I spent three years at a university where I was predominately surrounded by black people and black culture. Looking back it felt like being in a parallel world where everything was catered to my needs and tastes. When I started work it was a culture shock. It felt like stepping into a club that I wasn’t really welcome in. Most of my colleagues had a shared experience. They all came from remote parts of the UK, liked the same music and had the same interests. I struggled to join conversations about bands I had never heard of or topics that I skipped in the newspaper. I couldn’t explain how I was feeling so I isolated myself.
I was often the only black face in university meetings and found this uncomfortable. I would do ridiculous amounts of reading before each meeting to reassure myself. I didn’t want to be the person to ask a stupid question or make a comment that wasn’t relevant. It felt like one wrong move would be letting down the entire race. I felt like an imposter. Although I received amazing feedback from my managers I still couldn’t believe that I was meant to be there. It felt like my cover might be blown at any moment and they would realize that I didn’t belong there.
Six months ago I attended a women’s leadership course that changed my life. In a room of complete strangers I stood up and said that I had never felt like I deserved to be in my role. I started to discuss my feelings at work. I started to talk about race for the first time in my life. In this blog I will share some of the things I have learned.
‘Black’ and ‘White are not bad words
I don’t know when black and white became bad words. It must have been since slavery- all I know it that most people are terrified to say them. It highlights difference and no one likes to be different. When I first started working I immediately assumed that there was something wrong with me. Now I know better, I am just different from my colleagues. I have been raised differently, eat different food and enjoy different music. As a black woman I am aware of my non-white surname when I apply for jobs. This isn’t something that my white colleagues have to think about- this is white privileged. Recognise the differences and let them empower you.
Sometimes you are a stereotypical black person (and that’s ok)
Stereotypes are based on reality. People assume that girls from Essex are uneducated Barbies who all work in a tanning salons. Some of them do but the majority don’t. Black people get angry when white people stereotype them. It’s normal to make assumptions about people who you don’t associate with. At times I am a walking stereotype- the black girl who loves to twerk to bashment and eat chicken. I also enjoy listening to pop music and my ideal day would be exploring an ancient castle. How is anyone meant to know that if I don’t tell them? I have enjoyed being my ‘whole’ self at work.
The next time someone makes a comment you don’t like or makes you feel uncomfortable, ask yourself a question. Are they being disrespectful or do they need to be educated?
Your space isn’t a default, you have to create it
The reason I felt so uncomfortable at work was because not many black people had come before me. I didn’t have any role models. In recent months I have seen this as an opportunity to create my own space. I challenge the norm and continually work for a more inclusive work environment. This could be anything from questioning the amount of black staff employed to hosting an urban work social (coming soon). I enjoy working in an environment where I can influence change. Some black people are uncomfortable with being known as ‘race champions’ or ‘equality experts’ but this doesn’t bother me. White people don’t understand my experiences so it’s my job to try and help them to. Everyone is different and some of my suggestions might not work for everyone. The main thing to remember is you need to create an authentic space that you are comfortable in.
I have been meaning to write this blog for nearly a year but something always stopped me. I didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable and I didn’t want to trivialise the issue of race at work. I wrote this blog for the black professional who needs to create their place. The black professional who might be uncomfortable at work but might not understand why. This is for you.
I am really interested in people’s thoughts/comments on this blog.
Are you a black professional experiencing any of the issues I have raised?
If you are a white professional, did you know that these issues may exist in your place of work?