We all have to confront systemic racism

The writer is an emerging markets equities sales-trader at JPMorgan Chase

Racism can be such a dirty word. To be branded a racist messes with one’s fundamental need to be perceived as a good human. We shy away from awkward conversations on race because it conjures a range of emotions — shame, guilt, fear, frustration, anger. Yet, ignoring racism doesn’t make it go away — it festers, it breeds contempt, it dehumanises. Systemic racism in society needs to be addressed so as to create equivalent opportunities for all.

The origins of systemic racism in the workplace and society lie far beyond the responsibility of anyone alive today, but it is our collective duty to ensure it doesn’t persist. Diversity of thought, experience and expression — and the economic growth they produce — is stifled when unbridled biases that pervade our psyches seep into decisions about to whom we give opportunities. 

Recent racist events in the US have been a trigger to re-live my own suppressed trauma. It is easy to agree on racism when overt, as in the case of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis last month. We should be equally able to agree when racism manifests in more insidious ways, as in the case with Amy Cooper, who called New York police to complain after a black birdwatcher asked her to put her dog on a leash.

How many Amy Coopers are there who think they’re not racist because they haven’t used racial slurs or physically hurt anyone? How many realise that their inherent unconscious bias — rooted in centuries of slavery and colonialism — results in conditioning to see white as good, superior; and black as bad, scary, inferior? How many are able to keep their negative biases at bay when their ingrained views are challenged?

Since moving to the UK from Ghana as a child, I’ve had both subtle and glaring reminders that racial bias would be an unspoken presence in my life.

I was reminded that my black skin equated to inferiority when I was placed in the lowest set in school upon my arrival despite arriving with stellar referrals from my school in Accra. I was reminded that I would not receive the benefit of the doubt, when I was stopped and strip-searched as a teenager in the back of a police van while my accompanying white friends were left unmolested.

I was reminded that my skin was something to be feared, when I was told to “tone down” my “aggression” in one of my first trading roles, while my white counterparts could be similarly assertive without admonition. Success at work seemed to come only after I spent a staggering amount of energy tempering my expressions at the expense of my creativity.

Cuba Narh-Saam at the Black Lives Matter protest in Parliament Square, London Cuba Narh-Saam at the Black Lives Matter protest in Parliament Square, London © Kwame Narh-Saam

This month, I attended a Black Lives Matter protest at London’s Parliament Square with my four-year-old son. He is of mixed racial origin — Ghanaian, Barbadian and white English — and likely to be viewed by the world as black. Having to explain the concept of racism to him, fearing that he would encounter it very soon, was probably the toughest, saddest thing I’ve had to do as a parent.

He is currently unrestrained in his expressions of self-confidence and is full of energy. I wonder whether he’ll go from being viewed as cheeky to being seen as naughty, and then aggressive, and then a threat. I wonder if his sense of self and black identity will be fragmented by the emotional weight of racial bias that reinforces the notion that in order not to be considered as second-class, he will have to be beyond reproach. I wonder how many opportunities he’ll be denied because of the colour of his skin. I wonder if his skin colour will set boundaries on his dreams and desires.

Many employers, including mine, are implementing structural changes to increase representation of minority groups but to have the desired long-lasting effect, we also need change at the individual level. The key to unlocking unconscious bias is: first, listen to the experiences of black people and acknowledge that bias exists; second, look inward and understand why it exists; and finally, begin the difficult task of mitigating its harmful effects.

Racism does not have to be a dirty word. Creating an environment where everyone feels safe and empowered to call out all forms of racism will get us to a place where creativity and authenticity thrives.