How does it feel to be a black woman in British society, today?
Following the awareness raised on existing systemic racism in Britain, there has been a shift by different organisations to create opportunities for black people to contribute to various aspects of life in British society.
I feel that I am now much better positioned than I was a few years back to contribute to the country and to inspire other generations to do the same. Nonetheless, I recognise that there are still systemic barriers to my ability to break the ‘glass ceiling’ as a woman and a black one at that.
Have you personally had any experiences of racism, both direct and systemic? How do these instances change you?
Yes, too many to count! I was invited to sit on a panel at major event in London. I guess the team organising the event saw my name and didn’t expect me to black. The look on their faces when I turned up was priceless. I guess looking young doesn’t help either!
This is just one of many instances (a mild one at that) that black people face every day. You enter a room and the mood changes. You tell people what you do, and they become extremely nervous! It is a very uncomfortable feeling. You always have to be on your guard. British society is very misogynistic so being a woman and being black makes it a very tough environment to navigate but we learn to live with it.
Were there barriers to being an academic, due to being a woman of colour?
I think I have been extremely lucky in my academic career. My PhD supervisors were extremely helpful. My first post as an academic was excellent as well. My colleagues in my discipline have been supportive although there are always some systemic institutional approaches/strategies which fall short of equity and diversity requirements. A major barrier that I feel exists in academia is non-black students often find it difficult to identify with black academics. I think this is fundamentally because they are socialised to think in a particular way. Hopefully, this will change in the near future, but I am not holding my breath.
What do you try to change for people of colour in your research, work and teaching?
I try to challenge my students of colour to see the world differently and to focus on becoming their best. My research is premised on laying bare state and business driven injustices brought upon and empowering the marginalised in society, hence it speaks directly to the racial equity agenda. I often do my best to support colleagues of colour to navigate the academic world in their institutions.
What did you feel during Black Lives Matter protests, did it make you feel empowered and that you wanted to fight for change?
The tragic death of one black person instigated a revolution and created awareness of issues we continue to battle every day, which was a step forward. I was and continue to be cautiously optimistic about its enduring impact.
What advice would you give to white people endeavouring to be an ally and change the situation for the better?
Give us a chance. Don’t stereotype. Many people of colour in Britain are migrants. They have not been cultured or socialised in the same way you have. Their reactions and behaviour will often be dictated by their cultural values which may be different to what you are used to. The fact that these cultural values differ from yours do not mean that they are undesirable. In the words of Max Ehrmann, ‘…listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant: they too have their story.’ Most importantly brighten the corner wherever you find yourself by supporting people of colour to be the best they can be for British society.
Dr Abby Efua Hilson is Senior Lecturer in Accounting at Kent Business School. Dr Hilson conducts research on the accounting implications of the environmental and social impacts of the oil and gas and mining industries in developing economies.