· Features

Racial prejudice is still holding us back

How are we still asking the same questions about certain people's contributions being unseen, unrecognised and undervalued?

Earlier this year the Guardian reported that of 535 senior officials working in British universities 510 were white, 15 Asian and 10 recorded as ‘other including mixed’. In 2018 we should all be shocked at that. I shouldn’t be or feel unusual simply because of the colour of my skin.

Employers and entire institutions are overlooking and missing out on the positive contributions that people of colour bring. If we continue to fail to harness the breadth of talent across British society then we are limiting ourselves and hindering our chances of improving productivity.

My own experience tells me that skin shade is a barrier to career progression. Of the 20 people recruited to work on the prestigious Civil Service fast stream back in the ‘90s I – as the only person of colour – was almost the only one not promoted to the senior Civil Service. But I have the capability. It’s an uncomfortable truth that race remains a barrier for some.

Identity is complex and made up of various invisible, intersecting and overlapping facets. Some facets, however, are more visible and the identity facets that I regularly draw on to describe myself are those of being a black woman, a working parent, and from a working-class background.

While I no longer see being black or from a working-class background, or even being a working parent, as things that should hold me back they absolutely have the potential to. Key to where I am now was the contrast of aspirations set for me growing up: my own drive to succeed, bolstered by my parents’ high expectations, contrasted with the markedly low expectations held by practically every institution I found myself in.

At 16 I was told that A-Levels weren’t for people like me, despite being one of the top in my class. At 18 I was told university wasn’t for me and that I should consider something more vocational. After graduating I applied for thousands of jobs in the legal profession to no avail. These accounts just skim the surface of my experience of being singled out, misjudged and underestimated, and they are by no means unique. Ask any black professional and the majority will have a similar set of stories.

We’ve had race equality legislation in the UK since 1965, so how is it that we are still having this conversation? How are we still asking the same questions about certain people’s contributions being unseen, unrecognised and undervalued?

We’ve been so socially conditioned to see the world through certain lenses. As HR practitioners we need to consciously expand those lenses while at the same time recognising that we are wearing them.

In my recent professional move I spent a significant amount of time thinking about how to ensure I wasn’t stereotyped as either the ‘angry black woman’ or the inconsequential diversity and inclusion diva.

More often than I would like I have to consider what I say, how it might be received, and what possible unconscious stereotyping reactions people may have towards me. The weight of these considerations, of double-checking myself on a daily basis, is what has yet to be understood in depth or addressed in the majority of our diversity and inclusion practice. The weight of double-checking myself is at the heart of institutional racism and sexism.

At King’s I see my role as supporting and guiding my peers in university leadership positions to understand this weight that hangs on the shoulders of our female and BAME students and staff. My new post has been a game-changer for King’s College London and has seen the volume of equality, diversity and inclusion work increase strategically and in practice.

Sarah Guerra is director of diversity and inclusion at King's College London