In celebration of this month Damian Thompson, retail mortgages director at Aldermore, reflects about growing up in Barbados, trying to get a job in finance when moving to the UK, and his hopes and dreams for the future.
For many, Black History Month is a way of reflecting on the diverse histories of those in the UK from African and African Caribbean descent, taking note of their achievements and contributions to social, political, economic and cultural development.
Black History month is a topic that has created some debate in my house, as it does across much of the UK, for example, why do we need it? Here is my answer:
Black history is not well known across the globe and for a lot of young black people information and knowledge about the history is not accessible to them.
The history month is a way of providing a defined period in which black history can be shared, to support their identity and build their belief in black contributions to life beyond sport and entertainment.
This is so important to support understanding and prevent their beliefs from limiting their potential, as a lot of this history is not widely known.
Learning from Haiti
It can also provide an important backdrop for increased knowledge and understanding. Let’s look at an example.
Many people would not have heard of Toussaint Louverture. He was the most well-known leader of the Haitian Revolution, which helped secure Haiti as the first free colonial society to have explicitly rejected race as the basis of social ranking.
However, after his victory, the colonial powers placed a blockade on Haiti and made it pay an equivalent amount in 1825 of $21bn to preserve its independence.
It’s hard to say whether that is a reason for some of its issues today but it would definitely have played a part in its struggles as a fledgling nation.
An understanding of that history allows you to place that country in a different context than the one you see today.
So black history is not only for people of colour – it is for anyone who wants to know more about the rich and diverse world we inhabit.
I was born in Epsom in the UK, but as a four-year-old my parents decided to move back to Barbados for our education.
Growing up there, I remember thinking that everyone from the prime minister to the local bank manager was like me. With such fantastic role models, I therefore grew up thinking that I could achieve anything in life that I put my mind to.
I remember having dinner with my friends in the UK when I returned to this country to live at 18 years old in 1990.
None of them had seen me for about 15 years, and they asked me what I would like to do?
Now, I had been up and down the high street in Birmingham looking for jobs.
I had looked at banks and thought I’d like to work in a bank, as they had reliable pay and that would be good to support me to buy a house. So that’s what I said over dinner that night.
My family was sceptical. At the time, they hadn’t seen anyone like me working in a bank and that it would be a struggle to be widely accepted. So I said: “Well, I’ll be the first.”
It took me nine months to find a job and I had some of the worst experiences of trying to find a job in the 1990s.
It’s not obvious from my name on my CV that I’m black, so I would turn up to an interview and then be told, “Sorry, we have already filled the role”, even when I was the first interviewee. I then started to call before I went for interviews to see if the role had been filled.
I could have got angry about this but instead I would say to the interviewer, “I appreciate that you’ve filled the role, but you’ve got half an hour of your time already allotted, would you mind still taking me through the interview process so I can get some practice?”
A few people would, and on a number of occasions I got calls after the interview offering me the job but I didn’t take them because if that was the process going in, I didn’t feel comfortable that it would be the place for me.
I initially got recruited to Halifax in 1991 and that was by far the best hiring process I had experienced.
First you had written tests, followed by an interview. There were around 20 candidates applying for jobs the same day I was.
We all went into a room with an individual interviewer who had a number of cue cards to ask each candidate and these were situational questions, asking what would you do in this scenario?
I remember this interviewer asking me the first couple of cue cards and I could see people getting up and walking out of the other rooms, but she kept asking me more and more questions.
Then more people walked out, and she proceeded to ask me every single cue card in her deck.
I was there for around an hour asking myself, why is she asking me all these questions? Is she trying to catch me out?
When I got back to my uncle and aunt’s home about a mile away, my aunt was there smiling.
She asked how the interview went and I explained that it was rough and how I thought the interviewer was trying to catch me out.
By now my aunt was laughing and she then told me that the woman had just called and said that they’d like to offer me the job – I’d be starting on Monday.
A couple of years later, I met the interviewer again and asked her why she had asked me every single cue card?
She told me: “I’ve been doing this for 28 years and I’ve never met anybody with such different answers to the common problems that we face. You had such a different perspective that I knew you’d be really useful for the bank.”
Tomorrow Damian Thompson concludes his story and Black History Month by discussing his career so far and advising those who want to follow in his footsteps or understand more about diverse people.