‘In this world, you have to try twice as hard as everyone else.’

Illustration by Ettie Webb Illustration

Kofo’s work experience at a bank was meant to make her feel included – but it did the opposite

Every first-generation teen has a memory about the time their parents tried to teach them the hard truths about this world. Like me, you were probably sat down on the bed or tucked into your corner of the couch. Facing you with one of many direct and piercing stares you know all too well, your parent says to you, ‘in this world, you have to try twice as hard as everyone else.’ This won’t be the last time that you hear this first-generation immigrant proverb. Every test you take and every application you send is met with the same words – maybe not said in the exact same way, but the mantra remains, nonetheless.

Facing you with one of many direct and piercing stares you know all too well, your parent says to you, ‘in this world, you have to try twice as hard as everyone else.’

When I first heard the phrase, I was a bit confused as to what it meant. But I knew that this was my parents’ way of trying to prepare me for what was to come. They were trying to warn me that the world was a strange and confusing web of privilege and power, and that as a young black woman I had no choice but to try and navigate this space as best I can, making use of whatever blessings I manage to get, and attempting to ignore any disadvantages I could waste my time trying to change.

Positive action schemes are supposedly meant to be the way that firms and companies try to rectify this burden that many underrepresented groups face. Almost every type of career has one in some form or another: banks, firms, publishing houses, you name it. Each one will come to you with the same spiel as the last, running rife with all the BAME buzzwords they can piece together in the hope that they can reassure us that we will no longer be subject to the façade of meritocracy that shackled generations before us. They reassure us that they get it, that privilege exists, and it’s tough out there when you don’t see yourself represented in the field that you are so passionate about, and so they’ve made it their duty to do something about it.

Positive action schemes can take many forms, such as having a quota of jobs reserved for protected groups or providing mentoring schemes for marginalised groups. You can’t blame young naïve and hopeful me for believing that these really meant anything. We all are told that diversity of thought in a workplace is not only beneficial but essential. We have our heads filled with reverence for positive action schemes and their ability to level the uneven playing field for the less privileged.

Positive action schemes still have a long way to go if they truly want to alleviate some of the systemic societal issues that marginalised groups face. Patting yourself on the back for hiring three or four underrepresented people does not actually do anything to dismantle systemic discrimination.

The sad truth is, though, that positive action schemes still have a long way to go if they truly want to alleviate some of the systemic societal issues that marginalised groups face. Patting yourself on the back for hiring three or four underrepresented people does not actually do anything for creating safe spaces or dismantling systemic discrimination. As I’ve started to engage more with conversations surrounding privilege and words like ‘intersectionality’ and ‘institutional racism’ have become part of my vocabulary, it’s become more evident to me that teenage memories of sitting down with my father were no more impractical than many positive action schemes at interrogating issues associated to privilege.

As a black person, we hear all the horror stories. Collective experiences of ignorance and microaggressions flood online conversations about the workplace. And, even though sometimes we can come together and laugh in spite of these shared experiences, it doesn’t excuse the fact that our status as an underrepresented group isn’t actually improved by these schemes that should give us access to equal opportunities. Privilege is not just the thing that gets you through the door. Not everyone gets the privilege of feeling completely comfortable and welcome at work. My first ever work experience in an international bank taught me this all too well.

When I was 17 years old, I secured a place onto a two-day taster experience day at an international bank. Stepping through the glass doors and out of the bustling London street, I already felt intimidated by the space. Surrounded by all the suits and heels and thinking of my brogues and borrowed pencil skirt, the feeling that I was in over my head started creeping in. And, as much as I would love to tell you a story about how this didn’t really matter and that as soon as the sessions began, that I was in my element or became ‘one of the boys,’ this isn’t one of those stories. As you would expect, stepping into the main conference room, I found myself starring at an office of white male faces. A few people of colour were dotted here and there, and I saw maybe one other girl, but I was the only black girl. It was almost astonishing to see how well some people just fit perfectly in that office. All at once, it was like they were part of the furniture. I, however, felt a bit more like an orange beanbag chair where a leather sofa should’ve been. It didn’t help that every two or three people seemed to know each other. A couple of familial nods and hugs showed they had the comfort of knowing that they were amongst friends.

It was almost astonishing to see how well some people just fit perfectly in that office. All at once, it was like they were part of the furniture. I, however, felt a bit more like an orange beanbag chair where a leather sofa should’ve been.

Almost every positive action scheme claims that there is a benefit in having people with a diverse range of skills and backgrounds working together. Even in the introductory presentation, the welcoming executives tried their best to paint a picture of a harmonious, complementary work environment. It didn’t take long to know that my peers did not feel the same. We were asked to introduce ourselves, one at a time, and tell the group what we studied. As expected for a bank, most people said things like Maths, Physics and Economics. As someone mainly studying arts subjects, this didn’t bode well. My response of Drama, English, History and Economics were met with shocked looks and even some muffled sniggers. Try as the welcoming team might, there was no convincing that lot that I had any real reason to be in that room. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like someone squared up to me, yelling, ‘you don’t belong here.’ But they never really have to. That’s the British way: they size you up with glances and by saying not much but just enough to let you know you’re out of place. That is the incessant, covert nature of British discrimination that positive action schemes do not take steps to rectify. It lets businesses and firms tick some diversity boxes without putting in the work to tackle microaggressions.

In the group tasks for the day, I really tried hard to be an asset. In tasks where it felt impossible to put myself forward for the leadership roles, I made sure that I volunteer for other things. I coordinated discussions and kept people on task while the ballooning testosterone in the room got to the heads of some of my peers. By stepping back from the leadership roles I wanted I was able to shine that day and even get the praise of some of the executives watching for bringing a new set of skills to the group.

At that moment, I felt as though I’d really achieved some approval from the other candidates around me. And now, looking back I realise how ridiculous that truly is. That somehow, I needed to prove anything to these people that were meant to be my peers. I felt proud that I hadn’t been ‘caught out’ when I was always meant to feel like I belonged. As the day was winding down, I felt exhausted by the need to blend into a space that was meant to draw out my best qualities. Is this what diversity is intended to feel like in the corporate world? Just as I thought I had survived the day, things only seemed to become more hostile.

At that moment, I felt as though I’d really achieved some approval from the other candidates around me. And now, looking back I realise how ridiculous that truly is. That somehow, I needed to prove anything to these people that were meant to be my peers.

For the final session of the day, we were brought into a room where a new colleague was there to talk to us explicitly about diversity within the workplace. He was a tall South Asian man. I wondered how intentional the choice of him giving this speech was. After all, he was the only person of colour that had given a presentation all day. I wondered how many people of colour he saw daily. I wondered how often he had to give the same speech to a sea of white faces. Did he even really care? I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to embody the ‘diversity’ of a company. Was that the life I would be accepting if I chose to stay at this bank?

He spoke at length about all the ‘great work’ the firm did to be an inclusive space, like how they had a regular float at Pride every year. Most of the conversation was falling on deaf ears. It was clear that diversity wasn’t concerning to this group of mostly young, able-bodied white men. That is, until our presenter mentioned the methods they used to ensure a diverse workplace. In this particular bank they claimed that in theory, if they had two candidates of equal qualifications and ability with one from an underrepresented background and one was a white man, they would pick the underrepresented person.

With this, our presenter now had the full attention of his audience. Furrowed brows and whispers made it abundantly clear that they weren’t happy. “It seems unfair to deny people a job for things they cannot help,” one person called from the back. Not everyone said something outright, but their expressions spoke for them. The presence of about three people of colour had become something worthy of scrutiny. After spending a whole day proving my worth in this space, my peers believed that this was something they now had the right to question. Even in that room where the ratio of white people to POC was 10 to 1, the lack of understanding of their privilege meant that my presence was a sign of political correctness to the detriment of themselves.

Even in that room where the ratio of white people to POC was 10 to 1, the lack of understanding of their privilege meant that my presence was a sign of political correctness to the detriment of themselves.

How can this type of scheme, intended to diversify workspaces, be that valuable in a society that still cannot come to grips with the nuances of privilege? To this room of white men, people of colour presented a threat to their more than likely really comfortable positions in places of power. Maybe on the tube ride home they discussed it amongst themselves and criticised such an unfair system that made them feel unwanted.

Perhaps this was the final nail in the coffin that convinced me that positive action schemes aren’t quite there yet. The whole process is dependent on how society acknowledges and utilises difference. In most spaces, it seems as though they still don’t.

Rife Magazine is part of Creative Workforce for the Future, a new programme by the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) and the European Social Fund (ESF) which enables talented young people to gain the experience required to sustain creative careers. It’s a positive action scheme that promotes work by those currently underrepresented within the creative industries in the region. Find out more about Creative Workforce for the Future here.

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