8 Lessons: Made in Canada

Ishma Alexander-Huet examines the Black experience for those born here versus those that came here, and the lessons it offers for anyone looking to help immigrants on their own teams be successful.

Once a week, Initiative’s Ishma Alexander-Huet will be offering a lesson she has learned after a year of asking questions about how to make the media and advertising industries more equitable. Read her previous lessonsĀ here.

By Ishma Alexander-Huet

I was born in Canada but never felt Canadian.

Though the first in my family to be born here and benefit from the privileges and opportunities that come with that, I have always felt disconnected. The history books didn’t tell me stories of people that looked like me, my ancestors had no roots here and the culture I learned at home wasn’t broadly understood. I felt like a visitor.

But over the past year, I’ve realized just how much the history that has shaped Canada’s society and culture has shaped me too. It’s a huge part of who I am – the good and the bad.

The jolt came when my Nigerian brother-in-law mentioned he didn’t know what racism felt like until he moved here. I was shocked. Being othered because you’re Black is just an organic part of our experience growing up in Canada, and it never occurred to me it could be otherwise.

Growing up surrounded by people who shared his skin colour and culture, whether in the community, workplace or media contributed to my brother-in-law’s natural sense of belonging. Belonging drives confidence. Imagine the culture shock when suddenly being the only person of colour in a boardroom full of unconscious bias – bias he was quickly exposed to via micro-aggressions and witnessing survivalist behaviour of other Black colleagues.

It finally occurred to me that the journey for Black people in Canada is largely impacted by where we spent our formative years. With the Black diaspora in Canada immigrating from over 170 countries impacted differently by slavery and colonialism, our own community has a wide range of diversity.

My family immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago, mostly descendants from Nigerian slaves according to my 23andMe results. Like my brother-in-law, they grew up surrounded by Black people in positions of authority like teachers, politicians and police, seeing their career possibilities all around them. They belonged, but they always knew what racism felt like. Though less than 10% of the population is white, the intergenerational impact of chattel slavery (for the Black population) and indentured servitude (for the South Asian population) is alive and well throughout the Caribbean, just as it is in North America.

But unlike the Black culture in Canada, Caribbean culture teaches you to fight back against micro and macro aggressions.

My husband immigrated to Canada from Trinidad over six years ago. Two days after starting his new carpentry job, he had his first encounter with racist aggression courtesy of his boss and walked off the job. “I ain’t come to dis country to let people talk to me like dat,” he told me. My immediate thought was that I had to teach him how to be quiet and navigate the aggressions. Suddenly I realized how conditioned I was.

Of course, I supported him, but I also knew that if I had navigated my own career that way from the beginning, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now. I would’ve been labelled as a troublemaker, difficult or, worse, “the angry Black woman.” It could derail my mission to get ahead in the corporate world and I did everything possible to avoid it – letting slights go and working harder, code switching, even dressing like my boss’s boss. I adopted an appearance and behaviours that were inauthentic to me, but learning to do the dance successfully helped me advance.

My family taught me we had to act differently to be included and get opportunities, but I didn’t learn this extreme behaviour at home. They also taught us to fight back and even embarrassed us many times while demonstrating. My father left his architecture job at The Bay because he boldly refused to assimilate. But we were running from the aggressive stereotypes we grew up seeing, and instead became something much worse.

Just after starting my career, I came home and told my aunt that someone near the office called me the N-word. She waited for me to tell her how I gave it to them, only to hear I turned the other cheek because I couldn’t cause a scene in the business district. That was twenty years ago and I can still hear her chastising me and telling me all the things I should have said.

“Don’t let people make you stay quiet,” she said. I agreed, but thought it was generational and she just didn’t get it. They didn’t know what it took to get to the top in Canada. Only in this past year have I realized it was me who didn’t get it. I have not just the right, but the responsibility to speak up no matter where I experience the aggression.

I carried this behaviour of avoiding conflict into my career, but things changed about five years ago. Our new president sought out diverse experiences and opinions, which I happily offered one-on-one, helping to demonstrate my value and fuel my growth. I reached my goal of being a VP and got a seat at the table where I promptly went mute around my new peers.

“Why don’t I hear you?” she asked. “Where’s the Ishma that runs a team, supports her clients and brings new ideas with confidence?”

In the back of my mind, speaking up meant I was making a scene. My chastising aunt began to echo in my head and I finally listened.

In the course of relearning how to bring more of myself to the workplace, I also learned how to be a better leader:

1) Ask Canadian immigrants about their home cultures. What is it like to work at an agency in India, Jamaica or China? What are the expectations? We’ve come to believe these questions are somehow offensive, but as leaders, we must actively learn from and about our people.

2) Recognize how everyone’s background impacts their identity and presence at work. There are immigrants, like my family, who are coming from cultures where it’s not seen as aggression to stand up for themselves, but others see taking the lead in the conversation while their boss is in the room as disrespectful.

3) Understand that for many Black employees, quiet doesn’t signal a lack of engagement or skill. Many of us are hard-wired to fit in and hold back to make sure that we don’t offend anyone. Understanding where we’re coming from is critical to helping us, and in turn, your company thrives.

If you’re hiring to bring in diverse perspectives to your organization then you already realize the value that diversity brings – improved productivity, innovation, and creativity. But diversity without inclusion is exclusion, and inclusion starts with the question: “Why don’t I hear you?”

ISH_HS_2021-7545Ishma Alexander-Huet is VP, client advice and management, head of learning and culture at Initiative.