Do better

Shakil Butt FCCA shares his personal experience of racism at school and professionally, and urges employers to step up and help create a fairer world

Shakil Butt FCCA is an HR and leadership professional.

Growing up in the UK in the 1980s I was always very conscious of racism. It was the norm in my school. Being one of a handful of Asians in my year in a white majority boys school was tough enough; being bad at cricket and football made matters all the worse.

The key lesson I took away was that I did not belong and was not good enough. Even my white ‘friends’ would be on that racist spectrum, joining in the name-calling and derogatory comments.

As a trainee accountant,  I realised that racism is not something you grow out of

As an Asian child, there was intense pressure on me and my siblings to do well in school. We were presented with the limited options of becoming professionals – doctors, accountants, lawyers or engineers – which translated into a narrow world view of the workplace. The only other option was to become a world-famous cricketer, which was never going to happen. The main driver for this pressure (other than financial security) was that these roles would garner respect in society, acceptance and opportunities.

Coming into the workplace as a trainee accountant, I realised that racism is not something you grow out of and I would have to put up with the ‘office banter’ in order to find some level of acceptance. Racism was less overt and manifested itself differently.

Did it impact on promotional opportunities, on my performance evaluations, on my reward and benefits? It’s difficult to know, but according to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) population is adversely impacted because of skin colour, affecting career progression and opportunities.

One generation later and a father of three, I realised that my messaging was not that different from my parents. I pushed my children to do their best so they could find their place in society, as good would not be good enough. I reinforced the following: that they needed to do better than their white counterparts because it was not a level playing field; that they had to get the grades to be noticed in the first instance; that job opportunities would not come easily and they would have to work harder to secure roles and progress; that they had to accept that it was going to be difficult and not to react; that they had to behave as role models for the whole community, and display dignity and restraint when facing provocation and abuse; and to not allow others to bring them down to their level. Ultimately, they had to ‘do better’.

I do not expect the world to change overnight following the tragic murder of George Floyd. So I will not stop asking my children to do better. They do not have to be doctors, accountants, lawyers or engineers. But I do want them to do well in whichever path they choose to follow.

I hold two professional qualifications (FCCA and FCIPD), have 30 years’ experience, mostly in leadership roles but I still have difficulty in the employment market. The world has not moved on that much despite the Equality Act being 10 years old.

My key message is to employers, line managers, recruiters and agents: do better, step up and use this time to reflect, to change, to be more inclusive, to support BAME talent, and to create a fairer world.