Marilyn Devonish had just ended a Zoom call with her new team when she got up from her desk to get a glass of water.

Working from home as an events manager, she was pleased with how the meeting had gone. As the project lead, Marilyn was excited about how friendly and welcoming everyone on her new team seemed. ‘I thought it had gone fantastically’, she remembers.

However, on her return to her desk, she was shocked to overhear a torrent of racial abuse from her colleagues who hadn’t realised the conference was still running while they huddled around the computer.

‘What they said can’t be published, but it included a lot of f’ing and blinding. They called me a “Black b****”,’ recalls Marilyn, 54.

‘It was: “What the *bleep* has she been brought in for? Why the hell do I have to report to a Black *bleep*.” I was so shocked. I thought “Wow”. Because they had been absolutely lovely to me during the meeting.’

After a few minutes, the stream was turned off and Marilyn, who lives in Watford, had to collect her thoughts and plan her next move.

‘I could have stepped in and spoken up. But that would have created extra tension,’ she says.

‘Many Black people know that growing up, you have to be even better. You have to work ten times as hard to get to the same place. So I decided that I would stay one step ahead.’

After that call, more than a decade ago now, Marilyn – who currently works as a neuro-success coach and corporate trainer – decided not to confront the situation, but instead kill her colleagues with kindness and do all she could to excel in her role. 

‘I had to work with them for at least a year – maybe two or three – and I just thought it would be easier from my perspective not to have to walk into that room every day and face all of those people who would then know exactly what I knew,’ she remembers.

‘That would make it very awkward for the whole team dynamic. So I thought, right, I would just rather get on with it and do my job, rather than then put all of that into the mix every day as well. 

‘I was disappointed with their reaction, but I just knew I was there to do a job and I didn’t have time for distractions. I had to put it to one side.’ 

But it was a tough time, as the team tried to bring her to her knees.

‘They would withhold information, leave me out of the loop, try and make me look like I didn’t know what I was doing in meetings,’ recalls Marilyn. ‘I did everything I could do to make the event fantastic, and I would stay a couple of steps ahead of the game, so they couldn’t publicly drop me in it. And, after a while, it backfired and they started to look a bit silly.’

Although Marilyn had proven herself, she never told her colleagues about what had happened.

‘To this day, none of them know that I heard that conversation. If they did, they would probably be mortified,’ she says.

‘Why didn’t I say something? Because I simply did not have the time to get distracted by the side issues, because if you took every little micro-aggression and allowed yourself to get upset by every single one you would go crazy and it would be too painful and too stressful.’ 

That’s not to say Marilyn doesn’t make her voice known when necessary. 

‘If you met me when I began my career as a coach and therapist, I probably would have let everything slide. Nowadays, I take it on a case-by-case basis,’ she explains. ‘There are times when I need to call people out. I will decide what I think it’s worth, bringing something out into the open.

‘Sometimes you have to keep something in your back pocket and park it, but if something is happening repeatedly, you need to call that out. And if I’ve educated someone and they still keep doing it, okay, we need to sit down and have a conversation.’ 

A report from the Trades Union Congress in August found that two in five Black and minority ethnic workers experience racism at work, from jokes and ‘banter’, to full-on bullying and harassment.

The study also found more than 120,000 workers have quit their jobs because of racism, while over a quarter said that they were made to feel uncomfortable at work due to people using stereotypes or commenting on their appearance. One in five revealed they had racist remarks directed at them or made in their presence.

If something is happening repeatedly, you need to call that out

Meanwhile, three quarters of women of colour expressed that they have experienced racism at work, according to the Broken Ladders report, published by the equality think tank the Runnymede Trust and the Fawcett Society.

Dr Halima Begum, CEO of the Runnymede trust says the TUC research ‘confirms what we know to be true, from school to the workplace there are structural barriers standing between our ethnic minority workforce and the opportunities they deserve.’

She calls for improvements to the way employees can report incidents, and ‘thorough responses from employers when these allegations are made’.

Last month, the Scottish government had to pay a ‘substantial settlement’ to a Black civil servant in landmark discrimination case, after an employment tribunal found she suffered racial discrimination, harassment and victimisation while working for Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. The incidents left her depressed and led her to resign. 

Meanwhile, also in September, a Somalian-born cleaner who was called a ‘golliwog’ and ‘cheeky monkey’ by a Nationwide Building Society colleague learned that he would receive a pay-out.

Jenna – whose name has been changed because she fears how speaking out could damage her career prospects – says she has experienced a lifetime of racism in the workplace.

Racism is everywhere. I’m so angry that we’ve had to put up with it for so long

Coming from rural Devon, an area that is largely white, Jenna says the prejudice she has seen has affected her mental health and her career.

‘I used to work for a small business and my boss was completely out of touch,’ she recalls. ‘She would say things like: “I’m not racist but…” before making an outrageously racist statement. 

‘If anyone stood outside the office doors who wasn’t white, she would make comments about them being terrorists. She would say it out loud: “Does he have a gun in his pocket? Is he carrying a bomb?” It was really nasty stuff.

‘I would sit there, thinking, “what on earth?!” I’m a mixed-heritage woman, and it made me really uncomfortable. I felt like I couldn’t do anything about it. She was my boss and I lived in an area where there weren’t many jobs in my chosen field, so I just had to keep my mouth shut, and put up with it.

‘In another case a colleague talked about a Black footballer being from “Africa playing the bongos”,’ adds Jenna. ‘I wanted to explain to him why that was wrong, but I didn’t feel safe enough to do so. I think it would have done more damage to me instead of influencing that person’s behaviour for the better.’

What to do if experience racism at work

Discrimination and inclusivity consultant Franstine Jones, director of Compliance at Aspire Black Suffolk, advises joining a Black staff association, which should include someone from the organisation’s senior leadership team.

Discrimination and inclusivity consultant Franstine Jones (Picture: John Ferguson)

She says: ‘For staff who think they are managed by someone they think is racist, they need to note down incidents, so they have an audit trail.

‘If a worker belongs to a union, they should try to be involved beyond their membership, for example join the committee. For those employed by small organisations without internal support groups, it is even more crucial that people are members of unions.

Use the membership to go on courses about employment rights so they can support themselves and cascade knowledge to others in the organisation. Workers can also find support externally via online forums, and other groups.’

For further advice about speaking out against racism in the workplace, click here.

Having endured so much bullying and racism throughout her career, Jenna says that she no longer trusts employers to look after her wellbeing. Now in her fifties, she has pursued a freelance career, as she feels it’s the only way she can progress work-wise.

‘I have experienced micro-aggressions all my life,’ she explains. ‘So many of them I couldn’t even count; “Where are you really from? Can I touch your hair?” Comments on my skin colour – “it’s like coffee, latte, cappuccino…”. All that nonsense. You get it everywhere, and because you spend so much time at work it can really impact your mental health. It’s oppressive.

‘It happens in all sectors; media, PR, charity, local authorities. Racism is everywhere. I’m so angry that we’ve had to put up with it for so long. Things need to change.’

Race Equality First, a Cardiff-based charity that provides Wales-wide discrimination and hate crime casework and advocacy services, sees an increase in racist bullying cases every year. So far, they have dealt with 271 racial discrimination cases this year and are supporting 12 employment tribunal cases.

One of them involves a young Muslim man who was subjected to Islamophobic verbal abuse by his line manager in their office, which referred to terrorism, bombs, pilgrimages and his attire. The charity is also supporting a woman who worked at a doctor’s surgery until she was forced to resign. The practice manager told her ‘she was not welcome here’ and that she should ‘go and work in an Asian doctor’s surgery’.

CEO Aliya Mohammed says of the organisation’s caseload: ‘These are not incidents; they’re racism that an individual regularly faces from work colleagues and most often it’s from managers or a director. This includes racist name calling, microaggressions, picking on them for minor things, or reprimanding them for something someone else has said or done. 

‘Often, we see a culture of institutional racism embedded in our workplaces, we see complete ignorance or denial that the racism even took place, and very rarely are these cases dealt with appropriately by employers.’

Discrimination can also hit before you even start the job. Khyati Sundaram is as qualified as you can be; she has a background in the City, two masters degrees and a CV that includes employers J.P. Morgan and RBS. But when she tried to find a new tech job in 2018, it took her more than eight months and over 100 application forms.

In that time she had only two interviews with agencies and didn’t even make it to employers. She was ghosted by recruiters who told her that she couldn’t do a management role, and that her CV – or, as Khyati believes, her ethnicity – didn’t ‘fit’. It was classic gender and ethnicity name-based bias, Khyati, 37, says.

The questions she was asked in those interviews suggested she wasn’t serious about the roles. Are you married? Do you want kids? What did you do on your good career break? (She didn’t have a ‘break’, she started a new company.) Where did you learn English?

Khyati, who was born in India, had been in the UK for more than a decade by this point. She says: ‘The questions make you feel really frustrated and that people are being condescending. There were queries about how long I would be in London, which I think was trying to probe about my stability and whether I would just run back to my country.

‘It was a difficult period. I was very distraught. At one point, I did want to go back to wherever I came from. Which was really difficult because I was emotional about London. Everything I have, London has given me. It’s my home and these questions and inferences made it feel like I didn’t belong here. It was hurtful and demoralising.’

‘If the name can’t be pronounced, the CV goes straight in the bin

Khyati did some research into hiring processes and uncovered studies that found if you don’t have a white-sounding name in a western country you have to send 70% to 80% more CVs before being hired. Studies from the US also found that people who do not have a non-white sounding name need to have five more years experience to get the same job, she says.

 ‘If the name can’t be pronounced, the CV goes straight in the bin,’ she says. ‘This is just preposterous in 2022.’

Eventually, Khyati was hired by Applied, an ethical recruitment platform, and within a year was promoted to CEO. She now helps companies like Unicef, Comic Relief and PepsiCo Penguin build fairer hiring processes.

Meanwhile Marilyn also continues to excel professionally, despite suffering years of discrimination. She says it’s her way of silencing the racists.

 ‘Challenge it and it’s easy to be given the “angry Black woman” label, or told it’s all in your mind,’ she explains. ‘I can’t speak for others, but when you’re Black, you tend to know what’s going on even when things are couched within a smile.

‘People sometimes don’t give you the time of day. You look at them and smile, and they walk straight past you. But all that nonsense gets in the way of your career.

‘Even when I am thought of as the help and given people’s coats and dirty coffee cups – despite the fact that I am wearing a designer suit – I just have to take a deep breath and wait until the moment when I am announced as keynote speaker or chair or lead trainer and I can see the looks on their faces.

‘I just have to be the best I can be,’ Marilyn adds. ‘My life would be significantly diminished if I kept track of every incident, so I have to pick my battles. Is it exhausting? Absolutely yes.  Do I allow it to continually exhaust me. No.

‘For many people, it can be incredibly draining. It’s like you have a metal jacket, or a shell, you have to drag around with you everywhere you go. It can be ridiculously overwhelming because you have to second guess yourself, you have to watch your step and you have to watch your back.

‘Nobody wants to live like that.’ 

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Black History Month

October marks Black History Month, which reflects on the achievements, cultures and contributions of Black people in the UK and across the globe, as well as educating others about the diverse history of those from African and Caribbean descent.

For more information about the events and celebrations that are taking place this year, visit the official Black History Month website.

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