Being Professional As A Person of Colour

When you asked little Aaron in primary school what he wanted to do when he was older, ‘working with computers’ was his instant answer and absolutely nothing has changed.

Everything in my life so far has been focussed on technology, and I was hooked right from my first opportunity to work with them outside of using them in IT lessons. To most this would be your worst nightmare, but being able to volunteer to help our IT team at our primary school, disconnect all of the computers around the school and put them in the basement, and then do the same in reverse making sure all of the cables were connected neatly from servers was my dream!

I was always the first to volunteer for technology-related activities at school, and if we fast forward to secondary school I was ‘lucky’ enough to build my first public facing software. The school website.

At this time I realised I wanted to focus on software because it was much easier to fix things if something went wrong – snap a cable and you’re not going to be able to put that back together, but with software you can re-install or undo! I just loved creating graphics on Photoshop, working with CSS to create unique designs, and then knowing that everyone would be viewing my work (without having to put myself front & centre).

I followed this path into Software Engineering at the University of West of England being the only non-white student in the whole group, and today I find myself in a somewhat successful career as a consulting manager sharing a team of around 20 people in what I consider to be a very diverse setting.

It’s taken a lot of work to get here, but the hardest part hasn’t been the long hours or the client visits in far-away locations, it’s been the misconceptions I’ve faced along the way in both professional and personal environments whilst having to keep a smile on my face regardless of what’s said or done. This is the first time I’ve felt comfortable speaking about it!

The Industry

For those that don’t know what I do from a technical perspective, I work with the Microsoft products that most consumers haven’t heard of before. They fall under the Power Platform and Dynamics 365 brands, and they are a significant source of Microsoft’s revenue. The headlines a few years ago were ‘How can Microsoft’s biggest increase in baseline revenue be from a product that most of us have never heard of?!’, and if you use Microsoft Teams, then it’s likely that within the next 6 months you’ll be using the underlying architecture that drives the Power Platform and Dynamics 365 products without even knowing it!

Working in consultancy as someone with a black background is rare, and when you do find others, they often work in a different department. Over the past 8 years, I only ever recall working with someone in the same role that would fit into the ‘Mixed – White & Black Caribbean’ category once, and I could probably count less than 10 black people in total – less than 2 people with a black background per year in the industry.

As you can probably tell by now, the industry as a whole isn’t considered very diverse. It’s a very niche set of skills and the pool of specialists is quite small. There are significant efforts underway to introduce more ethnicities to the industry alongside gender equality as people discover consultancy in general.

On a side note, I believe that part of this reason is that consultancy was rarely discussed as a professional role at school or in university. Most people I know ‘fell into’ consultancy of Customer Relationship Management systems as a happy accident, and they often have wonderful stories about their past experiences in other industries. Back in education we spoke about programming, testing, and project managing, but never the concept of taking an advisory role to deliver a project with other team members that may be taking up the three roles I mentioned above.

Emotion vs. Objective

When I’m not carrying out team leader duties, I carry out a functional consulting role. This means that I primarily spend my time building relationships with clients, and effectively translate a business need into a technical solution. Up until I was 18 I hated being the centre of attention through birthdays, school presentations, or anything else. Now though, I absolutely love those last minute nerves you get before presenting to as many as 150 people, and a career that involves more than 50% of your time talking to others can only be a good thing!

It’s not all about good times though. Every now and again there will be a circumstance that reminds you that you’re just a little bit different to most of your colleagues, and that feeling of success can be rapidly pulled away. In work settings it’s so much worse, because you’re conscious that the person in front of you is being charged for your time, and your reaction may be the difference between losing the client or delivering a successful project. It’s not like personal situations where you can walk away and never see them again.

Here are just some examples of situations where I’ve had to smile, laugh, or just simply ignore what is going on around me for this reason.

Background Checks

I’ve had the opportunity to work with quite a few public sector clients, and whilst it’s typical of a client to ask for consultant profiles prior to kick-off, in the public sector you can guarantee that additional agreements and background checks will be signed off prior to anyone touching a laptop.

This particular story starts with a DBS check, an internal security training session and short quiz-style exam which all needed to be completed prior to carrying out a site visit. At this point in time I was already working on the project, and the services were all online so I am unsure why this was so critical for the on-site visits. Anyway, we all completed these clearances successfully with no issues whatsoever.

I initially visited the site by myself for a training session hosted by another third party which was carried out successfully with positive feedback, but the issue started when I needed to visit again with two white colleagues.

As soon as we had all arrived and signed in, the programme manager explained that there seemed to be an issue my security check. Just mine. I was the only person that had visited prior to this particular meeting, and I wasn’t allowed to head over into the meeting room until photo ID had been provided. I was taken to another area for a photocopy before being invited into the meeting room to join the colleagues I was originally taken away from, and nothing else was said. Nothing about the previous visit was bad, I presented to the group over the course of a few hours in a suit and tie to match their dress code, standing for most of the time and roaming around the room to assist those that needed further help before we moved on. Feedback forms were given and there wasn’t a single negative form.

There was absolutely no attempt whatsoever to pretend that I wasn’t being singled out based on the colour of my skin, and the programme manager later said casually that they needed to check my right to work in the UK. There had never been a question about this before, and it’s difficult to not think that it was due to the colour they saw when I walked in for the training session previously.

At the time, I’d never experienced this type of inequality in a professional setting and didn’t feel that I could talk to my employer either as diversity wasn’t a topic that was ever discussed. We only ever talked about winning clients.

“You’re not like other black people”

There’s no particular event where this takes place, but as I discuss in a previous blog post, it seems to be acceptable to judge how black or white I am in any given circumstance by putting traits into buckets (I do this myself!).

Commonly people will joke about having a ‘work voice’, but to supplement this people will tell me that I ‘sound white’ rather than saying that I sound professional. This really frustrates me that anything relating to success appears to be considered a white trait, and yet anything else appears to be a black trait, and furthermore, this seems to be an acceptable thing to do. I’m unsure if this is because it’s become so normalised in my environment, or whether I do it to fit in, and it’s something I want to explore further myself.

Being. Searched. Everywhere.

Prior to COVID-19, my role would take me to many interesting high profile office spaces both in the UK and (previously) abroad, and for me, seeing metal detectors brings the same heart-sinking moment that you would feel if you saw a group of older kids at the end of the alleyway on your way home from school.

It’s common for people to say ‘what are you worried about if you have nothing to hide?’, or ‘it’s just random’, but when you have a ~95% success rate of being pulled aside for a pat down or to remove more clothing in a ‘random’ process, you begin to feel targeted.

This is a personal account, but one of my frustrating events was as I walked into the Natural History Museum. I walked in alongside many other individuals wearing similar clothes, and many of us wore backpacks with DSLR cameras around our necks. I was pulled to one side to have all of my possessions taken out of my bag and thoroughly checked whilst the other guy walked on by, and when I politely asked why, the response was ‘sir, this is random, what does a terrorist look like?’. I hadn’t even asked if he was searching me because he thought I looked like a terrorist, I was outraged, and yet I was in a public place dealing with security where if my response was anything other than a laugh I would’ve been thrown out. Everyone was already looking at my stuff being searched, I didn’t want any more attention in that particular scenario. Admittedly, every time I’ve faced additional searches for work in airports or as I walk into an office building, the security guards have always been polite and have never given me any indication that there is a conscious racial agenda. My concern here is that with a near 100% success rate of being pulled over to one side, unconscious bias is alive and kicking whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

Stories within work are a little more amusing than this. After a terrorist incident within the aviation space a few weeks before, I was pulled to the side through security to have a much thorough search than everyone else in a German airport. Not quite a strip search, but more than the usual. By the end of it, I could barely keep my trousers up whilst trying to hold my technical devices in both hands as I make a very poor attempt to try and roll a cabin suitcase away from the security area to get dressed again. I was surprised this took place in a public area of security clearance, but it makes for an eventful story if nothing else.

Money

Prior to falling into the higher rate tax bracket, I thought it as a sign of success, not a sign of surprise and judgement every time you fill in a form or speak to someone about finances.

(This particular topic never comes up in work settings as it’s entirely confidential, but ultimately it’s common knowledge that my role fits within this bracket as public information and the cause is being in my role.)

I never thought I’d face so much judgement for this! There is a stigma that people with a black background come from poorer backgrounds (which can often be true), but there is an expectation that they will stay there and that they are unlikely to be successful. An instant reminder of this misconception doesn’t always come with verbal responses, it’s often a raise of the eyebrows or the hesitation for reply is an instant reminder of this. We can turn the ‘what does a terrorist look like?’ question on it’s head and ask ‘what does a successful person look like?’, but it just doesn’t happen in a proactive manner.

This experience can take two forms in particular:

  • By going through a formal process such as buying a house or calculating your entitlement for funding for your child.
  • By walking into a retailer to buy something a little pricey like an engagement ring or a new car (side note: Stacey’s ring is no where near the cost of a new car, more like a year’s worth of fuel!)

With the first situation, you’ll often hear ‘but don’t worry about that, that’s only for higher tax rate payers’, so I often reply with ‘please, go on…’ and they are absolutely stumped. What is it about my appearance that means they shouldn’t ask if I’m a higher rate tax payer? I don’t walk into these situations wearing dirty clothes or tracksuits, I walk in with a suit or smart-casual. Unfortunately I only have one conclusion.

With the second, retail staff will either be all over me like a rash or ignore me completely. If they do talk, they’re often coincidentally appearing around the same area that I am until I leave and this happens mostly in common shops you’d find in a high street, even if I’m with my 3 year old daughter. If I’m in a car dealership or a jewellery shop, unless I actively head towards the assistant and tell them I’m looking to buy and can afford to do so, I get no interaction whatsoever. Now you might think this is coincidence and it’s nothing to worry about, but when you witness different behaviour towards other customers it plays on your mind massively. Especially in a car showroom where another new customer may be greeted with the door opening for them, a hand shake, and an offer of a cup of tea.

Conclusion

I don’t want to pretend that the four instances above have majorly impacted my life on a daily basis (although I’m still really bitter about the background check situation!), but they’re occurrences that are little & often. The feeling that you can’t call out bad behaviour or that someone creates a judgement on you when you need to keep them sweet to engage in further actions can be extremely challenging as you can’t walk away, let alone being in a work situation when you might have another 7+ hours working in that environment and have to pretend everything is fine.

The most frustrating part about this is that all of these scenarios could’ve been prevented or improved with just a small amount of effort:

  • Asking for further background checks discreetly and with honesty prior to a situation where you may be around your peers. Don’t change the process based on the appearance of someone on a previous visit.
  • Not trying too hard to justify random searches.
  • Compliment success of an individual because they are that person, and don’t put their traits into buckets based on ethnicity (I must do this too!).
  • Survey the environment around you if one of these scenarios has to take place. I.E raising a situation that may be perceived as unconcious bias is never a good thing in public. It will end in the person of colour having to hide their emotions or depending on the tension, some may express too much emotion. Neither is good.
  • If a process involves finances, ask appropriate, open, and objective questions first to all of your customers regardless of their skin tone.

I’ve had to modify my own behaviour to avoid these circumstances in the future which most others wouldn’t need to think about. For example, at the top of my CV I now have “British – Mixed White & Black Caribbean” so that I can avoid the ‘when did you move here’ or ‘do you have the right to work in the UK?’ question. I also tend to take the minimum amount of technical equipment around with me (work or personal) because it’s more of a hassle to unpack and repack all of my possessions every time security checks are made than it is to have the benefit of the devices with me.

From a personal point of view, when we want to purchase a new car, I now tend to phone the dealership ahead of visiting physically, so that I can introduce myself and they know that the demand is there before I arrive. This might result in less bargaining power, but I’d rather pay slightly higher for a welcoming service than be judged when I walk in.

Having said all of this, whilst I personally believe that tolerance of racial differences is becoming worse in the wider world, I’ve found that in recent years it’s becoming much better in the corporate world. Ironically I often feel more comfortable on a day out to a client visit than I would on a day out with the family, and although these circumstances have occurred, I would never consider changing my career regardless of the experiences that may be ahead!

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