Prejudice in the workplace: My experience with racial tensions and working whilst Black
Updated: Apr 30, 2021
This thus far has been the hardest posts to write, not only is it close to home, but my experience of growing up in the UK whilst Black is intertwined with so much pain, that it is difficult to know how to unpackage it all in a blog post. The recent death of George Floyd has sparked many discussions around race and discrimination, and given that this blog is aimed at the career ambitious mother, I thought I'd share some of my experience of prejudice in the workplace and how it appears. Some of the things I’ve listed are common microaggressions and some aren’t blatant forms of discrimination.
A vacancy suddenly vanishing the moment an interviewer met me
I promise you I am not making this one up!
I once showed up to a job interview with a company only to be told there and then that had been a mistake and there was no vacancy.... I went through the usual recruitment process with email communications and on the day of the interview, introduced myself to the receptionist who was clearly expecting me and kindly asked me to take a seat in the waiting area. But something happened when my interviewer approached the waiting area. She called my name, we walked into a meeting room, but then she began to frame all her questions as though I had shown up out of the blue. She then proceeded to inform me that the position I showed up for was not actually vacant and there must have been a mistake.
I have been told by many that my name does not reveal much about my ethnic background, some have even said that if they had to guess on the basis of my name alone, they would have assumed that I was Spanish, or Greek. Needless to say my interviewer must have thought the same thing. I was not prepared for such an awkward interaction, but I eventually put it behind me and chalked it off as a one-off occasion.
Feeling you have to wear a mask to fit in
Of course, many companies want to recruit someone who gets on with others, but there is a fine line between “cultural fit” and elective homogeneity or cloning. It didn't take long for me to become quickly aware of the risk of being “othered” and not accepted during an interview or whilst on probation and often found myself having to put on a bit of a show to increase my chances of being accepted. And many of my Black friends have said the same thing.
It sounds silly, but the experience is real. I first noticed this behaviour at my very first job following University. The company I was at had 2 other black employees, who despite being from working-class London backgrounds, both spoke with what I can only describe as received pronunciation. Yet the 70 non-black employees seemed to come across more "relaxed". Now I can't speak for anyone else, but it wasn’t until I started having meetings with my line manager who would give me feedback on certain behaviours (that everyone else was demonstrating), or I would pick up on the subtle cues from my peers whenever I used a “black” slang in casual conversations, that I then realised the pressure of having to “dilute myself” even to my own peers. It was as if there was this unspoken understanding that blackness is not trusted and if you can rid yourself of it as much as possible, only then do you stand a chance at career advancement.
Lack of representation
In line with the previous point is the lack of opportunity to engage with peers who look like you. Before anyone starts rolling their eyes, let me tell you that people from all backgrounds take part in this behaviour. People seek out individuals they can relate to, including senior staff, and company cultures at a lot of places are predominantly shaped by the senior team. Before having my daughter I worked in communications in London for 5 years and can count on one hand the number of black people I had the opportunity to network with.
Representation is a barrier to wellness in the workplace as it promotes psychological safety and self-esteem, which eventually leads to other positive outcomes for both the employee and the employer.
Being overlooked as a UK native simply because you are not White
Granted many Black women will tell you where their parents or grandparents came from, but it’s a big slap in the face to imply that someone is not from the UK off of the basis of cultural background. I once had a company’s VP from the USA directly disregard me and another lady as UK nationals, even though we speak with London accents. She was making reference to the company’s diversity make-up and said something along the lines of “the UK team has only 15 natives” counting just the White members. I didn’t say anything because she was a guest at our office (and also the vice president of the company), but man it was a chilling reminder of how preconceived ideas can lead to such rookie mistakes.
Feeling the need to pet my hair
Some people do not understand the disrespect behind this, but some do! I once had a colleague who on her last day at work, waited until the very last moment to cop a cheeky feel of my afro before legging it out the door. As she was saying her rounds of goodbye, I simply thought she left me till last because of the seating arrangements. I had been at the company for just 2 weeks and she and I weren't friends, so when it was my turn to say bye, I simply got up to give her a hug wished her the best and sat down to continue with my work. As I started typing I felt her fingers running through my hair and by the time I realised what was going on, she was gone. This intentional display of my hair as an aberration angered me so much, but I kept silent as I didn't feel there was anyone around me to talk to about what just happened.
I have worked with White employees who have unapologetically told me that they don’t like the diversity in London's population. I have had my line manager assume I was about to physically attack her. I have requested that recruitment consultants only match me with employers with inclusive and diverse cultures, only to get nothing back. I have heard comments such as I can’t wait to go to South Africa and use my White privilege. I have had employers claim they only recruit candidates who speak any European language, then later find out they aren't even a global company. And don’t even get me started on the pay gap!!
Discrimination is such a difficult thing to talk about because like all conversations, it requires a speaker and a listener, and in my experience, not everyone is willing to (actively) listen. Albeit many would say go to HR or speak up, but a recent online meeting which allowed LinkedIn employees to anonymously discuss the topic on race demonstrates the exact resistance and lack of support many employees harbour (1). This is not a personal attack on a single company or a single person, my aim is to simply highlight that a lot of work needs to be done regarding real acceptance (as opposed to tolerance) in the UK. In fact a report presented to the UK’s Parliament (2) defines institutional racism as:
The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.
From my experience and from many Black friends I speak with, this type of neglect is the predominant reason why some industries experience the inability to attract promote and retain Black talent. The problem I’ve seen and echoed by others is that some of UK’s company leaders find it too uncomfortable to tackle systematic racism head-on, instead, it is muted with notions of blind equity.
The frustration comes from the fact that the real battle is with deep-seated ideas swallowed by many (including Blacks), which seep into everyday life and influences decisions, causing disruption and harm to the marginalised.
Though I have become resilient to this madness, I have also since become a mother to a Black girl who will one day also have to navigate the workplace. The world has been globalised for a very very long time and so actions around equality and inclusivity in the working world have been long overdue. For those not seeing the message, let me put it differently...
It's Black Lives Matter (just as much as everybody else's).