, I haven’t got out much. What, if any, experiences have you had?
text & images ©Graham Wright 2020