Unheard Conversations

Carrie-Anne Adams, Head of Inclusion and Diversity, Tokio Marine Kiln

Despite the white skin I’ve always worn, I have experienced racial discrimination directed towards my family when I was growing up. I grew up in a multi-race family. We lived in Tower Hamlets, the borough of London right next to the City. For anyone who doesn’t know it, my home used to have a reputation. When Stephen Fry asked QI panellists to complete the slogan “Welcome to Tower Hamlets – Let’s make it…”, Alan Davies answered (to thunderous laughter): “…out alive.” However, things have changed quite a bit since then – there has been a lot of gentrification.

I had a proper East-End upbringing in an all-girls school that had a reputation for being a ‘bad ‘ school. My experience of this school was largely very positive – I did well there and I learned a lot from learning alongside and being friends with girls with a wide range of ethnicities – the student majority was Bangladeshi but it was generally very mixed.

About five girls from my year group including myself made it to university – I wasn’t friends with any of them though so I felt completely alone when I packed my bags and made my way to my new adventure. I knew how people from outside of the east-End lived because I had a part time job in a shoe shop on Oxford Street in which I made friends with a wide range of people from all walks of life – but it was only when I arrived in Cambridge that I realised how differently people behave in communities that are largely white and also privileged.

After living in Cambridge for university I then spent a year in Plymouth living with my boyfriend at the time who was at Uni there. In both Cambridge and Plymouth the unacknowledged casual racism in daily conversation continued to surprise me and this was largely the reason I decided to move back to London. As I packed my desk, my boss asked why I would return to a place with all those “dark people.” By then, though, I was not surprised.

In one of my previous jobs, I worked for a government department in which most of the people around the leadership table were white. And when I asked for diversity data in relation to this workforce, no one understood how they could have any relevance or add value to our work even though this department was responsible for equality and inclusion outcomes in east London boroughs. Luckily, I was in a position to shape change and set ethnicity targets for delivery partners who were working with this department and because the programme of work I led was so successful I later went on to influence large funding bodies who also started to gather ethnicity data and set goals.

For a time, I worked with a large US-based employer in I&D. When George Floyd was murdered, some of my Black colleagues reached out to me to say they’d faced silence from white co-workers, some shared that they were suffering emotionally and crying between meeting after meeting in which nobody mentioned George Floyd or the Black Lives Matter movement that was all over the press globally. On one occasion we held a virtual event in which we discussed the lived experiences of employees who had experienced racism and three colleagues, shared that they had been forced out of their cars at gunpoint by police, after having been stopped probably for no other reason than being Black and driving an expensive car.

It is often difficult and usually exhausting to be one of the people trying to change the status quo, but the work has to be done (not for ourselves, for everyone). The atrocity of George Floyd’s murder pushed racial equality action plans into high gear (how effective some of this activity will really be remains to be seen), raising up the corporate agenda to a position alongside gender equality. Yet still people ask if we really have a race problem.

The truth is that we live in a world of huge inequality and endless unheard stories. I have seen that truth from both sides, through the totality of my experiences, from Tower Hamlets to the towers of the City. All of it has helped me to understand my own privilege, and my power to influence others. It is the power of white privilege, a power my non-white colleagues do not have. Now I work to teach other white people that they have it too, and that they can use it day-to-day to turn the tide.

We were discussing cafeteria menus today. One colleague raised an employee request for Halal on the menu. A second declared that only about four people would want it. I was pleased when a third white colleague pushed back by pointing out that the objection was not relevant, that Halal is perfectly affordable, and that in any case, anyone who chooses to can enjoy Halal chicken. After a lifetime of unheard conversations, I felt the tide turn just a little.