“Hello! I’m right here!!”
“Can you hear me?! Can you see me?!”
“I know you saw me yesterday because we were having coffee together but today I am invisible!”
I know too many professional Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people (BAME) who have screamed those words out loud at the radio and TV, or sometimes silently in their heads in work meetings.
Here is what normally prompts us to wonder if we are invisible:
Every couple of weeks there is a discussion around the glass ceiling that BAME people face in professional occupations – this discussion might be in the news or just at a management meeting. One week it might be around the fact that of the 18,510 university professors in the UK only 85 of them are black. The following week you might hear a discussion on how only 5% of QC’s come from non-white backgrounds and the figure drops to 3% when you look at high court judges. And then another week there will be a discussion around the fact that just 10 people from ethnic and cultural minorities hold the top posts of chairman, chief executive or finance director of the top FTSE 100 companies – that’s 10 out of a possible 289 (3.5%).
Finally yet another week people might discuss the fact that only a few years ago only two of the seventy-four senior managers in BBC News were BAME, and the figures have not improved massively.
The reason we feel invisible as BAME professionals is not because nearly all of us in one way or another have hit a glass ceiling but because the discussion is normally between white people as they discuss how; “They really want to solve this problem and would love to have more black people at senior levels”. At which point friends I’ve known are jumping up and down shouting; “What about me?” or “If you want to solve the problem promote me!”.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great African American novelist Ralph Ellison who wrote the “Invisible Man”. In that book his Black protagonists describes himself saying: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
I too have experienced my fair share of invisibility. I’ve been told I broke through one glass ceiling from producer to series producer due to a Black Production Manager “seeing me”. There was a staffing meeting where senior management were lamenting that they didn’t have anyone to series produce their next documentary series. The meeting was taking place in a glass panel office as I worked just the other side of it. It was the Production Manager who suggested my name, to which I am told, everyone said “of course – he’d be great”. The rest, as they say, is history. But up until that point, despite the fact I was sitting in their eye-line, I was invisible.
I believe this ‘invisibility’ has an incredibly damaging effect on Black professionals, not only to their career progressions but to their confidence and mental health.
Every time a member of senior management professes to really want to break down the glass ceiling and then fails to promote staff from the diverse backgrounds it is even worse than if they hadn’t said anything. They are sending out a message that the BAME people who are around, the BAME people that they know are just not good enough. Because the logic would be that if you really wanted to promote BAME staff you would simply do it, unless there was something wrong with the BAME staff in your organisation.
The contradiction between senior words and actions eats away at our confidence and eventually our wellbeing.
My experience however is that BAME staff are more than up to the task when we break through glass ceilings, but sometimes we literally are invisible.
Lastly in this 100th anniversary year I would highly recommend reading The Invisible Man. Its message is just as relevant today as when it was first published over sixty years ago.