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I’m going to begin by presenting three scenarios and I want you to be completely

Denying Someone Their Potential – A Lens On Race

I’m going to begin by presenting three scenarios and I want you to be completely honest in your responses.

If you walk into a courtroom as the barrister, are people going to assume that you’re the defendant and proceed to shout at you when you protest?

Here’s another scenario. You have organised a lunch for a potential US Senator at a top New York restaurant, hosted by one of the world’s leading media companies. You arrive with your political guest, announce at reception, “We are here for the lunch”. You are then led down winding corridors to the kitchen and asked, “Where are your uniforms?” Would you be mistaken for the waitress and not the guest?

And lastly, if you and your team jumped on a plane to Germany and did a pitch to one of the world’s leading manufacturers of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs), would you be met by a sea of faces, not bothering to hide their disbelief, their jaw-dropping incredulity that you are even in the room?

These are the experiences of the black barrister Alexandra Wilson, of Mellody Hobson, the president and co-CEO of Ariel Investments and the former president of DreamWorks Animation, and myself. And before anyone can negate these experiences with such phrases as “You were just imagining it”,  or “You have a chip on your shoulder,” I will share that I received a personal apology from one of the panel members for the behaviour, and he made it quite clear that it was because we were black.

These are a few examples of experiences that many of us face, including your black colleagues. Although progress has been made in 2020, there are still major obstacles in place to creating a racially equitable society.

Let’s explore some of these obstacles.

The Question We Must Ask Ourselves

I’ve recently been doing a lot of workshops with leaders and I realised that I had to reframe the diversity and inclusion agenda so they better understood it through a leadership lens. So I developed this thought.  The simple equation I present is this:

Optimise environment + optimising potential = optimising performance. When I pose this simple equation there is absolute consensus in the classroom. So far so good. Then I ask this question; “What is your motivation for denying someone their potential?”  People react very strongly, including being upset and offended. The uncomfortable truth is that many of us have, and could be responsible for denying someone their potential. Racism, sexism, ageism, whatever it is, are all instruments used to block and thwart progression.

Denying someone their potential is either covert or overt, but the result is the same.  Some do so actively and wilfully. But for many, it is far more unconscious and subtle.

Privilege happy to have it, but never admit it  

Privilege is a very unnerving concept.  We don’t mind having it, but we don’t want to admit it. There are two dimensions to privilege; dynamic and systemic. Dynamic privilege is situational and therefore as you move from one scenario to another you move on a scale of privilege.   I recognise my dynamic privilege. I attended a Russell Group university, I own my company, I worked hard to ensure that my children had a very good education, I’m able to do things that many don’t have the opportunity to experience.  But systemic privilege is about the DNA of a culture, it manifests in all dimensions of society, favouring some and denying others simply because of who they are. Systemic privilege is unnerving because we like to think that our success is based on meritocracy. And for some this is true, but for many, it isn’t. That’s an uncomfortable truth to handle. So how do we counter this truth? We perpetuate a delusion that society is fair and therefore “your lack of progress is your fault”.  But the evidence is plain for all to see, that the rules of the game are different if you are black, female, LGBT+, disabled.

And it’s important to understand that discomfort is a vital dimension of this journey.    Nothing changes from a place of comfort. Discomfort is a catalyst of change if you tap into it and are intentional about addressing the issues that must be challenged. I don’t want you to be apologetic or feel guilty.  I want you to tap into the discomfort and actively consider how you can contribute to creating a level playing field.

The impact of entitlement

We recognise that privilege is ingrained into our society and that it’s not going away any time soon. But simply acknowledging it and recognising its pervasive nature is the first step in addressing it. I believe that we have a collective responsibility.  But I think there’s another elephant in the room that we tend not to talk about much – entitlement.  

A dictionary definition of entitlement is, “the fact of having a right to something” or “the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment”.   Not many people will ever admit to their sense of entitlement. But the truth will reveal itself. When a woman achieves that top job, some will automatically believe that her promotion is due to sexual favours.  And when a black male gets the job, it’s because “we must be seen to fill the quotas”. But could it actually be they are highly talented individuals who won the position by just being the best candidate?

These are the things we must shine a light on and challenge.  They are genuine obstacles that impact on the daily lives of black people, including your colleagues. The stark reality is that many black professionals have to work twice as hard to achieve positions because of the societal and organisational obstacles.  And then, to know that some work colleagues think you are only there to tick a box! Yet, if they got the same job it would be totally on merit!

Let’s take a step back and ask what’s driving these thoughts and behaviours?

Will you continue to standby?

“So what? What’s this got to do with me?” some of you may ask. Let’s go back to the question- what’s your motivation for denying another person their potential?  If you stand by and do nothing, then I suggest that you are complicit. Alternatively, you can learn, be honest, be brave enough to challenge and intentionally contribute to creating more equitable constructs in your homes, workplaces and wider communities.  It sounds daunting I know, but let the fear of denying another their potential be your motivator.

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