Barbican staff claim world-leading arts centre is ‘institutionally racist’

11 June 2021, 12:44 | Updated: 14 June 2021, 16:26

London’s Barbican described as ‘institutionally racist’ in staff testimonials
London’s Barbican described as ‘institutionally racist’ in staff testimonials. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Europe’s largest performing arts centre is at the centre of a racism row.

The Barbican in London has launched an independent review, after being accused by its own staff of ‘institutional racism’.

Employees past and present have collated a book called Barbican Stories, which contains records of more than 100 alleged incidents of racism and prejudice at the organisation, over six years.

There are claims that bosses at the centre, which hosts classical music concerts, plays, film screenings and art exhibitions, have called Black or ethnically diverse staff ‘yellows’ and ‘diversity hires’.

Several Black and ethnically diverse staff say they have been assumed to be cleaners because of the colour of their skin.

In a statement, the organisation said it was “shocked and saddened to hear the allegations” and had “always strived to be an inclusive, welcoming and open organisation”.

It added: “We fully recognise the pain and hurt caused by these experiences. We are committed to pursuing the ongoing programme of action which we have laid out to advance anti-racism in the organisation, and to achieve necessary change.”

Read more: Sheku Kanneh-Mason: ‘Growing up, I didn’t know of many Black classical musicians’

Barbican launches independent review after being accused by staff of ‘institutional racism’.
Barbican launches independent review after being accused by staff of ‘institutional racism’. Picture: Getty

One worker claimed they were forced to cut their afro hair to stop other workers touching it, while another employee alleged that he was asked by a colleague to sell him cannabis, because he is Black.

Several testimonies claim “career progress is curtailed for staff of colour”.

The Barbican’s statement added: “Although we have not received any formal complaints, all staff will be able to contribute to the independent review so that their experiences can be heard and those affected can get the support they need. We want everyone’s voice to be listened to and respected.”

Staff shared their claims with The Guardian, because they allege the Barbican’s leaders have failed to stick to their anti-racism action plan made a year ago, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter across the US, UK and the world.

In 2020, a consultancy firm hired to address issues of racism was condemned for asking staff of colour to recall racist incidents in front of Barbican leaders.

In an update to its anti-racism commitment in May 2021, the Barbican confirmed it had appointed staff to set out steps that could be taken to eliminate system racism in the organisation.

It also said it was using responses from the consultancy firm’s sessions to build a new equality and inclusion strategy, and is recruiting for a new equality and inclusion officer.