Dear David Austin Roses,

Dear David Austin Roses,

I feel it is my duty to write to you to request that you assess your cultural bias when naming roses.  Whilst I understand that your heritage is ‘English’ roses, I feel that at present it is a very backward-looking Little England that you are choosing to celebrate.

It may not seem important to you if you are white British, but if you are black British, imagine how it feels to see yourself completely unrepresented in the David Austin catalogue.

Your names of roses tend to feature writers or characters of famous novels, or poets, composers, actors, musicians.

 We have a rich seam of black talent to draw from.  To name but a very few black writers:

Angela Levy

Bernadine Evaristo

Benjamin Zephaniah

Aminatta Forna

Dreda Say Mitchell

Helen Oyeyemi

Oona King

Malorie Blackman

Zadie Smith

Yrsa Daley-Ward

I am more than happy to discuss this further with you, as a long-time customer who feels strongly that we all have a part to play in combatting everyday racism.  This is not to shame you, but to draw attention to something that needs redressing for the good of all of us.

Can I also suggest that David Austin Roses might also consider apprenticeship schemes and recruitment opportunities to open out the world of gardening to BAME young people? 

Maybe your Chelsea Flower Show display next year could showcase diversity alongside the release of newly named roses?

Many thanks,

Alison Battye

English rose ‘Princess Anne’. But might she have been called ‘Angela Levy’ instead?

This is one of many emails I am sending to companies and organisations I am involved with and care about.

BAME people are exhausted with this. It is up to white allies to take this forward and help to end every day oppression for our fellow BAME human beings. We’ve ignored it for too long.

I would love to hear your ideas for everyday activism.

We can all make micro-reparations. If we don’t address our mistakes and if we don’t acknowledge that we have contributed to the problem – and ignoring it is contributing to the problem – we are staying stuck. Our collective shame and suffering will never end.

What can you do?

You can see the response from David Austin Jnr’s PA, which I have copied into a response to a comment below.

David Austin Roses’s response is encouraging.

There is engagement and acknowledgement, which is the first step towards something better.

42 Comments Add yours

  1. carylbeach says:

    A constructive way to raise awareness 🙂

  2. Heather says:

    I like this idea, but as well as names of writers, maybe broaden it to other spheres? I’d love to see a Windrush rose! And why not a Grenfell rose? A fitting small tribute to be planted in a memorial garden. And I’m sure we could come up with many others 😊

    1. Those are very good ideas. The most popular rose of all time is called ‘Peace’ and came out after WW2. As you say, plants and gardens can contribute to a process of truth and reconciliation.

  3. Ann Mackay says:

    A good idea and food for thought…

    1. Thank you Ann. This pervades everything. When we recognise that, we can make significant changes.

  4. That’s a great e-mail – not just drawing attention to the matter but offering a few concrete ways to address it. I had to look up BAME – haven’t heard that acronym over here. Now I know – thanks!

    1. Thank you Chris. Ah yes, I should have explained that term!

  5. kimberlycarlile says:

    Yes, by all means, Mr. Austin. Spend out your entire existence and pour out your life’s blood into your passion and science, and when you’ve achieved your goal, christen it with a name–not of your fond memory or literary love–but one shoved down your throat by writhing mobs, shaming you into what they define as political correctness.

    Forget the eternal truth that you know better than most, which is that beauty is the great counterforce to evil.

    Allow the ham-fisted bullies of the internet world to pummel you with their heavily-prescribed, crowd-defined notions of how to love all people. Trust them–they know better.

    Oh, and in case you think their requests are just suggestions . . . just know that, if you don’t cater to their demands, your business and all you stand for will be pilloried in as public a way as made possible by cyberspace. We control the accelerator and force multiplier of opinions and perceptions on the internet!! Our indignation is its rocket fuel. When my blog swerves against an entity like David Austin, the traditional damage control methods of your well-greased PR machinery will be no match for my stampede of screaming meemies.

    Sincerely,

    Just the Latest Insufferable Social Justice Warrior Lemming

    1. Cynthia Lewis says:

      I agree with you. Does everything have to be about politics? Can’t we just recognize and celebrate beauty for itself?

      1. Cynthia Lewis says:

        My agreement is with Kimberly Carlile’s comment to be clear.

      2. Ending racism isn’t politics. It is humanity and human rights.

    2. I am pleased to receive this reply from David Austin Jnr’s PA. It shows a willingness to listen and a humanity and compassion which is encouraging.

      Dear Alison

      Thank you for contacting us with your list of rose name suggestions, this is certainly food for thought. As you rightly say our rose naming tends to favour historical literary characters as Mr Austin Snr had a great love of literature.

      We introduce two new roses every year in springtime so the next time we will have roses to name will be in January / February this year. Over the course of the year we get rose naming requests from a wide variety of charities and organisations which we gather together at rose naming time to have a look at. Sometimes names are chosen that are suggested to us and sometimes the Austin family chose names that are personal to themselves, more often than not the rose names have a literary theme.

      Your suggestions have thrown up an interesting cultural seam, that you rightly say, we have not addressed before. Please leave your suggestions with us and we will be sure to look at them when rose naming time comes around.

      With regard to apprenticeships, we are not looking to recruit at our Nursery at the moment. Our mail order sales have been good this spring but our other departments have not fared so well. If we decide to go down the route of apprenticeships in the future we would certainly consider BAME young people. As we are based just outside Wolverhampton we have a rich culturally diverse workforce.

      Kind regards
      Emma

      Emma Weaver
      PA to David J C Austin

  6. Martin Poole says:

    I agree with you Alison. David Austin probably does as well – it has just never occurred to him. Decent white folk have always loathed racism but haven’t actually done anything to tackle it. This inactivity has allowed racist attitudes and behaviour to continue. Your letter is an action which will add to the pressure for change which needs to come from the white community.

    1. That’s it exactly Martin. And the sooner we openly acknowledge this rather than running away from it or denying it, the sooner we can help others feel as safe and as nurtured and celebrated as we are.

  7. You know I am with you on this Alison. I was researching yesterday on the lack of diversity in horticulture and was mulling over ideas on how to tackle it.

    1. Yes, it’s something I have noticed but I’ve never done anything about it. For instance there are some really icky plant variety names. From now on, I will email the company. Politely, but drawing attention to how it might make someone feel. There are such subtle messages to convey ‘this stuff is not really for you’.

  8. It would be a beautiful thing to find a Zadie Smith Rose at my local nursery! I support your call to action. I do wish I could be in the streets right now, but COVID is rising in both my state and county. I’m reading books I should have read a long time ago to look for guidance on how I might make a difference. This is very much front and center in my mind.

    1. Yes, I have a reading list too. I am taking action though where I haven’t had that push before. It is time.

      1. It is! How to be an Antiracist has given me some practical ideas for donating my time and money.

      2. I love that you are doing a deep-dive into this Michele. It is our responsibility to do so, I think.

      3. I agree. Diving deep is the first step. And, it’s the least I can do now that my days are free. The challenge is to figure out how to make a difference as a white woman sheltering in place in the suburbs. I am proud to say that I believe I have made a difference in the lives of several Mexican families who have touched my life. As immigrants they have worked so hard and I appreciate their commitment to their families. In California our economy is dependent on these immigrants. I feel truly blessed to know them and to help when I can so that they can make their American dreams come true.

      4. Yes, you are right. Deeds not words. Good for you Michele. I think a lot of the resistance is just because people haven’t connected with other cultures and seen that we have the same needs and desires and motivations. It doesn’t diminish us to lift another person up.

      5. Well-stated. Enjoy your break, but I’ll miss you. If you get a chance, read my “I’m Just not Sorted” post. I called you out in it

      6. Thanks so much Michele! It is so important to recognise when things are out of balance and need attention.

  9. Deb McDonnell says:

    Very good call. I think so many aspects of the English countryside exclude people of colour. I never thought of plant naming as an area of bias but you raise such a good observation.
    Deb

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. Yes, rural areas are still very white. And I think the lower the diversity the lower representation, the lower the awareness and consideration. So where there is low diversity it’s up to white people to do the thinking and take action.

  10. Emma Cownie says:

    You are absolutely right, Ali!

    1. Thank you Emma. It is reassuring to know there is support all around. I hope we have reached a moment.

  11. Suzanne says:

    I like the idea that people with a passion and who have contributed to the horticultural sector no matter how small, large, locally or globally have a rose or plant named after them. Not just based on gender or culture.

    1. Yes, it is a lovely way to honour and celebrate people. Which I suppose is why it is significant.

  12. Eliza Waters says:

    Excellent idea, Ali. It’s well past time the world embraced all peoples, colors and cultures.

    1. Thank you Eliza. It is reassuring that I am not alone in this. There are so many subtleties that might to white people seem unimportant, but to black people are anything but.

  13. susurrus says:

    You raise a valid point and I’m glad Emma has answered so frankly and thoughtfully. When I asked myself what English black poets I enjoyed, to my chagrin I couldn’t think of any. I read very few modern writers and cannot list a single black British poet, novelist or dramatist published pre-1930, despite having a degree in English, unless I do know of one without knowing their colour, which I doubt. In truth, I think that is significantly more of an issue than the rose naming.

    1. You are completely right, Susan. This is not at all personal to David Austin Roses, it is a whole society thing. I feel compelled to go beyond what I have done before, which is to be aware of cultural bias and then carry on doing what I’m doing. I too was really impressed by Emma’s response. It is exemplary in a non-defensive response when a respectful challenge comes up. I have a degree in English too (what an amazing, lovely indulgence was!). I was lucky to have electives in ‘post-colonial literature’ and ‘liminalities’ (!!!) and I remember a recurring theme over my three year degree was ‘what is the literary canon, and how does it get decided?’ It’s depressing that twenty-odd years later we are baby steps forward. Time for change, I think.

  14. Sally Bourne says:

    The late Mr. David Austin spent a lifetime creating his stunningly beautiful English Roses. For anyone to have the audacity to suggest that having spent years perfecting a rose he shouldn’t have named it after exactly whom he pleased is outrageous. Presumably the black authors mentioned chose the titles of their works without interference from white horticulturalists? I am pleased to see such a courteous and thoughtful reply from Emma of David Austin Roses.

    1. Your response (and another earlier one) throws up interesting questions around ‘white fragility’ and a tendency to hold up some individuals as above challenge. I feel uncomfortable with this. I feel fairly sure, given the response from David Austin Roses, that the late David Austin would have been open to debate and did not see himself as a Godlike being. His achievements were indeed remarkable. Societal and cultural change does not threaten that.

  15. I find it utterly bizarre that anyone could take offense at this suggestion, but I’m encouraged by the response you got.

    1. Bizarre is exactly the word. There is much more fear of change than I had imagined. I guess we feel we are protecting our tribe or ancestry or heritage? To redress the balance and celebrate other lives wouldn’t diminish us, it would elevate us all.

  16. Sally Bourne says:

    I feel uncomfortable that you seem to think it necessary to criticise Mr. Austin’s choice of names for his roses. I think that you are being especially unjust since he is no longer alive to defend himself, even if that were necessary. It’s not about *white fragility’ or a person being ‘above challenge’. It’s about freedom of choice. Mind you, if David Austin Roses name a rose “A Day Late and a Dollar Short” I shall be very tempted to buy one!

  17. Anonymous says:

    I think you should stick to gardening. Unfollowing…

    1. Wow. I really have to wonder what is going on here when what I am proposing is that black people are recognised as worthy.

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