Being Black in the Workplace and The Need for Honest, Open Conversations
By Patience Straker
16 July 2020
I am Patience; I’m a Partner at Max Fordham and I work in the Finance Department, managing the billing for the practice. Since 1998, Max Fordham has been the place that I have chosen to carve out my career and I continue to enjoy being a part of the working environment, working alongside some fabulous people, learning and continually growing, both in myself and professionally.
Recent media coverage of the continued injustices against Black people (i.e. the unlawful killing of Black people without justice and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement) and the conversations we’ve been having at Max Fordham are the catalyst for why I am attempting to put into words a little about what being Black in the workplace is like. These experiences are not unique to Max Fordham, they are representative of the issues that exist in many workplaces around the world. I hope that by sharing some of the experiences and issues it will help to encourage positive change.
I describe myself firstly as a daughter of Christ, secondly as a woman and then thirdly as a Black person. How important is it to you that I am Black? Probably not very, as more than likely you were raised being told it was ‘right’ not to judge someone by the colour of their skin. But that’s totally missing the point, as society does judge us on a structural level. In any event, when you’re Black, it matters!
I think we can agree that it’s the first thing you see when you look at me. I am Black and to me it’s a great thing. It’s how I identify myself, but with it I bear a weight felt only by those that look like me.
Recently, a group of us within Max Fordham were asked to share personal experiences of racial inequality. “What were the occurrences of inappropriate words/comments used and how could the Practice better manage, support and respond to these situations?” To me, it’s a positive start in trying to have these frank, open and honest conversations, but there’s still a long way to go. And I wonder if others in the industry and the wider working world are also having these conversations, or are they just hiding away because it’s too uncomfortable…
We discussed how most workplace racism is generally now subtle or unintentional through people not being aware of what is or isn’t acceptable. Examples raised were accepting that somebody might say to you, “you look like Beyoncé” or “you look like Kanye West” as this is someone they can liken you to. We talked about how being Black can mean hearing “oh, you two look the same!” or being mistaken and named as one of your other Black colleagues.
Others raised that being Black in the workplace is acceptance that you will hear at some point “Can I touch your hair?” and feeling immensely offended because we are sensitive and self-conscious about our hair. We Black women can work very hard at making sure we carry a hairstyle that can be accepted and won’t draw too much attention.
I read somewhere recently, which had me nodding in agreement, that “Hair issues for black women are like weight issues for white women—closely tied to feelings of identity, public perception and how you feel about yourself on a daily basis. Many black women don’t grow up hearing about bad hair days; they hear about having bad hair” (Maura Cheeks)
We also discussed how unconscious bias is common, but in addition there is also the need to leave your Black ‘self’ behind when you enter a work environment. It is this that is central to the overall experience of being Black in the workplace.
Workplaces make you adapt and embrace a new dominant culture. You converse with colleagues differently than you are used to and switch back to your normal ‘self’ when you are in the company of your friends and family. As Black people, we do this because we must fit in. Our colour already marks us as different, so we don’t want to add to this by falling into any (perceived) stereotypes.
In trying to fit into the culture of a work environment, you find that aspects of your personality are withheld, because being your true self may mean making others uncomfortable and hinder your career progression, which leaves you feeling uncomfortable. This can prove exhausting as you constantly second guess yourself, which affects your confidence.
These are the types of thoughts that we, as Black people, carry. We are mindful and conscious of how we behave and what we say, praying that we’ll find a safe balance to navigate a positive path through the experience of being one of the minorities in the workplace.
And don’t forget about the communication barriers. I’d love to use analogies at work but as they are drawn from my own culture and background, many of them just wouldn’t be understood by my colleagues. So at times it can be a struggle to find meaningful and constructive ways to express an opinion or offer your thoughts.
What I have come to realise is that people don’t talk about race in their workplaces. We hadn’t in the past, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise how awkward it was to engage in conversations on race with my white and non-white colleagues.
Some of my white colleagues expressed an emotional disconnect to what was being said and why wouldn’t they? What was I expecting them to say? The truth is they were unaware as it was not something many of them had thought about. It forms a part of ‘white privilege’ that grants help and assistance that is not shared with people of colour.
On both parts, Black and non-black, education is key. When you ask what you can do as a White person in supporting your Black colleagues in your workplace, be ready to listen with an open heart and be willing to acknowledge that you fall into the structural racism that exists. Although this may be painful and difficult to accept, spare some thought for the pain and difficulty of us on the receiving end. I think only then can people begin to truly empathise and start to be openly conscious of the matters concerning race.
I’m glad that these discussions are being had in our Practice and I hope they’re taking place in the wider world. And I’m hopeful that by sharing our conversations and my thoughts in this blog, it will help people and businesses learn and bring about positive change, both within and outside of Max Fordham.