Is referring to race at work dangerous for career progression? How can black people and others feel open to express their whole selves at work? And what needs to happen for more black professionals to progress to become successful leaders?

These are just some of the issues discussed earlier this month at an intimate event hosted by Duke Corporate Education to celebrate Black History Month attended by our Finance Consultant, Carolyn Beckford-Balogun. The event saw Dr Barbara Banda, author of The Model Black, take to the stage to discuss her analysis of the hidden success stories of black British leaders in organisations.

She talked about her personal experiences as a successful black leader and discussed findings from her interviews with 30 black British leaders who shared how they have successfully navigated issues of race in a variety of professional settings.  

One leader who she interviewed said, “I can provide some guidance on what needs to change, but the power to change it sits with our white communities, it’s about them seeing whiteness differently. That’s the biggest message I think they need to hear – the solution actually sits with them. We can advise, but they need to do the work. And until that starts to happen, nothing will change.”

The book, which was listed as one of the Financial Times’ top business books to read, is a practical guide. It provides white leaders and organisations with the insights, understanding and vocabulary to have better conversations with black colleagues (and all minorities) to help develop more inclusive workplaces. 

Barbara says: “I learnt very early in my career that referring to my race at work was dangerous for career progression. I could be black if I adopted the kind of black identity that others felt comfortable around. The book challenges leaders to reject this stereotypical black employee (The Model Black) and encourage black people and others to be open and bring their genuine selves to work.” 

During the open and honest discussion John Higgins, a white researcher and author, who was interviewing Barbara asked her how she felt being interviewed by him. “There are lots actually lots of dynamics,” she said. “You’re the audience – in many ways you represent the challenge and the solution to this, because you’re the challenge in the sense that you’re the people that we want to engage in this kind of material and in this kind of conversation, and you also have the solution.”

Barbara explained how it felt as though she was peeling away bits of herself, and almost exposing bits of herself to him that she wouldn’t normally want to expose to a white leader. Why would she want to talk to him about her race?

John, who was interviewing Barbara, said he was hit by the way she talked about ‘peeling away bits of herself’. He explained how he had goosebumps as he listened to her and felt really uncomfortable.

Barbara’s book is designed to help people, like John, who want to understand what being more inclusive at work means. It is intended for those people who are saying “I don’t know where to start,” “I don’t know what to do” and “I don’t know what to say” when understanding and talking about race at work.

It is essential reading for business leaders in the private, public and third sector, human resources professionals, students, anyone teaching or mentoring black students or leaders and everyone interested in understanding race and furthering inclusion in the workplace. You can find out more about the book here or Routledge. You can also now access the recording of the event here

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