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Diminish Fear of Blackness in Financial Services!

It is OK to be black and professional and not take a back seat. I'm sharing some of my reflections during Black History Month, my observations and the experience last year that nearly put me in my box in the Financial Services Industry Inspired by the words and actions of Rosa Parks; I've made up my mind to diminish the fear of blackness in Financial Services!

"I've learnt over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear"– Rosa Parks.

Late last year for National Poetry Day I wrote a poem 'If I Had A Voice'. It did the rounds, and provoked thought, but did it penetrate and produce the change I long to see? I'm not quite sure, but I do know that change is a process that starts with awareness, and acknowledgement and then progresses to action.

Roll on 12 months; it's Black History Month, I question, like so many, why the learning is limited to one month?

I can remember being in school and being super happy that I could share the heroes and heroines, my parents had taught me about at home. Rosa Parks inspired me from a young age, and now as an adult, I understand her relentlessness to not 'move' and take a back seat.

This year there has been much conversation around, how we can better serve and protect, the diversity of the nation and in particular Black people following the killing of George Floyd.

At the time of writing the poem, I was questioning the lack of representation in Financial Services. Mainly in the lack of literature used to promote the services. Why am I not seeing families that look like mine, or businessmen and women that look like me?

The reality is I have spent a lifetime asking, this very question.

To think I was given a black Barbie doll at the age of six and still have it today because it was and still is a rare thing to have and hold. Roll on 30 years, I wanted to purchase a (black) baby Annabel for my niece and was shocked to discover it to be a task. Only to find that a Google search for 'black dolls' proved not to be a good one.

Voodoo dolls or 'Golliwog' dolls, I laughed, but it was not funny. I soon realised I needed to search for 'Ethnic dolls'.

After much persistence, I managed to locate one three miles away and reserved it for collection. Bemused, surely the toy industry has by now realised that Black children, play?

If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. – Mayo Angelou

I digress, back to the Financial Services (FS) the place I chose as my professional home. I made up my mind to be the change, to stop hiding, living in the shadows, and trying to fit into a whitewashed industry; and be ME!

I realised I had the upper hand. I know and understand the culture of the people in my community. I love my industry, and I have many years of experience, along with valuable knowledge to share.

I accepted I could be authentically black and professional. You may question why this was a thought and a process I needed to embark on, but the one who feels it knows it!

I will add that I am finally happy to belong to a company and network that allows and promotes authenticity—winners of Diversity Awards for women. I await the reflection of colour on the board, but one step at a time.

With the pain of this year, from the pandemic, family bereavements and the conversations around race; I had become tired and pained.

Pushed almost to a place of silence, but I made a point of calling other black professionals to check they were ok; that they felt safe in their own space, to offer encouragement, and to exchange coping strategies also, I realise check my feelings were not isolated or misplaced.

During this time, it dawned on me; that I have, time and time again, put my professional and personal neck on the line. I've called out micro-aggressions, questioned ignorance and gained a place at the table, even if offered reluctantly.

Just after writing the poem and making this decision, I was almost put in my box and diminished to 'know my place'. One incident that left me wanting to give up late last year and has left a bad taste in my mouth.

There have been many reports on the adverse effects of a lack of females at FS conferences; I more notice the lack of black females in these settings but (wrongly) accepted that it is just the way it is.

I have never let that stop me, and I find most workshops valuable to my development.

Except for this one, I attended a two-day refresher, that I thought would enhance my offering. On the first evening, I was the subject of banter, and sexual and racial comments and later money was on the table, to sleep with a senior white professional, probably 15 years my elder, who said he could get me to the top.

Remarks and a text message sent to me with the mention of him' liking chocolate'. As a fellow delegate at a workshop for professionals, I neither sought nor appreciated any form of sexual attention from this individual. I did well to hold my decorum.

I think it is the first time I have felt so vulnerable both as a woman and as a 'black' woman in financial services.

I could not let this pass as 'one of those things', and I made a formal complaint and pulled up the courage to write to this man, with an explanation of how he had made me feel and the seriousness of his sexual and racial harassment. I thought an apology or acknowledgement would have sufficed.

Did it make a difference? Unfortunately not. He is still out there with his self-righteous, pompous self, representing the FS industry.

I am sure many more have experienced these things and said nothing for fear of reprieve.

Historically, the humiliations of black people, especially women, go down in (my) history as a scar. 'Ignored', just like him.

No apology, no remorse, and no reparations for the actions. And unspoken. I tell this story as I am sure this happens not in isolation; it has no place in this industry or any part of life.

It stems from the fear of 'difference' and that I am dedicated to diminishing.

As, Mena Fombo said in her TED Talk;

"If the motivations are truly different, we need to let our actions be that change."

I guess this reflection forms a professional call for action, on those working in the FS industry to understand and do better.

In and out of your advice, we play a valuable role in the lives of the community, let the ethical conduct and behaviours we pride ourselves on shine beyond the service.

Progressively, I see the works have started, and the hope for equality and justice continues.

I can not change the past, or single-handedly change the actions or ignorance of a minority. Still, I can choose to change my attitude, and my outlook and continue to impact the financial services industry I serve positively. To remove the fear of blackness in those, we work with and serve.

I, Aleka Gutzmore, have made up my mind, not to take a back seat this month or next.

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