17 October 2022
By Kameka McLean, Group Head of HR
I was born in Jamaica and migrated to the UK when I was 16 years old. Black History Month is a time to celebrate the wonderful achievements of inspiring figures, and what they have accomplished. Without the likes of Martin Luther King Jr, Marcus Garvey, Samuel Sharpe, and Nanny of the Maroons, among others, walls and barriers would not have been broken down.
This year, Black History Month’s theme is “Sharing your journey”. I have always shared mine, whether through volunteering, supporting vulnerable members of society, mentoring or public speaking - I feel the obligation to do something, no matter how small it seems. As you can imagine, it is indeed an uncomfortable topic for some, but how will we ever break those barriers and come together if we do not understand and acknowledge the challenges? What this also means to me, is that I can celebrate my culture, be proud of who I am, focus on the positives, and look towards a better future.
Jamaica is a former British colony. Unfortunately, because of the slave trades, most people in the Caribbean are unaware of where they come from. A lot of us have had to change our names to those of plantation owners, which means that we have lost our identity, culture and origin, and have had to build these from scratch with no definitive records. Having said that, I am aware of some of my ancestors; my great-great grandmother was a White British who married a Maroons tribesman and was disowned by her family for marrying a Black man. He was also rejected by his tribes for marrying a Caucasian woman so they had to set off on their own to create a new life. The story is very prominent in our family history as this was viewed as a serious crime. Jamaican Maroons descend from Africans who freed themselves from slavery in the Colony of Jamaica and established communities of free Black people in the island's mountainous interior; they do not believe in mixing race relationships. I am proud of my history as it makes me who I am today. My family is a concoction of beauty: dark, light, and mixed race colours, all blending together harmoniously.
To me, Black History Month is a representation of our identity. It provides an opportunity for myself and others to discover, celebrate and understand the influence that our ethnicity has had on culture and society in general, both in the past and present. Black men and women have contributed to the evolution of society as a whole, and have created innovative solutions that we take for granted in today’s world such as Garret Morgan who invented an early version of the gas mask and traffic light, Madam C J Walker, the first Black woman millionaire in America, and Alexander Miles who designed the first elevator that was able to open and close its own doors. Moreover, let us recognise the Black leaders among us who influence and ignite us. Take for example the work of Marcus Rashford, Lewis Hamilton, Jessica Ennis (to name a few) who have made a significant impact, and have contributed to the success of today’s society. Black leaders have played a significant role in helping advance our businesses as well as the political and cultural landscape into what it is today.
A long history of discrimination and exploitation has, unfortunately (amongst other things), created a racial gap when it comes to employment opportunities, income parity, and career prospects. Finding a solution to these problems is not easy, but first and foremost, I think it all starts with every member of society understanding our history, supporting, and uplifting each other, and breaking the narrative and societal stereotypes. As an HR professional, and speaking from an organisational perspective, it is important that diversity, equity and inclusion are part of our core values, and that we continually evaluate corporate practices and educate the workforce about unconscious bias and affirmative actions to truly close the gap and have fair representation across all groups. We, as employers, possess the right, and responsibility, to use affirmative action in recruiting groups that are underrepresented and building a workplace where they can thrive. Also, inventorying our talent and truly focusing on where gaps exist concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion; looking at the ethnicity pay gap, promotion ratio, hiring ratio and developmental ratio within an organisation, and where there are areas of concern, remedying this by implementing the appropriate actions. Organisations need to be held accountable and start asking the right questions – how can we support growth, attract and develop individuals?
Being a Black woman during this time has taught me that it is incumbent on me to continue to learn more about who I am. Within my identity is my family and their history and despite the oppression, Black people and their families have had to face, we have been a people that have consistently overcome and risen to greater heights.
This October, we can reflect upon the achievements that we have made throughout history, while simultaneously hope for further change. We have endured a long history of slavery, segregation, racism, and police brutality, and although we have come a long way there is still a lot more that needs to be done for there to be true equality. Unfortunately, we still live in a society that perpetuates stereotypes and depicts Black members of society as aggressive, uneducated and where success is often determined by one’s skin colour. Education is our way forward so let us embrace our diversity as a source of strength and work together to inspire little Black boys and girls, and let them know that, they too, can envision a future of their making. I believe nothing is impossible, it simply means “I'm possible”. We all have the power to affect change and our true power lies in our uniqueness. I hope that in the future, we can all get rid of unconscious biases and do our part in enabling true diversity and inclusion - not just in the Black communities, but for all the individuals that fall within the protected characteristics of the Equality Act.
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