“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is one of the oldest idioms, yet we often assess our peers based on what we think and see of them, rather than what we know and learn about them.
UK Black History Month gives us all a chance to get past that, to celebrate Black contributions. Here in this blog, I’m about to celebrate mine: I’m posting my photo in my company’s corporate directory for the first time. I’m ready to be seen for who I am.
Until now, viewers of my profile saw only a generic silhouette. That probably sounds like a small thing. But the silhouette kept my race anonymous, and that was the point: By shielding my blackness, I was confident the opportunities that came my way were based on merit.
Now I’m dropping that anonymity. Reflecting on my own personal journey and the past year’s focus on racial injustice and racial prejudice, it’s become clear to me how important it is for everyone to be seen.
Breaking the Pattern
We all fall victim to our own prejudices. I’m guilty myself of making judgments based on my perceptions and preconceived notions. The skill is to recognize these prejudices and the toll they take in the workplace. Take job hunting: Too often, I’ve met with hiring managers who said, “I didn’t know you were Black. You speak so well.” Each time, I let the comment go unacknowledged. But inside I knew the writing was on the wall for me.
How is a career-driven Black man supposed to sound and look? Could Bob Marley with his golden dreadlocks be the CEO of a global company, or would the way he looks and speaks be a barrier to his success? The highest ranked Black CEO in the FTSE 250 index is Arnold W. Donald of Carnival Corp. By my estimates, Donald ranks 177 (as of Oct. 1, 2020), and he’s an amazing role model. Yet the fact that there are 176 non-Black CEOs ahead of him is clear evidence of our underrepresentation in corporate circles.
The sports world has a better representation of Black people (which is something to celebrate), and during my schooling, teachers would often direct me down the path of sports achievement rather than academics as I had fairly good basketball skills. After school, I was encouraged to spend my time in basketball training rather than academic clubs.
The lack of academic support was not something my African parents were willing to accept, however. I was quickly shipped back to Ghana to continue my education. Studying in Ghana was a great experience for a Black British male, as the discipline and teachings allowed me to understand more about my heritage.
Time for a Change
But the world and the workplace are changing, and so am I. The killing of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter triggered a lot of activity and awareness for the 33rd celebration of Black History Month in the UK. This year’s anniversary is arguably one of the most important, leading to a wave of awareness and corporate action to address underrepresentation that I hope will continue.
Embracing my racial identity and letting myself be seen is an equally positive yet far more personal expression of the change that is all around us.
Join me in making ourselves and the topic of racial prejudice more visible:
- If you’re a Black colleague and haven’t uploaded a photo to your profile in your own company’s corporate directory, I encourage you to do so, so that we can all be more visible.
- Support local working groups sponsored by your organization to help improve diversity.
- Visit the UK Black History Month website to learn about events and stories.
- Promote diversity in the teams you’re part of.
- Read another great Black History Month blog here by my sisters Titilope Akinwamide and Ria Laurent-Hughes. (I’m sure Bob Marley the CEO would definitely relate to it.)
Creating an equal, supportive workplace starts with visibility. Here’s to a workplace that lets us all be seen for our true selves.
Black History Month is celebrated in Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK in October.
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