“Black Lives Matter. Lane4 seeks to create an inclusive atmosphere for those of all backgrounds, but that is not enough. The events leading up to and since the tragic murder of George Floyd have shown us that we have a long way to go on this topic. As an organisation, Lane4 is starting to deeply consider how we can interrogate our biases, examine our blind spots and look critically at our diversity of voice and representation across the whole organisation.
We recognise that there are no simple answers to solving workplace discrimination and systemic racism. This issue is too big for that. What we can do, while the organisation considers its own changes and we educate ourselves further, is share experiences from some of our people on this topic.”
In this blog, Dwight Lawrence, Principal Consultant with Lane4 since 2013, discusses some of his experiences as a black professional in the UK.
Growing up black in the UK
I grew up in loving home, with two super-positive, hardworking and resourceful Jamaican parents. My mother was a midwife (nicknamed Queenie because of her accent) before becoming a magistrate and chair of our local Citizens Advice Bureau. My father was an engineer in the RAF and later became a college lecturer. He was also captain of a local cricket team, playing into his 60s. As a youngster, I moved around a lot due to my father’s RAF role, spending most of my childhood in Barry, South Wales.
There’s a saying about how every black person in the UK remembers the first time they realised they were regarded as different. For me, it was in 1974 on my first day at school in Wales. The only black kid amongst 200 pupils, I was followed around the playground by 20 or 30 children, all asking me questions like “If I rub your skin will the brown come off?” , ‘What colour is your poo?’, “Do you bleed red?” Now looking back, I don’t believe there was malice in those questions, but I immediately felt like an outsider.
Still, I enjoyed school, especially reading, geography and sport. I did think it odd that I never saw anyone in the stories that looked like me or my family but felt too awkward to mention it. After all, my toys were all pink skinned too. I remember thinking once that at least my blond action man had hair like mine.
Looking back now, it strikes me that there was no reason why my curriculum couldn’t include people who looked like me: why not mention John Blanke, the black trumpeter of Henry VII, or the black ethnic origins of Queen Charlotte, great, great grandmother of Queen Victoria? My history lessons could have explored the wealth accumulated by the 46,000 British slave owners (who would include my own maternal and paternal Scottish ancestors) or indeed the contribution of Empire soldiers fighting for Britain during WW1 and WW2. I missed this part of my history and British history. This is just one part of the systemic problem that I’m hoping this new dialogue will help to address.
John Blanke, one of Henry VII's trumpeters
Sadly, as I grew older, the great times at school were punctuated by instances of being spat upon, playing in football games and having opposition parents refer to me and other black players as ‘the pet monkeys’, and hearing chants of ‘there ain’t no black in the union jack’. I recall being with groups of white friends and hearing other youths shout out ‘go home c**n’ which was really confusing as a teenager, especially when I felt proud of being both Black and British.
The constant overt racist aggression always left me feeling furious but often totally powerless; it was usually from bigger youths or adults and regularly denied/ignored by people in authority to whom I mentioned it. I found myself suppressing these emotions, building my own emotional defence wall and learning not to show hurt.
There was also the more subtle racism that I learnt to filter out. For example, being followed around shops by the security guards or being spoken to very slowly and deliberately by shop assistants or other officials.
Ultimately, it just made me work harder; my parents told me that the world is my oyster – I just might need to work more and expect less. I knew that there were going to be more barriers in my way and I decided I would just have to go the extra mile and roll with the punches (sometimes literally) if I was going to succeed.
I feel more privileged than many black Britons of my generation. I’ve had senior positions in many organisations and am regarded as a professional at a level which brings influence and authority. Nevertheless, I don’t think my experience in work has been identical to that of my white peers.
A big part of this difference is simply the many micro-aggressions and nuances that exist in UK workplaces: being expected to dance like Michael Jackson at Christmas parties, expected to be an expert of any black issue that comes out of Brixton, Compton or Harlem, expected to enjoy jokes about black men’s sexual prowess, being told I speak well (as opposed to?), being called bro by people to whom I have no relationship (and I hope I’m not related!). The list goes on.
Following a Retail Marketing degree, I was selected for the Unilever graduate trade marketing programme. There were 17 of us in my group, all white and from Russell Group Universities/Oxbridge. Brilliant, bright and good characters. I was the only black one, but I never felt any different to them. We were treated as one group of high-potential leaders – it was fantastic.
After three or four years at Unilever, I noticed that I was really enjoying the project opportunities with the HR team, training the recent graduates. I was finding these projects more rewarding than my sales work. That set me on a path into Learning, Leadership and People Performance in several organisations that eventually ended in me becoming a Principal Consultant at Lane4! I feel very lucky to have had some challenging and fulfilling jobs during my career, and I love the role I have now.
As I reflect, I don’t feel like I’ve ever not been promoted because of my race, but I have had countless moments of feeling different. I remember, one time in the early 1990s, being at a 300-person networking event with only two other black people: one was serving canapes and the other was serving champagne. I was approached by a fellow conference delegate around my age. He asked me where he should put his bag, assuming that, like the other black people in the room, I was part of the staff. I politely told him he should ask a member of staff, but my inner voice said something quite different. This was a regular event. It’s those experiences that can make it hard to feel like you belong.
I may have changed since the early 90s, but diversity in UK businesses still has a long way to go.
Adapting to the world as it is
For me, when I come across that more insidious prejudice, my natural inclination is to prove people wrong. Over many years it really wore me down; in retrospect, I learned to be more guarded, hiding hurts and being more careful about what I spoke up to discuss.
My experience has been that when you don’t see role models of your colour and background, you begin to bury ‘deeper’ parts of yourself – working harder to fit in, adapting the way you dress, changing your accent. But by withholding a part of myself, I felt like the organisations I worked for weren’t seeing all of me, weren’t seeing the best of me.
Over my 30 years in the workplace, even as someone who is confident, well-networked, and proud of my personal and professional achievements, I’ve often found myself “smiling through the pain” of racist nuances and ignorance because I didn’t have the psychological safety within that team to speak out. For me that is why this moment and the Black Lives Matter movement is so important – it’s about changing conversations, opening dialogue, getting white colleagues to examine their privilege and challenging everyone to do their work of educating themselves.
What can organisational leaders do?
For me at this point, understanding is only the first step. Leaders need to put their money where their mouth is and act. I think productive actions would include:
Show an interest and desire to understand more about their black colleagues and what has led them to this point.
Accept that there is a challenge that we all face around systemic racism. And if leaders want to change it, there needs to be more curiosity and concern about the impact of this on attitudes and behaviours of all people in their business.
Ensure that there is much, much greater diversity in their leadership teams, and open these groups up for diverse membership and/or contributions from a much wider group that is reflective of the people that work in the business and the clients they serve.
Be open to regular review and challenge about potential blind spots, biases and prejudices e.g. where do they recruit interns from, what employment agencies do they use, how are black people represented in videos and products.
Pro-actively seek out the view of their black colleagues and other stakeholders and work with them to identify ways in which they can ensure those colleagues are better supported.
I would also challenge leaders to do a culture diversity audit of their organisation to establish whether their workforce represents the rich tapestry of their society, as well as conducting an ethnic minority pay gap audit. Using data and changing conversations.
What can everyone do?
Although organisational leaders have a responsibility to drive a change of opportunity for black professionals, everyone has a part to play in eradicating systemic racism. Supporting your black colleagues will make for a better, more open organisation where everyone feels at ease being themselves. To bring that about:
Pro-actively do more to support black colleagues
Call out any instances of racism - silence is the same as agreement
Ask questions - if you’re thinking it (whatever that might be in relation to a black colleague) ask about it
Catch your own biases, prejudices, conditioning and socialisation and challenge your own thinking
Take individual responsibility for the part that you play in sustaining white privilege – an absence of voice, interest and being a bystander is being complicit.
Consider how you can become an anti-racist. The illustration below from Andrew Ibrahim, Chief Medical Officer at the University of Michigan is a great place to start to consider the work and actions required.
This is not going to be a quick fix, and it is not going to be comfortable. However, black people in the UK and elsewhere have swallowed being uncomfortable for a long time. George Floyd’s dying phrase of ‘I can’t breathe’ reflects how so many of the Black UK population have felt about their experience of being black. Many are tired. Tired of the constant micro-aggressions, of the need to explain themselves. Tired of lip service being paid to serious reflection and promises for action made and then broken.
I believe that organisations and the people within them need to take responsibility for their role and privilege, unconscious or otherwise, in systemic racism. Only then will we live in a society where everyone can bring their best self to work. I want to be having a conversation with my sons in 10 years’ time and us referencing this moment as being one where the conversation changed about Black Lives. And it Mattered.
Some great books to read
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race - Reni Eddo-Lodge
Me and White Supremacy - Layla F. Saad
I’m still here: Black dignity in a world made for whiteness - Austin Channing Brown