The Truths About Being Mixed Race In The Workplace

By Jamie Harris, VP, Operations at Black Unicorn…

Data shows that mixed race employees are specifically lacking role models at work. I should know. Being racially ambiguous-looking has made me work harder, reflect more and, eventually, stop settling for less. Here’s how you, as an employer or colleague, can help other mixed race people do the same.

Take it from an employee’s perspective: the most productive thing we can all do is understand each other’s back-stories. This is mine.

“So, where are you from?” 

It’s the question people always ask. But why do I struggle so much with answering it? Here I am. Mixed race, but racially ambiguous-looking. Born a proper cockney (within the sound of Bow Bells), but moved north at a young age and spent my formative years trying to avoid sounding like Gaz off Geordie Shore.

“…erm, London?” comes my answer.

Breaking news: apparently it does matter if you’re black or white. It matters even more if you don’t know whether you’re black or white. Trust me. Ever tried filling out a form that asks your ethnic background, as a mixed race person? Let me tell you, it’s not easy.

What I do know is that I was raised by my (white) grandparents in a predominantly white area of the North East. Unfortunately for me, the only black influences in my life were actors (namely Will Smith in the Fresh Prince), sports personalities and musicians. When you grow up being told daily that you’re different in quite a malicious way, you go looking for the people you’re more alike, right? So, what happens when they, too, think you’re different from them, and go out of their way to show it?

The problem with role models, explained

 In fear of making myself a statistic, let’s talk about the data that shows mixed race employees are specifically lacking role models in the workplace. The problem is that, often more than not, being mixed race means you come from a background so specific that it makes relating to others difficult.

Growing up, my mum was my hero. She’s a white woman who was one of the first people in the UK to receive a SIA licence in its first form. A total badass, she also overcame a wealth of gender stereotypes in a seriously male-dominated industry to own and run an extremely successful security company.

Here’s the thing: when you’re part of a family who epitomise fighting against adversity, who is going to represent that for you in the workplace, when there’s nobody who even looks like you, never mind anyone who will understand what your struggle was?

It’s not that I haven’t worked with people who I admired. I have. But I wasn’t personally inspired by their story, because they’d never lived anything like mine. Typical workplaces don’t allow personal identity to shine through. You’re expected to be a certain way and leave the rest at home.

 

What does a healthy working environment look like?

Like anyone, I’ve had good and bad working experiences. There’s been the ‘positive’ discrimination: being hired at bars and restaurants because I’d be “good for the ladies to look at”…what? The gender-fuelled: working in visual merchandising industry and being asked if I was gay (exhausting). And the straight-up confusing: working in entertainment casting, where looks determined whether someone got the job.

I’ve been the token ‘non-white’ hire, the tick box for a government incentive, the mixed race colleague who’s just the right amount of ‘different’.

But it wasn’t until I got to Black Unicorn that I realised how work could—and should—be. As a culture consultancy company, Black Unicorn is dedicated to changing the world through celebrating our differences. We understand that bringing people together from all walks of life is good for society and, crucially, statistically-proven to be better for business. It’s a company dedicated to hearing and celebrating each other’s differences. Imagine if your company could do the same?

Redefining what it means to be different

To anyone reading this who’s mixed race, my hard-earned advice is to own what makes you different. You have strengths you probably don’t even realise, and it’s time you did.

To any employers who want to succeed in working with mixed race employees, there’s no better approach you can take than understanding someone and playing to their strengths.

Years of being the “other” has made me more analytical and able to ascertain what a person is about and what they ultimately want. It also comes with a greater deal of empathy: I can see more clearly whether someone’s intentions are actually just misguided.

Having spent so long trying to figure myself out, I’m truly interested in what makes other people tick. It means I’m strangely good with people because I’m genuinely interested in their stories and their own path to personal growth. Yes, I routinely question whether I’m good enough, but the determination to show people my strengths has proved my greatest asset.

Your identity isn’t solely defined by what you look like or where you come from. It’s ever-changing as you find your way. The more people I meet, the more people I realise have been through things that strike a chord with me. Start the conversation and I guarantee you’ll find the same. 

How to start making a positive change

There’s no quick fix for employers or employees when it comes to creating healthier working environments. Being mixed race means you’re in a box where everyone has a genuinely unique experience. None of us are gurus, but we are in a place to start educating everyone outside of that box and even start educating each other.

We need to be allowed to be ourselves in the workplace. Forget the diversity quotas. How about we start by opening the identity conversation up? There’s real joy in bringing together cultures and it starts by embodying every background.

‘Mixed race’ is now the fastest growing ethnic minority in the UK. It’s time more of us started talking about it. Talking about race in the right way isn’t something to be afraid of. We have to talk. Not talking properly has only got us this far.

Ask yourself:

How do you, as an employer, celebrate the things that make your team different and the things that bring us together? How do you, as a colleague, start having actually constructive conversations about people’s backgrounds? How do we all, as a collective, start actually seeing and hearing each other more at work?

To us at Black Unicorn, it starts with not shying away from other people’s experiences. That’s why I’m sharing mine. Never be afraid to share yours.