August 2013– “Which one of us do you think they’ll give the job to?” The question caught me off guard. It was 8PM and I was on the trading floor midway through my summer internship. Most of the floor was empty apart from a few quants still furiously coding and cleaners changing bins for the next day. Some interns were still floating around as well, despite the warm glow of August sun outside. Interns chewing pens figuring out math problems, squinting at screens finishing presentations; interns committing trade ideas to memory, mouthing silently with their eyes closed. I was sat at my desk, legs perched on the table catching up with the only other black intern on the programme. I looked up at him as he stood with his arms crossed. “What do you mean, which one of us?” I asked. “C’mon bro” he responded, “you know there’s only so many of us they can accept on to these graduate schemes”, he stated, pointing up toward his face and then mine. His tone was blunt, as if stating a certainty. I shrugged, “I ain’t even looking at it like that fam, I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t give us both jobs.” “How do you even know that?” He asked. “How do you?” I retorted. “You don’t think there’s a limit for how many bruddas they take on?” a tone of helplessness creeping into his voice. “I have nothing in common with these guys! Some girl asked me today where my favourite place to go skiing is, black people don’t ski bruv!” he spurted incredulously. I laughed, but knew exactly what he meant. Just the previous week at one of the programme dinners, I was wondering why I had so many different sized knives and forks. I was as close to embarrassing myself as I was to striding out and buying myself a KFC bucket. “Minor though man” I reassured him anyway. “That’s got nothing to do with how good you are at the job. They could accept both of us based on just that”. “Yh but do I even want it bro? Like a job here?” He answered. “I can’t even be myself. They don’t want guys like us here, how many black people do you see around? Do you even see any black managing directors on this floor? I gotta rethink this whole thing for real” …
Today- I get asked by friends and colleagues for my opinion on why minorities aren’t more readily accepted into banking. Why there aren’t more black and brown CEO’s, managing directors and heads of business. Why haven’t we had a Prime Minister from a minority background, will we ever get one? I’m sure the Poor Lawyer, Poor Editor and the Poor Politician get asked the same questions. The short answer is simple. The fabric of society has white privilege so tightly woven into it, we’d need to unravel the whole tapestry before we realise we left all the other colours in the sewing box. Some of you rolled your eyes at that statement. Don’t lie I saw you. “Pulling the racism card PB, in 2019? Give me a break! Not everyone’s a racist, why do you keep bringing that up!?” Trust me, I hear you. Some non-coloured folk must wonder what the fuss is all about. Black Lives Matter, The Rooney Rule, “positive discrimination”, they must all make some decent, law abiding non-coloured folk think “wtf, so where does this leave me? I’m not a racist, don’t I deserve to go far?” Of course you do, but not at the systemic disadvantage of the rest of society. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an “us vs them” rant, you won’t find me marching up and down Piccadilly denouncing all white people as the devil, but it’s something that still needs addressing unfortunately.
Now for the slightly longer answer to the above question. There’s a great book called Staying Power by Peter Fryer which outlines the history of black people in the UK. In it, he explains the subtle differences between racial prejudice and racism. Racial prejudice is your everyday fringe bigot. You know the one, the drunk hurling racist abuse at a bouncer after not being let into a club. The lady on the bus laying into a woman wearing a headscarf, telling her to go back to her own country etc. Fryer describes racial prejudice as relatively scrappy and self-contradictory, transmitted largely by word of mouth (including keyboard ninjas on social media). Their behaviour is fostered by a culture of ignorance, fear and a need to rationalise cultural and physical differences. Racism, on the other hand, is systematic and acquires a pseudo-scientific rhetoric that glosses over its deeply flawed logic. It’s far more insidious than racial prejudice and has shaped many of the systems in place today. As Fryer aptly puts: “The primary functions of racial prejudice are cultural and psychological. The primary functions of racism are economic and political.” Racism, is far more destructive than racial prejudice and is the reason we’re at this juncture today. It was ultimately the means to justify the slave trade all those years ago. The opportunity to fuel Britain’s new found love of sugar and other foreign consumables was too lucrative to pass up. It was justified by a narrative that insisted: “blacks in every mental and moral way were inferior to whites”, a rhetoric which carried long lasting implications for the prospects of minorities. Now we’ve come a long way from slavery in the UK and there’s no way such rhetoric would be tolerated today, but the legacy of institutional racism still very much exists. Just ask The Poor Lawyer, Poor Editor and The Poor Politician again. Black and ethnic minorities aren’t prominent members in these industries because we’re subject to barriers in social and career progression that were forged centuries ago. Don’t get me wrong, minorities are a part of these industries, it’s probably never been easier to find a job and having a differentiated background can often be a plus to get in. However, these can often feel quota driven, be in a limited capacity and typically come with less room for progression versus their peers. Until these industries start broadening not just their palette in the search for talent, but for more diverse and non-traditional backgrounds in general, they’ll remain exactly as they are.
As much as these social constructs’ exist, we as minorities however, need to try and push past what we sub-consciously feel is “good enough” for us. For example, remember my fellow black intern at the top of the article? He unfortunately didn’t get a job at the end of the internship. Not because he wasn’t capable, in fact, in terms of raw ability, he was sharper than a lot of us on the programme. It was the inherent feeling he didn’t deserve to be at the bank, despite the fact that he was desperate for a job that would’ve changed his life. This was self-evident in his performance and ultimately cost him the offer. Make no mistake though, just because I got the job, I’m not devoid of this feeling. I still have instances where I laugh at the gap in lifestyle between myself and peers I joined the graduate programme with, sometimes I do feel like an imposter. It’s a feeling I see a lot of young people from working class backgrounds struggle with. However, for the most part, I don’t feel this way. I feel proud in having gotten where I am based on merit and being just as good as anyone else. On the internship much of my confidence came from the fact that I had gone well beyond what I know my peers had done in terms of preparation. In general though, whilst the arrogance and thick skin I acquired through growing up on a council block has helped, most of my drive comes from the pure hunger to change my situation in life and change the status quo. I often try to communicate this to people who I speak to on the topic. Regardless of background, anyone can show a desire to win and that variety of background is in fact a powerful gift.
To wrap up here its important to note: the allure of high profile jobs in the corporate, political and business arenas are far less appealing as of late. Young people are much more likely to pursue jobs and careers that more accurately reflect their changing priorities in life. However, diversity has now been highlighted by corporates as not only important for social clout but key in developing a competitive edge. It’ll take a long time to undo centuries of damage, but as these trends start to become more widespread and natural, it’ll only be a matter of time before the environment and attitude at these corporates become one which is far more inclusive, lest they risk social and competitive irrelevance.
The Poor Banker