You could be forgiven for thinking Britain is “racism-free” beyond our football terraces. Our national sport grabs almost all the headlines when it comes to reporting on discrimination.
Though the racist outbursts against star players over 90 minutes attract so much attention and shock, there’s a more potent version that affect millions of people, and lasts for far longer each week – roughly 40 hours a week, to be precise. The workplace is where the vast majority of people of colour experience racism.
The 90-minute racist is usually a powerless and overexcited idiot in the stands hurling expletives in order to hurt a millionaire’s feelings and put him off his game. Painful and upsetting as this is, racism in the world of work is far more damaging and insidious. In this situation a relatively powerful and highly regarded person hurts or ruins an ethnic minority’s economic and social standing as well as their mental wellbeing.
You might not be racially abused in the corporate world (though don’t rule it out), but there is a good chance you’ll be treated (and paid) worse than your white colleagues.
It is no secret that black people have much tougher career experiences than the average white person. This is statistically demonstrated and can be spotted practically everywhere: the ethnic pay gap was, in the few places that have bothered to carry out a survey, larger than the gender pay gap (though it failed to trigger much national dialogue). There are more FTSE 100 chiefs called Steve than there are ethnic-minority bosses. A similar lack of representation in leadership positions exists within public sector organisations. From the media to trading floors, the list goes on.
And even in football, when it comes to the managerial and administrative side of the game, the social order that excludes black people, or places them at the bottom, rears its ugly head yet again.
But statistics tell only a fraction of the story. The human cost, the fears, tears and burdens behind the stats, are often unspeakable. And the penalty for speaking up could be career-ending.
Black people who do make it into the corporate world live with justified fears. These include the fear of the dog whistle; of having your assertiveness labelled “aggressiveness”; of having your politeness labelled “docility”; of not coming across as grateful enough – even in the face of clear discrimination; of being reduced to a diversity prop (it is hard not to notice that in many organisations the most senior black person – sometimes the only senior black person – is the head of diversity).
And when times get tough, there’s the fear of being singled out. There was one little-documented constant in all of the major institutional British scandals of the last decade: the expenses scandal, phone hacking, and banking fraud. In sectors that are overwhelmingly white, and where dodgy dealing almost always goes unpunished, black people somehow found themselves before a judge and, in most cases, going to prison.
Lord Taylor of Warwick was the only parliamentarian who professed his innocence to be convicted during the expenses scandal; Anthony French of the Sun was convicted over phone hacking (though this was later overturned); and Kweku Adoboli was punished twice – prison and then deportation – for fraud and false accounting.
Chris Huhne, Vicky Pryce, Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer did go to jail for various crimes. But unlike them, black professionals don’t get hooked up with a cushy “welcome home” consulting gig or a lucrative book deal once out of jail. They go back to the council house waiting list… or are deported.
Some black professionals even have the fear of other black people. I was once warned that associating with black staff in the office was a bad idea as it “makes people remember that you are also black”.
There are coping mechanisms associated with the black work experience: racial disguising – eg adopting a whiter-sounding name, or accent, or cultural interests; or collaborating with racism in order to avoid being a target yourself. These mechanisms often lead to dark places.
A psychologist friend recently revealed that while her white and Asian clients seek her services for a myriad of different reasons, her black clients usually seek her help solely for struggles with being black in the workplace.
And me? I found therapy and a coping mechanism in another place: satire. I created “Dr Boulé Whytelaw”, a comedic Machiavellian “professor of white people studies”, who says the unsayable. “Together” we penned Think Like a White Man, a tongue-in-cheek self-help book for black employees, inspired by the steady drip of persistent everyday racism as experienced and witnessed by myself, friends and colleagues.
The book uses data, case studies, people management methods, academic research, and sometimes the wisdom of strippers, to document the pains (and occasional pleasures) of the black corporate experience.
Writing it was truly therapeutic – it helped me laugh, learn and do better. Strange as it may sound, turning everyday racism into everyday comedy fodder was my way of doing what Raheem Sterling does to the 90-minute racist game after game, goal after goal: surviving and conquering them.
• Nels Abbey is the author of Think Like A White Man: Conquering the World . . . While Black, published this month by Canongate