Love Brighton, hate racism: Different understandings of ‘diversity’

Love Brighton, hate racism: Different understandings of ‘diversity’

Caterina Mazzilli

Cities have what geographer Doreen Massey (1991) defines as “a character of their own”: a set of physical and intangible characteristics that make each place unique.  Yet, what we think we know about a city might often be very far from its reality. Take Brighton, for example: despite its well-established public image as diverse, statistics reveal that its population is actually very homogeneous.

My research focuses on ‘receptive cities’, those urban centres that have achieved a public image of welcoming and tolerant, where it is supposedly easy for a diverse range of people to feel at home. I spent eight months conducting a series of interviews with representatives of Brighton’s local government and members of grassroots Black and Ethnic Minorities’, in order to understand which factors can build a hospitable environment.

While I am somewhat wary of this classification (BME) I adopted it to reflect the policy language in use in associations. I was particularly interested in the relationship between diversity and racism, which scholars such as Sara Ahmed have argued are deeply problematic. Gathering accounts from ‘above’ and from ‘below’ meant having a better understanding of the place of ethnic diversity in the narrative of a city that has made ‘diversity’ is symbol. Most of all, I could also identify how narratives are reflected in policies, and particularly in managing racism.

Brighton is an ideal case study because of its well-established reputation as bohemian and tolerant. It is easy to love it: it has a beautiful seafront, the centre is paved with vegan cafés and second-hand shops; plus, it is where the largest Pride Parade in Europe takes place, to celebrate “all that is wonderful about Brighton and Hove’s diverse community”.

This perception is supported with enthusiasm across a broad spectrum ranging from official Council documents to social media. The 2015 Notice of Motion to make it a City of Sanctuary states: “Brighton and Hove has a well-deserved reputation for embracing the diversity of its residents”, while, on The Student Room forum, a user comments: “Brighton is famous for its diversity of people, everybody fits in there, whoever they are!”

Diversity is the pivotal concept around which my interviewees built their accounts of the city. This was especially the case among respondents working within local institutions – they argued that Brighton thrives because of the diversity of its community.

Yet, ‘diversity’ is one of those flexible words that can be stretched so as to be used in a variety of contexts or adopted by different people while remaining seemingly unvaried. Used and abused since the 1990s both in policies and in academia, ‘diversity’ includes – while simultaneously concealing under a glossy façade of success – gender, ethnicity, age, mental health, class, and all the other dimensions that define someone’s identity, while also hinting at social struggles [1].

Mette Louise Berg and Nando Sigona [2] extract three core constructions through which we can operationalize diversity: as a demographic set up, as a policy approach or as a narrative. During the study, I enquired about diversity from these three points of view.

Looking at Brighton’s demographic is a good starting point. According to the latest Census, over 247,817 residents, 16% of the local population were born outside the UK (mostly in Europe), while BMEs represent 19.5% – and it is important to remember that these two groups can sometimes overlap. 94.3% of residents are classified as white (88.02% White British, 1.60% White Irish and 4.63% White Other), ranking above the England and Wales average.

Brighton has never been an industrial centre, which partially explains its ethnic composition: the citizens of the British Empire who migrated to the UK in the ’50s and ‘70s from South Asia and the Caribbean area – today classified as BMEs, primarily settled in industrial districts.

Interestingly, only the members of BME associations pointed out this discrepancy between Brighton’s diverse image and its homogeneous population make-up. Interviewees from this group complained of their own lack of visibility, referring also to the Brightonian very specific understanding of its variegated citizenry primarily through the lens of gender and sexuality. An activist for black people’s rights explained that, “[White British residents] think that, because they are walking through East Street amongst gay people, they are very easy going. But we cannot forget [that] the underlying feeling is abusive. People who look Muslim, OK? They are getting beaten up.”

This point connects directly to the construction of diversity as ‘narrative’. Crucial to understand it is the account of a local councillor who discussed Brighton’s history at length. The city’s popularity increased in the 18th century, when the Prince Regent established it as the place of his escapades to the coast to enjoy a decadent lifestyle. When settling there, he also brought with him individuals defined as “open-minded wild characters” or “mavericks”: most of them were artists, and in the popular perception, this coincided with being gay or lesbian.

From that time on, the city has been considered a hub for artists and the LGBTQ+ community, a tolerant place where everyone can freely express themselves. A general consensus emerged from the interviews with representatives of the institutions that the first type of diversity Brightonians experienced related to gender and sexuality but that then, in a sort of spillover, this made them feel comfortable with any other expression of this concept.

‘Diversity’ seems to encompass all possible dimensions. And yet, when I probed the meaning of it, representatives of the Council remained focused on Brighton’s openness to gender and sexuality and the historical presence and relevance of the LGBTQ+ community. In contrast, although BME participants acknowledged and respected Brightonians’ openness to diversity with regard to gender and sexuality, they also reclaimed the importance of ethnic diversity. They turned the dominant diversity narrative upside down arguing that, if Brighton really was diverse, ethnicity should be part of its established narrative. It is not a matter of opposing gender to ethnicity – the point is rather that, to be true to its definition, diversity should address both.

The specific local understanding of diversity emerges in the policy realm as well. The dominant perception, as a representative of the Council stated, is that hate crime is “mostly committed against LGBTQ+”. Differently, participants classified as BME discussed racism over the umbrella-term ‘hate crime’, demonstrating that it exists even in the city considered as a beacon of British liberalism. All interviewees agreed on the low rate of racist attacks in Brighton, especially in comparison to other cities. One member of a mixed-parentage group told me that he “didn’t even remember the last fight [he] had with a racist. And it wasn’t in Brighton.” But he clarified; current times are “safer, but psychologically less safe because of the assumption that we are safe.”

In fact, I collected several stories of discrimination in the job market, schools, and public services, demonstrating that racism can manifest in a number of ways while being equally harmful. By means of example, a member of a multicultural group stated that, when speaking on the phone, many recruiters are likely to lie about the availability of a position depending on the accent of the candidate – privileging European-sounding, and therefore most likely white, applicants. Another participant noted the lack of promotion of BME employees in comparison to their white colleagues, for which their institution gives no explanation.

The stories uncovered by my research are certainly important in and of themselves, but there is more. The reason why we should pay attention to these dynamics is that they open our eyes to how skilfully diversity can work. Diversity is often employed as a celebratory concept, thriving on ‘success stories’ [3], and the LGBTQ+ community embodies Brighton’s. Therefore, even though diversity supposedly encompasses many dimensions, in this case, one dimension de facto obscures all the others. This plays out in people’s perception of the place, its community, but also of the issues it faces. It rightfully puts certain identities and issues under the spotlight, but simultaneously sidelines others.

Afua Hirsch [4] argues that the progress made by society “is, in some ways, part of the problem”. Comparing current racist abuse to what black and Asian people used to go through in the past can give us the soothing illusion that we are beyond racism. And yet, institutional racism and racist abuse do still exist and are still based on the assumption that the targeted individuals belong to a community other than ours. Even in the supposed stronghold of liberalism.

A simple but effective way to start addressing this could be through expanding the idea of who is part of this unique ‘diverse community’.

[1] Ahmed, S. (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press. /  Benschop, Y. (2001) Pride, Prejudice and Performance, International Journal of Human Resources Management, 12(7), pp. 1166-1181.
[2] Berg, M. L. and Sigona, N. (2013). Ethnography, diversity and urban space. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 20(4), 347–360.
[3] Prasad, P., and Mills, A. J. (1997). From Showcase to Shadow: Understanding the dilemmas of managing workplace diversity. In P. Prasad, A.J. Mills, M. Elemes, and A. Prasad (Eds). Managing the Organizational Melting Pot – dilemmas of workplace diversity. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
[4] Hirsch, A. (2018) Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and, Belonging. Jonathan Cape


Caterina Mazzilli is a Post-Doc Research Assistant in the School of Politics and IR at Queen Mary University of London. In 2019, she completed her PhD in Migration Studies at the University of Sussex, where she was part of the Sussex Centre for Migration Research. Her research focused on city narratives of receptiveness in Brighton and Bologna.