For those that come after me

Samantha Ndebele

As Black History Month began, I looked at the year in reflection, on the past, the present, but mostly the future. This year my motto has been ‘For those that come after me’, it is about remembrance (of a history marked by tragedy), about celebration (for the progress that has been made) and it is a war cry (reminding me that there is still work to be done, for those that come after me).

As a Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) individual I have the pleasure and unique opportunity to convey ideas, thoughts and messages with my people at the forefront. Moreover, being a BAME individual I have the opportunity to disrupt the industry and challenge it to think more diversely. The lack of diversity in communications is striking.

According to the PRCA’s PR Census survey in 2016, 91% of jobs in public relations and communications are occupied by white individuals and 83% by a person of British descent. I don’t think this has changed much in 2020, while I am comforted by the direction of change that my company is currently travelling in (there are signs of a company actively looking to address diversity and inclusion head on), what is still evident is that I am currently one of two BAME individuals in my team. My experience in communications in general has largely been that I am usually one of the only people of colour in the room, whether this is at networking events, at work or training events. Because of a stark lack of diversity, challenges ensue. In as much as I want to be honest, authentic, innovative and disruptive, I often find myself mute in situations I find racially insensitive, because the truth is it’s hard to speak up when you’re the only person of colour in the room. BAME individuals will have heard the term code-switching, and because code-switching is unconsciously executed by many BAME individuals it is not well understood.

Linguists understand code-switching to be, “the process of shifting from one linguistic code to another (depending on the social context or conversational setting)”. Code-switching on the surface is a simple concept, it is about belonging. Code-switching is an exercise that humans have to partake in to maintain their different social identities. However, for ethnic minorities code-switching is more complex.

Ethnic minorities often have to navigate spaces that were not designed with them in mind, therefore to belong (and excel) often requires an adjustment to self (style of speech, mannerisms, and appearance) and this has been my experience working in communications. For minorities in professional environments, code-switching is about adjusting one’s sense of self in effort to comfort others in exchange for fair treatment and employment opportunities, primarily because ‘otherness’ is not synonymous with ‘professionalism’. While code-switching is a coping mechanism to preserve identity at home, while belonging at work; it can be detrimental for the well-being and the USP of the individual as a communicator. BAME individuals may have to downplay membership in their racial group, avoid presenting negative racial stereotypes, and fake similarity with co-workers.

Studies suggest that there are many psychological repercussions when it comes to code-switching. Firstly, avoiding racial stereotypes that can be perceived as negative is hard work, thus ethnic minorities focus on their work and the added strain of code-switching, hence having to work twice as hard as white counterparts to get half as far. This can lead to fatigue, frustration, low self-esteem, burnout as well as cognitive overload. Furthermore, feigning similarity with co-workers reduces authentic self-expression and can further contribute to burnout. It is in creating facades of conformity that individuals experience immense emotional exhaustion and stress. It is in creating facades of conformity in which we BAME individuals lose our authentic voices and the campaigns we create become shadows of true diversity.

I as a BAME communicator should be able to speak for black women, because I am a black woman. I am often plagued with anxieties that prevent me from presenting my most authentic self and prevent me from doing my best work. Because I have had to make myself more palatable I am less useful as a black communicator, as I often present ideas that feign diversity, because I know they will be received better. We need to create inclusive cultures and eradicate the need to code-switch so we can focus on creating more representative campaigns.

In conclusion, diverse and inclusive workforces are essential for the communications industry to gain an understanding of the needs of different audiences. Ideas resonate with people because the people creating the campaigns understand their experiences. London has seen the immigration of more BAME individuals since the last census – the communications industry must strive to mirror the society in which it attempts to influence. Truly diverse workforces are instrumental to creating bolder, more disruptive campaigns. In the industry’s hesitance to create more honest and disruptive campaigns, who are we protecting?