Over the summer, recent Philosophy and Politics graduate Kamarl Wilson, joined us as an ARE Intern. Whilst with us, Kamarl was able to reflect back to his time as an undergraduate, and some of the parallels he noticed as a young Black job-seeker trying to gain meaningful employment.
During my time at university, I witnessed first-hand just how under-represented Black people were across the teaching force in the UK. I looked into this topic further, keen to understand why the numbers employed by the university were so low. These were the spaces preparing us for the ‘real world’ after all…
I came across a study done by the University College Union (UCU), which found that across all universities and colleges in the UK, 84% percent of academic staff identified as white, whilst only 2% identified as Black.
When looking at managerial roles, there was an even more dramatic disparity: 91% percent were white compared to just 2% Black. (UCU – Black academic staff face double whammy in promotion and pay stakes).
This is a story which can be told in almost every sector, workplace or institution, which became clear to me when I joined a Moving On Up Ambassador’s meeting with some young Black men.
This is a space created by Moving On Up for young Black men to engage in conversation around employment and progression.
In this session, the young men were discussing their troubles accessing high qualified positions and questioning the reasons why. From the conversation, I realised all of us there had the shared experience of not being the right ‘fit’ for a role, and the sense that there would usually be a ‘preferred candidate’ (someone most likely to be close to the person doing the hiring).
During the meeting, a spokesperson also recounted a powerful story that they had applied for a job and received an invitation for an interview. One of the first thoughts they had was to instantly straighten their curly hair in order to give off a good impression.
Whilst hair is only a minor detail about an individual, it is something that can drastically change how an interviewer sees you as a person. As for myself, I have recently grown out my hair and I am now constantly have conversations with my mum about cutting it off when I enter full-time work because it is not seen as ‘professional’!
Many Black people who are at the start of their career will, at some stage, think they have to change something about themselves in order to be offered a chance. This is a fundamental problem, because even once you have made the change, it is likely that others will still see a Black face and their bias will kick in and guide their ruling judgement.
Another story shared during the meeting showcased further bias, and a barrier to progression. One young professional was interacting with some international businessmen. After emailing back and forth about a conference for a week, they had arranged to meet this person in the lobby of the hotel of which the conference was to be held. Due to their Italian surname, the person he was due to meet had already formed an idea of what he would look like (presumably a white male). Upon arrival, this spokesperson had gone to greet the man, but he returned the favour by handing him his jacket, clearly thinking he was a waiter instead of the person he had been emailing back and forth with in a professional capacity!
I highlight examples such as these, because each and every one of the young Black men at the meeting, including myself, had gone through something similar. Facing such a repeated battle has a psychological effect for those applying for jobs. Frustration is a common feeling for many Black people applying for jobs because it feels like an uphill battle just to be on level playing terms with our white counterparts.
There needs to be a real change of culture within workplaces, which should also be reflected in the university space as this is a place which will sets us up for working life.
With such few Black faces across all universities in the UK, it presents the message that there are fewer opportunities for progression if we are Black. Then, at work, we often have to mould ourselves, and adapt to what success looks like in a white male. Both spaces need to be decolonised where processes that uphold Eurocentric views need to be rethought and reframed. We need to shift perceptions of what it means to be educated, talented and capable. Employers should not hire in their own image but learn to see past stereotypes and recognise young Black people and the skills they can bring to the table.
Therefore, projects such as Moving on Up (MoU) hold importance. As an initiative that seeks to bring about real change, it is proactive and has an aim of increasing opportunities for young Black males in London. With initiatives such as MoU, we can begin to change the mindsets of employers and those within the workplace.
For myself, it is great to see something like this occurring: we face many obstacles in life due to race and it is time for that to be one less thing to worry about when applying for jobs.
Moving On Up is a groundbreaking programme by Action for Race Equality, funded by City Bridge Trust and Trust for London, to support young Black men aged 16-24 in London into employment.
For more details about Moving On Up, please contact Indra Nauth.