Black Lives Matter: from one Black PR to the industry

Last week, I witnessed another senseless murder of a Black man. I cried and grieved for him in a sea of Black voices and rage. I feared for my own safety and that of my family’s as the most violent manifestation of all the racial injustices I, and many others have felt, played out on the world stage.

Since then, many of us have driven to social media to express our pain; we’ve signed petitions, we’ve circulated reading materials trying to explain why this is happening, we’ve protested in the streets of London and around the world, we’ve seen our white friends join in solidarity saying ‘enough is enough’ and we’ve lobbied our employers to commit to an anti-racism stance. Of all the platforms, Linkedin has been the slowest to respond, but employers are not off the hook.

Almost two weeks later and last night I spent time helping another Black PR professional find the words for an email to explain to her employer why it was important to her, to Britain and to the organisation itself, that they stand by Black Lives Matter.

Some might wonder why I was often so frustrated with the tone of the UK media coverage surrounding Meghan Markle being “fresh out of Compton” — when I have never expressed any interest in the royal family.

Others grew bored of my rage about the disgusting football fans in the UK and abroad who chant racial slurs at Black players throughout matches — telling me to just stop watching if it is so traumatic.

At the beginning of May I joined an estimated 500,000 people across the world to #RunwithMaud, an awareness-raising run in solidarity with Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was killed by white residents in Georgia, USA while out for his daily exercise — from the comfort of my suburban UK neighbourhood.

My friends had to listen to me rant over Zoom calls in May about the escalation of police violence in New York City where in Manhattan, police were handing out masks to largely groups of white people gathered in parks during lockdown. Yet videos were emerging on a daily basis of the same police force terrorising and beating those without masks or those in gatherings of two or three in the largely Black Harlem area — my friends would respond: “man isn’t America crazy?”

Then last week Amy Cooper weaponised her race in an attempt to try and scare a Black man into knowing his place. Hours later footage of George Floyd’s inhumane and public murder was circulated for all to see.

Why do each and every one of those experiences, which seemingly have nothing to do with my day to day life, resonate so painfully deeply with me in the UK? Where do I even begin?

The slow response from many businesses and brands, unsure of whether or how to show their corporate support has been telling.

Throughout my entire PR career, from my first internship to today, across in-house and agency, and in both public and private sectors, I have only ever had two jobs with another Black person in my team. I have never had a Black boss.

So, initially I believe that many employers did not understand why they in the UK needed to speak up and take action following this State-side occurrence.

But as Black people begin to break the silence on our individual and collective experiences both in and out of the workplace — please try to understand that things aren’t getting worse, you are just now becoming aware of what your Black friends and colleagues have suffered for generations. Although we in the UK may not fear for our lives on a daily basis, we recognised the consistent message and behaviours that indicate that our lives, our presence, our contributions, seem to be regarded as less valuable than others’. That resonated.

These are urgent conversations, but it will take work to actually change things. We are looking to you to get it right but we are very aware you will probably get it wrong first. Please do not let fear of awkward conversations and saying the wrong thing stop you from finally using your privilege to do the right thing. Your power is not just economic, it reverberates throughout each of your employees’ professional and cultural spheres of influence. You have the power to affect change. And we as Black professionals are ready for it. We have been ready.

As someone who celebrates my skin and hair and is perfectly proud of my background, I have had to sit next to a colleague who knowing full well that I am of Nigerian heritage, made derogatory joke after joke about a Nigerian prince coming for his money, who when unable to pronounce the name of an African country would say “I dunno something like Timbuktu”.

Time and time again I have been mixed up with and called the name of another Black woman. I have made comments in meetings which have been ignored, only for a white person (both male and female) to repeat the exact same thing and not only be heard but applauded. I have heard colleagues admit that they are scared of Black men. I have been asked why I have such a posh accent. I have had my hair touched, patted like a dog, without permission when it is in its afro form. I have been at an overseas conference and while wearing the conference lanyard — assumed to be a prostitute and been too scared to walk home without a white colleague with me. We wonder why the industry isn’t more diverse. I have mentored Black girls from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds who — when I’ve suggested roles for them to apply for — have asked if they will be the only ‘BAME’ person there, knowing how emotionally exhausting it can be.

I spoke on my first diversity in PR panel in 2017. Following the event I was approached in-person and over Linkedin numerous times by white and other minority ethnic attendees saying that they just had no idea that that was how we felt or that we were going through such visceral experiences on a regular basis.

It made me realise that as exhausted as we may be, we clearly need to speak up, louder and more often outside of the safe spaces (like diversity networks) in our places of work. But please do not leave it to us alone, the very people suffering from racism, to shoulder the burden of teaching you about your racism nor carry the weight of your guilt. The emotional distress of the last couple of weeks, coupled with a pandemic which has not only changed our entire lives but disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities, is a lot.

So for those willing to commit to being allies:

· Take a moment to read up on your privilege.

· Try to really listen. Be patient:

o As passionate as I am about creating change, I’m not always going to have the patience or the willingness to communicate my pain and frustration delicately or articulately.

o Remember this isn’t about you — it may be easy to compare my experience as a Black woman to yours as a white woman or an Asian man but try and respect my intersectionality. I always use hair as an example as Black people are the only demographic who have to endure hair politics in the school and workplace. Emma Dabiri is literally petitioning for afro hair to be protected under the Equalities Act right now.

o I am not an all-knowing expert on race. I can communicate my lived experience and other typical experiences, but we’re not taught this stuff in school, I have had to educate myself. So you need to do the work too.

· Sit in that discomfort. While it is hard to hear about racism, think how hard it is to experience it.

· Take stock, then take action. This can be both individually or as an organisation. For instance, I’ve just seen a tweet encouraging journalists that are willing to talk to Black journalists at the start of their careers to offer their mentoring services. I have a white friend in communications who advocated for BLM by suggesting her company overhaul their weekly newsletter, putting a hold on business updates and focus on giving staff the resources to educate themselves. She has just received an email from a Black employee expressing her appreciation at feeling ‘seen’. Of course, there are many Black businesses you can donate to, procure services of, partner with and so on.

For those wondering how they have gone so long without noticing these issues or why instances of racial abuse don’t get reported in their droves:

· What does your review panel look like? Does it include anyone who has been a target of racism themselves?

· So many have gone their whole lives not being believed when they do speak up. Often the experience is defended with, “I was only joking” or you are made to feel you’re rocking the boat when you don’t abide by the status quo.

· Wanting to avoid stereotypes — who wants to give another excuse to be labelled the angry Black woman or the aggressive Black man?

· And sometimes these demeaning microaggressions come from people you actually like and wouldn’t want to report. I once overheard a colleague on the phone say: “I need to transfer you over to my colleague Jo, oh I won’t even try to say her last name.” Her English-sounding double-barrelled last name was 7 syllables, mine is 4. We had worked together for years.

· Racism is institutional, it is everywhere. I would rather spend my time living my life and doing my job, particularly if it is a smaller incident not necessarily worth the time, energy, pain and effort — for nothing to be done following filing a report or investigation.

· And last of all, the worst is when something just isn’t sitting right. You can’t quite put your finger on why the blood is pumping louder in your ears when you’re at the team social and you are being spoken over, left out, or someone is making veiled comments. Comments which could be referring to anything under the sun but when they make these inferences they avoid eye contact with you alone — and you get that feeling that a racist dig has just been shot at you. I have grown up in four countries across Europe — the experience in the UK is the most subtle.

Now this is the bit that pinches.

If you work for a company that has made diversity commitments, held Black History Month events, been happy to use your face on their recruitment materials or that requires new starters to complete anti-bias training… If they have still not acknowledged that their Black colleagues or customers may be going through a tough time right now, nor demonstrated that they understand that the very issues that make such commitments, events and training necessary, are playing out before their eyes — I implore both Black PRs and/or allies to step up and send that email or make that phone call. Whether you contact your head of department or your HR or diversity and inclusion teams — it is time to demand more and hold our places of work accountable. Sometimes, we don’t ask, we don’t get.

I can’t explain the amount of times I have heard the following words from Black professionals over the past week and a half: “they obviously don’t care, they obviously don’t see my pain, I really need to think about leaving.”

So employers, opening the door to creating an actively anti-racist workplace won’t just help you to attract and retain diverse PR talent and include their perspectives to communicate with Black consumers, it is an opportunity to re-evaluate whether your diversity schemes are fit for purpose and whether you are living up to the values of your organisation for the entirety of your workforce.

Enough is enough. It is way past the time to recognise that all lives can only matter once Black Lives Matter too.

PRWeek 30 under 30. Twitter: @j0gunleye. Linkedin: Jennifer Ogunleye.