JAMES MERCER Director at Social Misfits
IT’S NORMAL TO STAND OUT AND BE DIFFERENT
As a Black person, working in a majority-white environment, I’ve often felt as though I’ve been made to feel I have a responsibility to ensure that the people I encounter and work with have a positive impression of other Black people, based on my actions.
This presents the impression that I carry my race on my shoulders.
I did not ask for this responsibility and I do not want to have it, but that is the reality, not just in the PR industry, but everywhere you go. I have always been aware of this invisible but very real burden, drawing from observations and experiences that I’ve gained throughout life.
It was in University, that I gained an interest in a career in the PR industry. I studied Sociology at university, and chose to, simply because I really enjoyed it. It was in many ways a blessing and a curse, because I did not have much direction on what to do after.
Towards the end of my degree, I started to think back, once again, to what I enjoyed the most. I was quite interested in advertising, so I started considering career options there and it wasn’t until I watched a documentary about the beginnings of PR and the works of industry pioneers like Edward Bernays, that I realised that was where my interest lies.
Interestingly, the documentary mentioned the connected legacies of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays and Matthew Freud, and having been so fascinated by this, I later ended up working at freuds. I actually had my very first experience of PR as an intern at freuds, and now, years later, it feels like I have come full circle, as I recently started as a Director at Social Misfits Media, which is part of The Brewery group of companies under the freuds umbrella.
I started my career in the PR industry by working for a couple of very well-known organisations, and very early on, decided that I would focus on social media management.
It was a straight-forward decision for me, because I could always prove my worth through the numbers. Numbers in social media never lie. There is no denying reach and influence when it is attained.
I understood that concrete results validate you and add proof to your expertise. This allows people of different backgrounds to be able to grow beyond the opinions and biases of people, and instead merited by the proof of results.
That meant that even as I carried this burden on representation, I felt like I had the ability to live up to it in many ways, by demonstrating it in the numbers.
It is a sad and undeniable reality that the industry lacks representation of Black people on all levels. Far too often, you will be the only black person that some of your colleagues encounter in such proximity. You inevitably end up being their only representation of a very diverse community of people.
This community consists of different cultures and ones that may be very unlike your work environment, causing you to stand out.
As you learn to navigate the environment and manage yourself in a largely white-dominated corporate society, you should have the reassurance that it is absolutely normal to stand out. You are, after all, different.
There may be pressure to fit in, but it is near impossible to. You can only hide who you are for a period of time, but eventually it will come out. There’s nothing you can do about it, and in fact, that is how it ought to be. These are the things that make you great at your work, and this is part of your unique offering to each company, culture and space.
As you are learning and adjusting to a new job, the environment, culture and norms will in many ways have to be adjusted around you. Your colleagues will eventually get to know and understand you, and this may take a while. This is when the burden on your shoulders will be the heaviest.
You soon find your way, and that too takes adjustment. Sometimes it might be speaking in a different way and having the flexibility of code switching.
I won't necessarily say that code switching should be looked upon entirely negatively if a person is building skills and getting experience on how to navigate in the environments that they are in. But at the same time, you cannot forget who you are and where you came from.
That is what it always comes back to. Understanding the fundamental differences that your race will make to your experience in a white-dominated industry and finding the tools to adjust will empower you to be impactful and successful.
Throughout my career, as I rose to Director level, this understanding served to propel me. I did not shy away from the responsibilities I spoke about earlier and have now grown used to them.
I know that if you're a Black person, or even a ‘person of colour’ within this industry, there’s unfortunately going to be a lot of times where you will be a pioneer, even when you may not have asked to be one. I've seen people make judgments on Black people based on somebody else's perspective, or on how somebody else behaved. Many times it is because you are sadly the first Black person, or the first person of colour that they have been in close and regular proximity to.
Sometimes you take up that pressure on your shoulders and it becomes too much. The reality is that you should never be the sole representative of a diverse race and community of people. You should be free to be yourself.
The culture in our workplaces should really accommodate that, and your part is to be unapologetically yourself.
Remember who you are and work with integrity and authenticity, despite the weight of representation that you carry.