Until it’s normal

I am often asked by fellow professionals, both Black and non Black, why I place so much emphasis on helping Black professionals. The purpose of this essay is to give a comprehensive answer that I can link to as well as a pointer to those who are curious but have never asked me.

The irony about this is that most of my working clients are not Black professionals. The corporates, executives and larger organisations that I end up doing the bulk of my work with are mainly White men and women. That I don’t see many Black professionals who look like me in the majority of my work has meant that I have become quite outspoken for addressing the reasons why this is so and what we can do about it.

Of course, talking so openly about it can be uncomfortable for many. The anecdotal experiences of many who think it’s not necessary in a system that suggests meritocracy. Or worse still those fellow Black professionals who want me to quieten down because race is not something they want to confront in their workplaces. Then finally those who need to go the opticians because they don’t see colour and me raising this issue only adds to the problem. For me it is important to give specific reasons why I, as part of a visible and vocal minority, find it important to champion Black professionals in the workplace. Whether they are in the public sector, corporate or the startup ecosystem, why I believe I can use my platform to not only query inequality and lack of equity but to more importantly provide solutions to address such imbalances and options for career management and progression.

The Background
I am quite a privileged man. By some strange twist of luck I happen to be born to aspirational, home owning somewhat middle class parents. Parents who emigrated to the UK from the Caribbean in the late 60s at the age of 19 and 20, with a Commonwealth call to help the mother country. A call that meant they uprooted from very pleasant climes. They left large supportive families, my Dad is one of eleven and my Mum one of nine, to fly, and in my Dad’s case, sail to a promised better future.

I was born a couple years after they met in West London and remember my formative years immersed in a deeply rich Caribbean culture full of aspiration, spirituality and a desire for myself and many of the younger born around my age to do really well and to make our families proud. It created this intense rivalry where our parents and their peers would forever be comparing our achievements. For those of us who were academic it was always about what we could do to get on top.

Funnily enough, such aspiration was not shared as much outside of our subcultures. In schools there was evidence of blatant racism from teachers and students. From language being used to teachers trying to discourage my Dad and his peers to stop teaching us English grammar as we were too young, to streaming us down in maths and other subjects. This fostered in my first evidence of self help in the Black community, where whether on weekends or evenings after school, in youth clubs, churches and community centres many of the Caribbean elders and latterly Nigerian and Ghanian elders got together to form supplementary schools. That regardless of a schooling system that only wanted us to take part in sports and performing arts, we could come with academic stripes too. A triple threat.

In addition to the academic support and nurturing, we were immersed in Caribbean, pan African and Black American literature. We learnt of revolution. Of liberation theology. How much of our culture was shaped in protest. From the music of spirituals to the soul of Motown. The history that most Carnivals came as a rebellion to colonial brutalism. From the politics of Steve Biko to the incredibly brave politics of leaders like Thomas Sankara.

A coterie of Black kids who were encouraged to be smart and politically astute around their history too, hidden in plain sight. And yet in and amongst this liberation was a reminder by our parents that we must keep our head down. Work twice as hard as white people to get ahead. Look at the Indians and copy them.

The Power of Giving Back
In and amongst this nurturing was a strong message to ensure we always gave back. That the sacrifices many of our elders were making for us would manifest itself in our future careers, economic freedoms and ability to integrate into wider British culture.

And so having watched my Dad giving classes to local Black students in a small cramped flat in Stonebridge, Harlesden and then at church, I wanted to do the same. I used those same approaches to Maths and English to tutor and help younger Black students who had become disenchanted to the ways they were being treated unfairly in schools. To hold their tongue against rampant discrimination and show up on the tests. Often having to coach them again afterwards when having done so well, against the tide of streaming, how to demonstrate they were not cheating but rather had been helped by us.
In college, I was part of a small group creating study sessions for Black students who were struggling in some subjects and not knowing how to balance proper study time with the new found freedom of playing cards and listening to music in the common room.

This also extended to my work in church. My best friend Paul and I started a youth ministry targeted towards teens. Trying our hardest to push the envelope in encouraging teens to not just approach their learning as a means to an end but an end in and of itself. A holistic approach which blended their intellectual, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. A movement which surprisingly resulted in a lot of pushback from many Black elders within our church. A subject I will revisit again later.

Elders asked us. What were we doing? Were we misleading young Black men and women by giving them agency to speak up when a generation had told them to keep their heads down? How was blending hip hop and the gospel going to help them get into the best universities?

We took it really badly sometimes. We never lamented in front of the teens but it really affected us. Without the help of a few key elders we would have been worn down and thrown in the towel. One thing that came really evident to us, and I will address this a bit later, is how often the major obstacles to empowering young Black people came from not without the community, but within.
Anyway as an extension I got to speaking in schools and colleges. Church members and their families in education would recommend me to go into schools and youth groups to talk empowerment, academic motivation and sometimes Black history. From this was born the foundation for the education company I ran with my wife, Magnificent Generation . A company which had its roots in providing a service for young Black students to not only aim high academically and vocationally but for me and my team to demonstrate what it looked like and for us to get others to share their stories of how they had made it.
Although the company quickly extended its reach to encourage students of all classes and ethnicities, it was born out of the need to help underserved school and college students of African and Caribbean origin. This core foundation never left me and is something I continue to do, even if to a lesser extent now I have closed my education company.

Empowering Black professionals.
From my work in schools and colleges, a Black parent asked if I also do work for university students. I had done so but on an ad hoc basis. Her daughter, after successfully getting into an Oxbridge uni, had attempted suicide. The pressures and isolation of being one of the only few Black students had started to take its toll and as part of her recovery could I provide some mentoring and support.

I can’t lie I was scared but the success of that mentoring allowed me to build on this and mentor over twenty Black Oxbridge undergraduates. Being able to show them coping mechanisms for university and also in most cases introducing them to alumni and other professionals who had to navigate similar paths. A role I had to do less as increasingly African Caribbean societies started to take hold in Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities and peer support started to kick in.

I still am fortunate to build rapport with Black students who are undergraduates and those who have graduated which leads me to the wider scheme of working with Black professional organisations across the UK. Even more fortunate to have worked with organisations like Elevation Networks and AC Company as well as speaking for and on behalf of a number of African Caribbean societies at universities across the UK. From this platform I wanted to do more and engage with students to ease them into the world of work, which is when I discovered the amount of groups in work focused on helping Black professionals to have equal access to career progression.

There are many issues and challenges which Black professionals face that the wider community either ignorant of or in many cases don’t care about. In a previous piece I wrote about Why Black Workers are Afraid to Speak Out on issues of inequality. Whether it’s the Ethnic Pay Gap, issues around how to negotiate for a promotion, dealing with workplace discrimination around appearance or just building personal brands so that they are on employability radars. Black professional groups are set up in part to address this. Some of these issues I listed above are culturally specific and need a private safe space to discuss them and seek solutions. While a number of companies can provide Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to give the impression they are tackling them, the truth is a number of companies don’t put their money where their mouth is, reducing what should be strategic approaches for inclusion to one off “unconscious bias training days”. Sometimes they water down the discussion by grouping all non-white professionals into Multi Cultural Groups (read non-White) with no real sponsorship or understanding the issues are different or putting funding to tackle issues around talent development that are influenced by race. In addition, a number of professionals who have attended my private dinners or events will not join such ERGs for fear of being seen as having a chip on their shoulder. Understandably having made progress, job security will trump being seen as a trouble maker, especially in the absence of some kind of support network.

I realise that my platform as a speaker, outspoken writer and social media commentator means that I can point people, in ERGs and beyond, in the right direction of how they can manage what are the unspoken hurdles they have to deal with when dealing with career progression as a Black professional.

Holding Elder Black Professionals to Account
One of the reasons I, and to be fair, a number of other Black colleagues I know, will continue to be as outspoken and visible about this issue, is the number of Black professionals who have had a modicum, or in some instances great career success, who don’t help other Black professionals.
Now there is no default requirement for someone who is Black and who has succeeded to have to give back. What I find alarming however is those who will say that there is no prejudice or racism in the workplace, to not speak out on issues such as intersectionality, tell younger Black professionals to slow down with their trajectory and in way too many instances actually block progress because they don’t fit into their mould.

In pursuit of integration way too many of my peers in the same age range as me have spent so much time erasing that bit of their cultural heritage or Blackness and expecting respect from younger professionals whilst lacking respect for those who look to them for guidance. Those who are very determined to avoid any controversy, rocking the boat or shaking the table, while their roadmap is defined by the small influential cabal that can make a difference on who or who doesn’t get a nod in the Queen’s honours, be it MBE, OBE or whatever other symbolism of the empire they need as a suffix to demonstrate they are part of the system. Those who create networks with subscriptions and events with prohibitive fees which exclude a large swathe of aspirational young Black professionals. Those who exhibit passive xenophobia and will exclude others who don’t share a similar Caribbean of African heritage to their groups. Those who will encourage Black women to not wear their hair natural if they want to get ahead. Those who refuse to sponsor, i.e. champion and create career pathways for competent Black professionals, because it may seem racist all the while championing other races, primarily White, who are far less suitable for the job. Those who encourage, nay lean on, Black organisational leaders to have White chairmen on their boards so as to make other White people feel comfortable that it’s not a “Black only” organisation. Ignoring the fact that many Black-led organisations are actually able to do this without having to see this only through the lens of White validation. Those who actively encourage young Black professionals to marry a White partner because it will serve them better. A special place for me is reserved in hell for that last grouping. I challenge face to face, and online, any of the elder Black leadership in business who will play respectability politics and avoidance with an emerging Black professional who are getting ahead quicker than we did. Which was surely the whole point of us paving the way in the first place.

This whole notion of respect is not something that should just come as a default. And while I am cognisant that across the Diaspora, many of our African and Caribbean cultures which have been transported to our host countries ( I say host because many British think we are still renting as opposed to being grounded here. See Windrush) feel youngers should respect them by default, how can we expect to be respected when it is not a reciprocal act.

So as long as I have breath, I will call out other Black professionals who refuse to support youngers. I think that in an environment where wealth generation and distribution is skewed to our disadvantage throwing a spanner in the works by not helping is counterproductive. Where my generation and the generation before were able to enjoy home ownership and asset building with considerable ease to the generations that now struggle. For those who benefited off the back of those who went through horrendous racial and emotional abuse to get us where we are now, this is not the time for selective amnesia. Maybe it is not a shared view amongst many, but it is what I and a number of my peers who are incredibly passionate about helping young Black professionals recognise need to be done if we are to give them that extra chance to succeed.

Until It’s Normal.
I am just about to launch the prospectus for a million pound fund for a company that specifically targets Black founders of tech companies based in the UK. I make no bones about it. There is a need to serve a highly capable demographic of entrepreneurs, engineers, marketers and business developers from the Black demographic who are underserved by the mainstream startup ecosystem. I am not alone. Companies like Backstage Capital, YSYS, UKBlackTech and a host of others are looking to ensure this demographic is served.

I have hosted enough business awards and heard event planners say I wish there were more Black entrepreneurs here and yet nothing is done. I have been to enough tech and enterprise conferences as a speaker and hear organisers say “It would be nice to have more diverse speakers” and then witness nothing done about it. I have helped companies put together pitches and receive funding, and buyouts, worth over £120m and note that very few, if any look like me. For those who review my bridging such a gap as a racist, I don’t really care. Negative views don’t create wealth or open doors for many Black people who want to achieve the same in a society that promises meritocracy.
I am sick of hearing companies talk about wanting to address diversity and inclusion as part of their talent strategies when very little of it has to do with addressing existing practices which limit the pipeline chances of Black professionals. From a lack of funding to barriers to the knowledge as to how many can progress.

So for me championing Black professionals is not so much an EITHER OR, where those who aren’t Black feel left out, but rather a BOTH AND. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece the majority of the work I do and the clientele I reach are predominantly white. I am cool with that. I am equally cool with reaching all other demographics and especially Black professionals whom I share a cultural understanding with if it means we all get a fair crack at achieving the business and career goals.

Until it’s normal and no one has to really be afraid to talk about addressing inequality I will continue to champion Black professionals. Because I have to.

Author: David McQueen

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