Actuary To Actuary: Understanding Racism In the Workplace and How You Can Combat It

by Gloria Asare, ACAS, MAAA, Guest Contributor

Recent events including protests in response to the brutal killings of several unarmed Black people — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery to name a few — reignited passionate conversations around systemic racism in North America and across the world. We have had to revisit questions like: Does racism really still exist? To what extent? How is it systemic? And, what can we do about it?   

Even if you wanted to get away from the topic of race, the incident involving Amy Cooper calling the police on birdwatcher Chris Cooper (coincidental last name) in New York’s Central Park brought this right to our doorstep as actuaries. As an organization whose drive since 1992 has been to increase the number of Black actuaries and provide support to them  in overcoming racial barriers to be successful in the profession, the International Association of Black Actuaries (IABA) was primed to further our work with company executives to bring tangible long-term solutions to tackle the issue of racism in the actuarial profession. In fact, later this summer the IABA plans to release two crucial documents: (i) a list of recommendations for employers to increase and support diversity internally and (ii) a pledge for employers to combat racism in their workplaces.

But where do you personally fit into this grand picture? That is what I will share with you here. I plan to shed light on the realities of racism in the workplace, why it is important for each of us to address in some way and how we can do so reasonably and meaningfully.

However, it is important to first note that different Black people have different experiences. For instance, looking at the IABA, our members are truly international, coming from different parts of the world in addition to the U.S.. Some are the first in their family to suffer racial discrimination and prejudice in the U.S. or Canada, while others have experienced systemic racism for generations in their families before them. Thus, even though most, if not all, experience some form of racism, the particular experiences and histories differ for different Black actuaries resulting in different opinions on what action should be taken to eradicate racism. Thus, in writing this article, I intentionally draw not just from my personal experience in working in the U.S. and Canada, but primarily from my involvement with the IABA. As the Toronto Affiliate founder and co-Lead, I am grateful to have been a part of the conversations and work referenced above in addition to participating in conversations and events the IABA has fostered centered on racism in the workplace.      

Why should racism matter to you?

So why should the fact that some people experience racism matter to you? It is common industry knowledge today that companies that are more diverse and inclusive have better top- and bottom-line results.1 But, imagine the impact on personal productivity if you had to endure any of the following real-life examples from your fellow actuaries (these stories are shared with permission).

  • Are you a parent? Have you ever wondered, as I have repeatedly, at what point society will change from viewing your children as adorable and cute to viewing them as aggressive threats to be neutralized?
  • Have you ever considered that one of your team members of color may just unexpectedly not show up to work?
  • Nathan Ortiz, ACAS, is frequently stopped by the police for no apparent reason. He often has to prove that he is neither driving a stolen car nor has drugs in his car before the police begrudgingly let him go. Over time, one response he has developed to these incidents is, “Well this is an interesting reason to be late to work.”   
  • IABA member and Hartford Affiliate Co-Leader Rodrigue Djikeuchi was arrested in 2015 after a family dinner in town. To this day, he does not know why. He had had two flat tires and his insurance company was considerably delayed in assisting him. Hours later he called the police for help. Upon their arrival, they handcuffed him, took him to the local precinct, then transferred him to a country jail for the night. After speaking with the judge the next day, he was let go.
  • Think too of the grief of PWC employees who worked with Botham Jean, a 26-year-old accountant at the firm. Jean was fatally shot and killed while unarmed in his own apartment, when a police officer entered the apartment wrongly believing it to be her own.

This is just a small sample of outrageous cases that can have an impact on work outcomes. Some of your colleagues are constantly going through fearful, tormenting and, at times, life-threatening situations solely because of the color of their skin. We can often get so caught up in our work and daily routines that it can be hard to remember we are all human beings. We each have our families, relationships, aspirations, joys and sorrows that shape our individual worlds — even if we live in different neighborhoods. Having concern for our fellow human beings is vital and we must realize that not everyone experiences the same level of safety and security in the world. We may not be able to change all these things, but at a minimum, let us do our best to address that which is right in our midst.

Racism in the workplace

That brings us to racism in the workplace. Racism is brought to the forefront in extreme cases like recorded police brutality, but it is also prevalent in the office environment. In 2018, C+R Research, a market research firm based in Chicago shared the results of a study they had conducted on diversity and inclusion.2 One of many pertinent facts they shared is that “Discrimination in the [actuarial] field is real even if it is non-intentional.” The chart above also highlights the importance of listening to your minority colleagues and the challenges of spreading awareness. The study found that non-minorities were less than half as likely to acknowledge racism compared to minorities.

CAS Discrimination Survey Chart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what does racism in the workplace look like? Most times it’s not overt, where Black people are openly called the “n” word in the cafeteria or where the hiring manager tells HR to “not consider anyone Black” for the position. Kuda Chibanda, FCAS and member of the CAS Board of Directors, said it best during “Racism in the Actuarial Profession,” a session at the 2020 IABA Annual Meeting. She explained that most people think racism is all or nothing; either you’re a nice person who’s not at all racist or you are an evil person who is completely racist, akin to a Bernoulli distribution, which can only be discretely 0 or 1. But racist behaviors are actually more like a Gamma distribution as depicted below. There is a range of behaviors from the minor to the extreme, and it should be acknowledged that each person falls somewhere along that spectrum. You can be a very nice person and still perform lower severity racist acts (e.g., microaggressions).

Racist Behaviors Graph

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Psychologist and former Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum describes microaggressions as brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities. Examples include often being interrupted and talked over in meetings; making comments such as, “Wow, you speak so well” or “You don’t sound Black”; sighing loudly or yawning when a Black colleague begins a presentation; or not inviting your Black colleague to team socials. On their website, the University of California San Francisco’s Office of Diversity and Outreach defines unconscious biases as social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside of their own conscious awareness. Examples include mistaking a Black person you meet for the first time for an office assistant, when they are actually an actuary; and spending more time checking for errors in work submitted by a Black colleague; not considering when hiring the added challenges most Black people face in pursuing this career; showing low interest in resumes with names that “sound Black”; investing less time training a Black hire; and requiring extra demonstrations of aptitude from Black actuaries before promoting them.

Dr. Valerie Purdie-Greenaway, a psychology professor at Columbia University, spoke to these lower severity examples of racism in the session “George Floyd and beyond: What does real anti-racism look like in organizations and how to lead through change,” which was part of the 2020 IABA Annual Meeting. She also discussed the psychological cost to Black employees of working in such an environment. They are consistent with items LaFawn Davis, the VP for Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging at Indeed shared in episode 12 of Indeed’s online series “Here to Help.” When someone is constantly trying their best to do the right thing at work but ends up with adverse outcomes over and over again, they can feel a lack of belonging based on their identity as a Black person. Their daily motivation weakens, leading to undermined performance as creativity, morale, and engagement drop substantially, while the potential for other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression rises. These different acts of racism and the cost put on Black employees are significant contributors to the lack of representation of Black actuaries in our profession. While in the U.S. Black people make up around 13% of the population,3 approximately 1% of actuaries are Black. (In the future, the IABA will share the corresponding figures for Canada).

How to help

Many people learn all this and genuinely want to help, but don’t know how. They also fear saying the wrong thing or being implicated, especially since — as we saw earlier — you can be well meaning but still perform a racist act. The IABA wants to encourage you to not give up. Following is a list of solid options you can do to be an ally to your Black colleagues and make a positive difference. It only requires you to be intentional, vulnerable and open to learning.

Things To do

Acknowledge that racism exists. Acknowledging its existence is neither a personal attack nor a disregard for the challenges you have overcome to reach your level of success. It is about accepting that, due to structural systems embedded and normalized in society over generations, Black people continue to face several barriers that prevent them from attaining that same level of achievement even with the same level of effort. Reflecting on and accepting your unintentional role in this system is a necessary first step to address the issue. The next point suggests how to do this.

Educate yourself about racism. Doing research on your own first will accord you an informed base and thus more confidence in broaching the topic. Read a book centered on race. For instance:

  • How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Racism without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

   
Don’t have time to read a whole book? Watch TED talks online such as:

  • “Let’s Talk About Race” by Jennifer Chernega, TEDxTrondheim
  • “Let’s get to the root of racial injustice” by Megan Ming Francis, TEDxRainier
  • “The danger of a single story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Another resource we use all the time is Google. Perform basic searches such as “racism in America,” “the history of racism,” or even “racism today” and read further.

Make a conscious effort to be inclusive. Do not operate on presumptions about your colleagues. Instead, be friendly, open to connecting and get to know them.   

This can be as basic as scheduling a recurring lunch or intentionally talking to someone new you haven’t interacted with before even if you also converse with your usual circle. In conversations look for things you have in common with the person you’re speaking with.

Quickly research an area of interest pertaining to them. For instance, if you know your teammate is originally from out of the country or from out of state, either ask them about or Google their home region. Where is it located? What is the capital? What are some favored dishes? What are some popular sports? It takes minimal effort but creates a strong positive impression that aids in fostering feelings of belonging for them. Keep in mind that a lot of people who relocate move not because they dislike their home, but because they are looking for different career opportunities.

Seek everyone’s opinions when collaborating. Even in time-sensitive situations, make every effort to hear from each team member. Be patient with bilingual colleagues who may take more time to express their opinions in English.

If you see something, say something. When you witness a potentially racist act, speak up. If a colleague makes an inappropriate joke, even absent a Black person, do not laugh it off to avoid confrontation or tell yourself you’ll address it if it happens again. A rebuke as casual as, “Oh man, that’s not appropriate. It doesn’t consider…” will aid in the confrontation. Do not leave your Black team members to always be on their toes to keep people in check. If you find it tough to say something, imagine how much harder it is for your Black colleague. Liken acts of racism to those of sexual harassment. The focus is not if the intent was bad, but rather how it made the victim feel.

Request and support diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in your company. A truly inclusive environment is the best defense against racism in the workplace. Note that everyone — minorities and non-minorities — has their unconscious biases and needs training to overcome them.

Things NOT to do:

Do not talk to your Black colleague only when race events feature in the news. This just serves to put them on the spot and makes it even more obvious to them that they are the visible minority, which can overwhelm your Black colleague with expectations of having to talk about sensitive racial issues on behalf of the entire Black population.

Do not assume that your Black colleague wants to discuss their racial experiences with you. Earlier I mentioned the psychological toll racist experiences can have on the victim. Sharing these sometimes traumatic experiences can therefore bring up delicate emotions that your colleague may want to avoid — especially at work. Do not be offended if you are not one of the people they choose to confide in.

Do not ignore the topic of race just hoping it goes away. Ignoring company meetings or events centered on issues of diversity is a proclamation of your disinterest in the topic and is personally offensive to your minority colleagues. Realize that you are privileged to be able to choose to be interested in this topic, while others are forced to live with the negative realities of being Black on a daily basis.

Conclusion

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of the existence of racism in the workplace and are better informed on steps you can take right away to be an ally for minorities in your workplace. As activist Angela Davis said, “In a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

For more information on this topic I strongly recommend visiting the IABA’s YouTube Channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/blackactuaries) to watch the highly popular 2020 IABA Annual Meeting sessions referenced above that attracted over one thousand unique participants to the live events. Also feel free to share questions or comments on this article directly with the IABA at iaba@blackactuaries.org.

  • A popular report on this is from McKinsey & Company (2015). Diversity Matters.
  • Culturebeat – the multicultural division of C+R Research (2018). Diversity & Inclusion Research Initiative. Presented to The Actuarial Foundation, CAS, IABA and SOA
  • According to population estimates as of July 1 2019, from the US census. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219


 

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