by Wol Kolade

A personal statement from Wol Kolade

The anger and frustration unleashed by the appalling murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis is simple to understand – Black Lives Matter – no exceptions!

Whilst some of the issues are straight forward and action can be taken to resolve them quickly; much is complex and difficult to put right overnight as it is deeply ingrained, insidious and systemic.

I can only give you my perspective as a successful black man living and working in the UK: I am Managing Partner of a well-known Private Equity business; I am on the board of the NHS; and I am Chairman of a major health foundation – the Guys and St Thomas’ Charity. This does not give me a right to be heard over those who have been less fortunate and are facing much more challenging circumstances than my own. However, I want to use my platform to speak to those I encounter in and around my working life. You may feel far removed from the Black Lives Matter movement and their fight against racism and police brutality. However, I hope that by giving you an insight into my experience, it will help you to better understand that racism has many forms and occurs in all parts of society.

I am now in my early 50s and for most of my life I have been an exception.

Why?

I am an immigrant. However, I was a privileged one. I came to the UK at the tender age of 8 to attend a private boarding school. The first shock for me was that my fellow students and teachers focussed on differences. Skin colour, hair, nose shape, lips, accent, place of birth. For most of the 10 years that followed, I lived in school communities where I was at various points the only black person present.

Today, I rarely encounter the overt racism prevalent in the UK in the 1970s that was regularly reinforced in the media. Imagine sitting down with your family to watch sitcoms such as “Love Thy Neighbour” or “Rising Damp”. I suspect most of us, regardless of our ethnicity, would feel deeply uncomfortable. Yet at the time this was a small but significant part of the context, the framing for what was deemed to be acceptable in wider society.

I went into the finance industry in the early 1990s, a deeply conservative sector and again found myself to be the exception. Early in my career, I remember working with a management team and the CEO, rather than refer to me by name, would instead use a racially offensive and derogatory term. My then boss was deeply uncomfortable but didn’t want to risk upsetting the CEO in question so kept silent. I did what many black people feel compelled to do in similar situations which is to “suck it up”. Foolish? Maybe. But Private Equity is where I wanted to make my career and I remember my father (who was at Durham University in the 1950s…) giving me this advice – focus on your goal. You can be anything you want in life but, because you are black you, will have to work 3 times as hard as everyone else to attain it.

In 2007, I became Chairman of the British Venture Capital and Private Equity Association. At that time, I remember being interviewed by a journalist who asked me how I felt about the fact that I was one of only 2 prominent black people in the entire UK Private Equity industry – “how could I even begin to answer this question when there was literally no way that I could impart the lived experienced that comes with my situation”.

In recent years, I have only rarely faced overt racism. My daily lived experience tells me that whilst things have visibly improved, I’m afraid they are also in many ways worse. Today, it’s more about micro-aggressions a term coined by a Harvard University professor, Chester M. Pierce to describe the insults and slights he had witnessed against black people:

“….they’re something very specific: the kinds of remarks, questions, or actions that are painful because they have to do with a person’s membership in a group that’s discriminated against or subject to stereotypes. And a key part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they happen casually, frequently, and often without any harm intended, in everyday life…”

That is my lived experience.

Just this week:

I was again mistaken for a member of staff at a local supermarket – “oh but you are wearing the same colour as their uniform” – I was not.

Walking into my own apartment building laden with parcels, being stopped and told by a new member of the concierge team that “…this entrance is for residents, the one for delivery men is around the back”.

As I recount these seemingly “trivial stories”, most of the white people I know would seek other explanations as to what was behind them and probably think I should let them go. Unfortunately, this way of thinking does more harm than good.  Rightly or wrongly, over the years I have developed a coping mechanism and learnt to compartmentalise. But why should I have to? Why should anyone of colour have to? I certainly don’t want my kids to have to put up with this kind of nonsense.

If you do not identify as a person of colour, you also have a role to play in turning the tide. Do not ignore this conversation, especially when it gets uncomfortable. Start by understanding, Take the time to educate yourself. Recognise micro-aggressions exist and can be as painful for those on the receiving end as overt racism. There should be zero tolerance on your part. Stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the person being targeted and call out the aggressor.

Clearly, it’s vital that we urgently tackle the larger issue of systemic racism in society and the inequalities exposed not least by the impact of COVID-19 on BAME people. However, these “smaller things” matter too and we can all take immediate steps to address them.

Today, I am less of an exception. There are many more successful black people in the UK (witness the Powerlist 2020). However, we still have a very long road to travel. For my part, I know that there is more that I can do. I will certainly be asking my colleagues and fellow board members to look again at the steps being put in place to address the shockingly low representation of BAME leaders in private equity, business and healthcare.

To be honest, I am deeply ashamed that it has taken a horrific event in another country to galvanise myself into action. However, to quote James Baldwin, “Not every problem that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

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