I had the unique experience of being asked to join a reverse mentoring programme organised by We Rise In. Initially, I was apprehensive. I do not enjoy discussing race relations because I sometimes feel that using race as a reason for collective underachievement is depressing. So I have tended to be aware of my situation as an African man, set sights on my goals and then blast towards them. But, I know some may ask, are things really that easy? My response is yes, depending on the state of your mind.
This reverse mentoring programme was going to be a challenging journey as I will be discussing my views with someone who may or may not agree with my points of view. So with all these thoughts running through my mind, I thought I'd give it a go. If it doesn't go how I like, I'll charge it to the game (which means adding to my life experiences).
My assigned mentee was Adrian Owen, a partner at Montagu Evans, a self-aware leader, confident, property professional white male. We had had some interactions previously, and we hit it off well.
The openness of our talks allowed me to probe and be probed about our respective points of view
We Rise In assisted with conversation starters in the form of a reverse mentoring guidebook, and Adrian and I had a very open and confidential discussion about our past. Amazingly, our discussions quickly revealed that our experiences were somewhat similar and that discrimination is not limited to people of colour and can impact a white person just as much as a black person. As an example of this it surprised me that Adrian had experienced severe bullying as a young boy at boarding school because he was always brown due to living abroad (in Africa actually). He was a white boy but experienced discrimination because of his ‘brown’ skin colour.
Discrimination exists, but determination and professionalism can help break down barriers
The question will always be the severity of discrimination's impacts on particular groups, namely black people, which is why this programme is essential. The openness of our talks allowed me to probe and be probed about our respective points of view. We both observed that discrimination exists, but determination and professionalism can help break down barriers. What may have been considered unhelpful to my mentee was that I am a confident person, love my heritage, and am not shy about who I am and where I come from.
The critical lesson for me was to be straightforward when discussing race matters. People walk through open doors, not closed doors. So being honest and direct will surely help everyone understand different cultures better.
In one of our discussions, Adrian referred to me as a black man, and I was somewhat taken aback but not offended by the direct use of the term. I could not imagine calling a white man a white man to his face. Perhaps, this is because race as a candid conversation is associated with racism and negativity when it really shouldn't be. Adrian quickly observed my slight shock and asked why I was surprised. I responded that I don't tend to speak to people who are direct in conversations about race, but I did mention that his directness was appreciated. The critical lesson for me was to be straightforward when discussing race matters. People walk through open doors, not closed doors. So being honest and direct will surely help everyone understand different cultures better. After all I am a black man and Adrian is a white man.
Proportionality and the best person for the job
People may completely disagree with my points of view on this. However, during one of the discussions with Adrian, I raised the point that the expectation that a person of colour should lead every board or FTSE 100 company is somewhat unrealistic as, statistically, minorities make up a small percentage of the overall population. I expect a proportionate amount of people of colour should make up senior management in these companies. Britain is a white country, but the best person, irrespective of colour, must be able to lead great companies. The best woman or man, black or white, should be considered if they have the credentials. Indeed this is what equality is about.
Imagine most corporate companies in Nigeria, for instance, being led mainly by white people. Would this be acceptable? But, again, I welcome any counterarguments to my point of view.
Being black and in property development
As I had recently started a property development business (A'lake), I was discussing my process of finding development sites with a friend. I said I look for development plots on Searchland, create a mail merge and add a small picture of my black face on the signature of my direct-to-vendor letters. My friend, who is also black and a successful developer, said I shouldn't add my face to the letter because it may limit my chances of finding suitable landowners. My thoughts were that if my face didn't give away my race, my name surely will.
Challenging does not mean constantly entering into racial conversations; for me, it means simply occupying space (in work or business) and trying to be the best whilst being visible.
I relayed this scenario to Adrian, and he challenged me by saying, being a devil's advocate, what if removing your name and face gets you the desired results you seek in your development site-finding journey? Why wouldn't you listen to your friend? I thought, similar to my friend, I appreciated the objective point of view. However, my response was simple: I am who I am, and fortunately, there is nothing I can do to change who I am or my race. So the landowners were either going to read my letter role their eyes and think “hmm this black man” whilst ripping up my letter, or they were going to say, can this man purchase my land for the price I want to sell for?
Call me an idealist, but my role is to go against the grain, develop homes and be unapologetically black, hopefully changing perspectives simultaneously. Challenging does not mean constantly entering into racial conversations; for me, it means simply occupying space (in work or business) and trying to be the best whilst being visible. I may win or lose some, but at least when I win, I'll do so being me. Adrian respected my perspective, and I appreciated his view and my friend's. What do you think?
When I initially wanted to get into property development, I was told that black people don't tend to get into it. You will be surprised to hear that another black person in the property industry told me this. This may have been their perspective and reality, but it wasn't mine. Do not let another person's opinion derail where you are going. Just keep going.
On the reverse mentoring programme, I identified that whatever race you are, generally speaking, our shared experiences are somewhat similar. This similarity, I feel, should open human compassion and empathy when dealing with others who do not look or sound like you.
Racial discussions can be emotionally draining for me, but following this reverse mentoring, I am more open to discussing race, thanks to We Rise In and Adrian Owen.
Others like me may not share my views, but I think we have to develop a nonchalant mindset about things that can emotionally demobilise us. Racial discussions can be emotionally draining for me, but following this reverse mentoring, I am more open to discussing race, thanks to We Rise In and Adrian Owen.
Finally, I remember saying to Adrian that how I have dealt with discrimination is to say to myself that an athlete's job is to jump over hurdles irrespective of the circumstances. Hurdles can be microaggressions, racism, self-pity, inferior complexes, trauma from past suffering and all forms of discrimination, whether extreme or subtle. Our collective role is to rise above prejudice of all shapes and deal with it head-on if you experience it.
Adrian and his company Montagu Evans are actively trying to create fair opportunities for all people to thrive within their business. This, again, was encouraging to see.
We Rise In is a business network whose mission is to inspire, elevate, and develop the careers of mid-senior level black professionals across industries.
They work with corporate companies to facilitate inclusion workshops, listening workshops, reverse mentoring, mentorship and leadership programmes for staff.
Email email@example.com to find out how We Rise In can support your company’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion agenda.