Tara Smith

What, apart from the fact of being nouns, do ‘diversity’ and ‘curiosity’ have in common? They both create a healthy atmosphere for intellectual creativity to flow.

If you are a BME professional who is fortunate enough to work in a firm as diverse as mine, you will notice that with an increasing wealth of workplace cultural diversity comes an even greater repertoire of questions.

“What’s that you’re eating?”

“How did you do your hair like that?”

“How do you pronounce this?”

The questioning of things so seemingly ‘normal’ to those of us raised in homes that reflect our cultural heritage can easily offend and frustrate us. Nonetheless, I propose that the intrigue – and the boldness to vocalise that intrigue – should instead be welcomed. Curiosity about the intricacies of being black is not merely evidence of someone lacking understanding; it speaks of their keenness to understand. The reluctance to remain ignorant has rightfully surpassed the fear of asking these questions. If the disposition of the person being asked the question is hostile, the questioner’s apprehension can easily be reinforced, deterring future inquiry and perpetuating the misunderstanding that has frustrated both parties from the beginning.

I encourage such questions in the workplace. In fact, I personally take issue with the convention of attributing a lack of understanding to “cultural differences”. Too often, this is a thinly veiled method of shifting the responsibility for addressing ignorance from the questioner to the person in question.  The courage of the question is proven not merely by the response, but by the benevolent motivation in asking; when we seek to understand, we succeed in the very quest for understanding.

One of the first challenges of inquiring into BME life is the matter of conceptualising ‘black culture’. ‘Black’ is not a country or a nationality; in truth, people of colour did not self-identify as black until they were addressed as such by others, on the basis of visible difference. Being black does not denote a single way of life, and although we share much common ground, there is no unified ‘black’ culture. Ghanaian culture, for instance, is not the same as Nigerian culture. Nigerian Yoruba culture differs from Nigerian Igbo culture, and a Yoruba woman raised in Ireland will have a very different culture to a Yoruba woman brought up in Nigeria. The commonality of skin tone does not indicate a unified culture. Our individual contexts and circumstances culminate in unique embodiments of ‘blackness’.

On this basis, a question relating to an aspect of you that stems from your ‘blackness’ should be read as a personal request to understand you, as an individual. As a human, many threads are being beautifully interwoven to shape your character – your heritage, your upbringing, your parents’ nationality and your family’s socio-political, socioeconomic and religious contexts, for example. This process creates a picture of the culture you are cultivated in. The beauty of realising that culture is not exclusively defined by your skin tone is the implication that something about you can be accessed and understood by another. This hope, coupled with the curiosity of the enquirer, can create a beautifully synergistic working environment, where people strive to understand one another.

For various reasons, many professionals from BME backgrounds find it difficult to be open at work about the things that make them different. Unfortunately, what we fail to realise is that this unease has the potential to impact career mobility. Colleagues can become distant when they are unable to resolve their ponderings, which can in turn create a lack of familiarity, ultimately hampering workplace relationships.

We cannot ignore the fact, however, that the converse can also be true. There is something particularly degrading about someone referencing rap lyrics with the assumption that their black colleague will know exactly what they are referring to. This in turn may cause the black colleague to feel uneasy and distance themselves from people and their assumptions. We serve to gain more significant ground on this front by choosing to educate our learned friends, even when the reflex to take offence is both more convenient and more socially justifiable. Our willingness to expound on matters pertaining to black people not only meets our colleagues’ level of boldness in their assumptions; it also sets the tone for conversations with the next BME person our colleagues meet.

These cordial confrontations represent an opportunity to dispel misconceptions and foster greater cultural understanding and sensitivity. These teaching moments, tiresome though they may feel at times, have arguably never been more necessary than they are in our current political climate.

According to a survey conducted by McKinsey & Co in 2018, black women face the impact of being the “only”, twice over. This is the double corporate burden of often being both the only woman in the room, and the only black person. This creates what I refer to as the ‘pioneer complex’ – navigating the precarious ground of building a successful career while being vocal and visible in one’s differences.

I have suffered from this complex in many workplaces, and with the added difference of often being the only practising Christian, the difficulty of this situation becomes impossible to gloss over. Feeling “only” can make us inordinately self-aware, which sets us up to constantly resist the alluring pressure of conforming to an image that does not reflect our true nature. True diversity in the workplace requires the workforce to be at liberty to express what makes them who they are. There has been a recent focus on bringing one’s “whole self” to work, and although I concede that this is not absolutely applicable in every context, I do believe that not feeling comfortable to be ourselves in our professional roles is counterproductive to the pursuit of diversity, representation and inclusion.

Let us bring authenticity to the workplace. A key component of unlocking the benefits of diversity is cultivating understanding, so let us endeavour to understand one another – and let us be courageous enough, and patient enough, to be understood.

Curiosity doesn’t have to kill the cat.

Tara Smith is a trainee solicitor at Trowers & Hamlins.

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