- Simone Harvey
Being Black in business in the midst of BLM
I started a new job right at the beginning of lockdown and in the space of just three months I’ve watched the world change many times over. From coronavirus and its disproportionate impact on Black and Minority Ethnic people, to global coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement and the most mainstream conversation on race in recent history.
I’ve seen statues torn down, anti-racism books sell-out, talk of reparations from companies built on the back of slavery, and organisations compelled (with varying degrees of success) to communicate their stance, solidarity and commitment to the movement.
Just a month ago this was unthinkable.
George Floyd’s murder - an ending that went viral thanks to a phone and social media - made it impossible for the masses not to see, with their very own eyes, the overwhelming impact and harsh realities of institutional racism.
Conversations about race - what it is and isn’t - are on the tips of many tongues both inside and outside of work right now, and people are starting to really get it: That you can have Black friends, not shout racist abuse and still benefit from and participate in structural racism.
A recent Fortune article highlights the financial manifestation of this in business: In the US, Black men are paid 13% less than White men; Black women are paid 39% less than White men and 21% less than White women. And we’re not doing any better here in the UK. Black and Minority Ethnic academics at top universities earn on average 26% less than their White colleagues, according to a study by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
The impact goes beyond financial inequality
As a Black woman in business I, like many Black people, have been forced to revisit the forgotten, repressed, often excused experiences of subtle and not-so-subtle racism.
In many corporate settings - certainly in Communications - the hallmarks of structural racism are a day-to-day reality.
Let me tell you what this looks like.
It’s navigating the assumption, as the only Black face in the room, that rather than being the most senior there, you’re probably there to make the tea.
It’s dealing with ‘jokes’ and stereotypes - from the “angry Black woman” to the “big Black man” and asking yourself yet again, Did I really just hear that?
It’s the cultural nuances that create a general sense of unease. Comments and so-called compliments, undertones and a ‘zoo-like’ fascination with your hair.
Often Black people enter the industry only to leave before middle management, the burden perhaps becomes a little too much to bear.
I remember it most clearly in my early days, not necessarily because things have improved but because I've become more accustomed to navigating around them.
And I convince myself that I have been amongst the more fortunate.
I’ve heard countless stories of people discovering their salary falls way short of their counterparts. Accounts of long-term employment on temporary contracts for Black employees while permanent roles were offered to White colleagues.
It’s commonly felt by Black people that we have to work much harder to get to the same heights and that there is a far lower glass ceiling when you get there. My Black barrister friend echoed this when she said, “If you see a Black barrister high up in the ranks, you better believe they are excellent. They had to work twice as hard to be there.”
A time to rebuild business
In business, the behaviour of Black people can be heavily influenced by the expectations of a white-centred world: code-switching, accommodating and overthinking are a daily reality. It’s no accident that at an interview my hair would be neatly gelled back into a palatable ponytail, not in it’s full-fro glory. My rationale: I don't want the presumptions of society (that natural Black hair isn’t corporate or tidy enough) to negatively impact my job prospects.
This is not OK.
There are many more examples, in business and across the board. The inequalities in education, healthcare and history, the socio-economic imbalance, the ‘othering’ born out of structural racism are massive, and mind-blowingly heavy.
There is a lot to process right now. While some are protesting, many are still taking pause.
Today, I am fortunate that I don’t navigate the same level of racial tension in the four walls of my workplace (/ home). I’m a director at a diversity consultancy - a purposely conscious, multicultural organisation created in response to the lack of inclusivity in the business world. We operate on the belief that diversity is everyone’s business; that there are societal, cultural and commercial gains to be made when we are truly diverse. We’re building a very different business, internally among ourselves and externally with the clients that we work with. And what an interesting time it is to do this work.
Those in positions of power are being held to their own and stakeholders’ accounts and many want to make changes.
But to truly effect change we must all use our power and privilege intentionally and actively, personally and professionally, not just now while the conversation is happening, but ongoing. When the black squares have worked their way down our social feeds, the action we take consistently will be the difference between this being another news cycle and black lives really mattering.
The American political activist, Angela Davis said it best: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”
Words and artwork by Simone Harvey, Director at The Unmistakables.