A difficult conversation about racism

July 8, 2020

Liza RobbinsBy Liza Robbins.

“Racism is every day for me,” says Philip Olagunju.

“It’s not about being chased down the streets… It’s someone hearing me on the phone, without being able to see me.

“We’ll arrange to meet and then when they see me in person, their response is, ‘Oh, you’re a black guy… You’re very articulate!’ As if it’s some kind of surprise…”

Philip is director at PEM Corporate Finance, one of Kreston’s UK firms, based in Cambridge.

And I must admit that when I first heard of his experiences, I was shocked.

After all, here at Kreston International, we deal with people from different countries,  backgrounds and ethnicities all day, every day.

It feels like we’re one global family and in this international environment, race – along with religion and gender – is the furthest thing from my mind.

But the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations made me stop and think: Was my experience of this very diverse working environment privileged and unrepresentative?

Was there racism going on below the surface – and at the local level – that I just wasn’t aware of?

And what more could we be doing, to continue Kreston’s commitment to diversity?

That’s when I came across a very powerful video by Philip on LinkedIn, in which he discussed his thoughts on racism. I got in touch directly to continue the conversation.

Philip quickly made me see that racism is all around us, including in our corporate environment – but it can be difficult for me to see it.

“It’s not your lived experience,” he told me. “You don’t become aware until people who do go through it become vocal about it.”

He compared it to the #MeToo movement, which exposed sexual harassment against women.

“As a man, I had no idea what women were exposed to. I lived in a fog of ignorance.

“It was only when women who suffered harassment started talking openly about their stories and my wife said that this resonated with her, that I had an awakening.”

The speed at which Black Lives Matter demonstrations spread internationally shows just how widespread racism is.

“This isn’t just a black issue or just an American one,” he emphasises. “I talk about it from the point of view of a black male, but this applies to other racisms as well.”

Many people, Philip says, think racism only occurs amongst uneducated or very sheltered people. But it’s not true.

Philip has been in corporate finance since 2005, and his working experiences have “not typically been diverse,” he told me. “Often I’m the only black person in any given context – whether that’s a team or a meeting with clients.”

The result can be overt racism, for example being called a “black bastard” in a networking meeting.

Or, day-to-day it can be much more subtle – for example, wincing at the way the media talks about black people.

A shopping trip near his house recently took on disturbing undertones when he realised this was where racists had gathered to demonstrate against Black Lives Matter, doing “monkey chants” for the cameras.

Philip says this doesn’t affect his self-esteem, because of his Christian world view – “I can never be inferior to anyone; that’s not who God made me to be”.

But not everyone has that view or that level of self-confidence, and for many, this constant drip-drip of racist incidents can be emotionally and mentally traumatic.

So what can we, in our Kreston firms, do to embed diversity and equality?

The first step, says Philip, is to acknowledge that racism can exist in our organisations.

In the past, when he’s tried to talk about racism, some workplaces have preferred not to hear – often under the guise of protecting him.

“People would tell me not to dwell on negativity or not to have a chip on my shoulder. You may have good intentions, but it’s suppressing the truth.

“You have to talk about it – acknowledgement is the first thing.”

Next, he says, organisations need to remove inbuilt bias, and give black people the exact same opportunities as others.

“Don’t think of black people as asking for a handout. All we’re asking for is removal of inequality,” he says. “For example – when it comes to hiring, ensuring that aptitude and ability to contribute to the business is the only thing that matters. Unfortunately, that is not the case, time and time again.”

Last, he says, take action as a result of the conversations you’re having, although the fixes will be different in every organisation – there is no “one size fits all” list of actions.

Philip says this is an area where PEM has excelled – in fact, straight after our call he had another one booked with his managing partner, to explore what steps his firm can take to promote equality.

Do not underestimate the power of Philip’s simple steps.

I found that watching his video and talking to him for a few minutes was an enormously eye-opening experience for me. He was right – by being vocal, he completely changed my perspective.

If you have your own experiences to share, please do write back and let me know. I’d also welcome any input you have on the best ways to combat racism in the workplace.

Wherever we are in the world, we have a duty to actively seek out these stories, to educate ourselves about the racism ingrained in our societies and yes, in our organisations – and to strive to make our firms better, more diverse, more equal places.

“I didn’t know” is no longer an acceptable excuse.