Last year, I wore a Black Lives Matter shirt on stage at a financial services conference. Among the audience feedback about my presentation were comments that my shirt made people uncomfortable. A shirt - one that asserts the basic humanity of Black folks- made people uncomfortable.
Financial services has a racism problem.
Just this week we’ve seen two high profile stories of overt racism by financial professionals. On Monday, Amy Cooper, a portfolio manager for Franklin Templeton, was caught on video threatening to call the police on a Black man out walking in Central Park. On Wednesday, Tom Austin, a venture capitalist, threatened to call 911 to report black men working out in his building’s gym. And let’s be clear, calling the police on Black men can result in their death, as we saw in the high profile death of George Floyd this week.
The videos of Cooper’s and Austin’s racist behavior are unusual in that they are caught on video. But consider how their attitudes and biases affected their work. Their racism surely affected colleagues, clients, vendors, and business partners. In an organization as large as Franklin Templeton, Cooper’s attitudes could have negatively impacted dozens of careers.
Financial services has a racism problem.
This industry wide problem was created by and is perpetuated by white financial professionals. And white folks are the ones with the power to fix the problem. It’s on us. So what can we do?
Below is an article that I wrote for Financial Planning. It originally appeared on March 31, 2020 and while it is written with an advisor audience in mind, my thoughts extend to the entire industry.
White Advisors Need to Talk About Race
White advisors need to talk about race.
When I say this to white advisors, they almost invariably ask: Why just white advisors?
Because, I say, based on my discussions with people of color in the industry, they are already accustomed to discussing race and ethnicity. They know this topic on an intimate level because it has almost certainly impacted their careers and personal lives.
Everyone in financial services should be working toward an industry in which every professional feels they belong; it is a moral imperative. But for the purposes of this column, let’s concentrate on the business reasons white advisors need to get better at talking about race.
Although white Americans currently make up approximately 60% of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, projections from the Brookings Institution show that by around 2045 the U.S. will be a majority-minority country, meaning white people will no longer make up the majority of the population. Already, “in 21 of the 25 biggest U.S. counties by population, nonwhite groups together make up more than half of residents,” according to Pew Research.
You may find it easier to stay silent, and not take on this taboo subject. But by not acknowledging race, or claiming to be colorblind, you ignore the lived experiences of people of color. When we do that, whiteness becomes the assumed “normal” and people of color are made to feel like the “other.”
To effectively serve clients of different races, being culturally knowledgeable about different attitudes toward money helps in relationship-building and constructive communication. Cultural attitudes about money aren’t always tied to race, but race often informs culture. Also remember that even if your primary client is white, that doesn’t mean their spouse or kids are as well.
If you want access to the industry’s full talent pool at a time when hiring and retaining top talent is crucial to growing a thriving business, it’s absolutely foolish to alienate 40% of the population, even if that alienation is unintentional.
Keep existing staff happy by learning about and acknowledging their personal and professional experiences. Open up deeper conversations about who they are outside of work. By learning how to talk about race (more on that later), and by creating an inclusive workplace, you can allow your staff to be more themselves at the office. Otherwise, you may inadvertently be expecting them to code switch to conform to the default of whiteness.
Realize that your good intent does not always translate to positive impact.
Centers of Influence
The ability to talk about race and an openness to understanding different cultures, especially those prevalent in your business community, will allow you to extend your business network and connect more deeply with centers of influence and with people who may refer business your way.
It’s not easy. It has taken me eight years of conscious work to be able to talk about race frankly, and the effort has led to a more fulfilling life and has opened more doors than I could have imagined.
You don’t have to know everything about a particular race or culture. You can learn by reading works by authors of color, or following experts and leaders on social media. But the most important first step to expanding your thinking is to listen. Keep in mind that everyone’s experience is individual. For example, one black person’s experience or opinions doesn’t represent all black people’s experience or opinions, so please don’t ask or expect colleagues from underrepresented backgrounds to give voice to entire communities of people who look like them. We wouldn’t assume that one white man’s opinion is representative of all white men’s opinions and we shouldn’t do that with people of color either.
If someone from an underrepresented group shares their experience with you, believe them. Don’t discount their experience because it is different from your own. As you continue to listen and learn, you’ll begin to see patterns emerging, and may realize your lived experience has been substantially different from that of your colleagues or clients of color. Not sure where to start listening? Try season one of the 2050 Trailblazers podcast, hosted by Rianka Dorsainvil, which addresses the lack of diversity in the financial planning profession via interviews with industry players. Or read, “So You Want To Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo.
Be curious but don’t pry
Enter conversations with a curious mind, but don’t pry or expect people of color to use their time to educate you. This is a fine line, and if you are worried about overstepping, be candid about your learning journey and invite those colleagues to give you feedback. If they give you feedback, don’t be defensive; just keep listening with an open mind. Realize that your good intent does not always translate to positive impact. If you find you’ve made mistakes, apologize for the negative impact you made.
It’s possible you’ll never be entirely comfortable talking about race. It still makes my heart race a little when I talk about it on stage. But it’s time to get used to being uncomfortable. For yourself, your business, your colleagues and your community.