A conversation between Chantal Cox-George and Sophia Luu

Two colleagues talk about the ways race impacts their work experiences
A conversation between Chantal and Sophia
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Sophia Luu: I actually remember the first time where we had such an in-depth conversation about race, Chantal and I. It was literally the morning of day one. We were walking up the stairs. Me and you just got our coffee. And you just go to me, "I've never in my life felt as Black as I feel now. And you could see it in the room when everyone was saying, even just the word Black. Everyone's eyes would just be a little bit, like, "What's Chantal going to say?"

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Chantal Cox-George: A lot of the time I think my being the only Black woman in a room is totally my USP and I frickin' own that. I know that I'm going to come in here, smash it, and you're not going to forget me. 'Cause guess what? Like, I do look different. And these are the days that you're confident. And then there are other days where it just takes the tiniest little comment about, like, your hair or someone being someone being surprised that you speak a certain way. And it's just, like, I mean, where do I begin, is it worth it, do I have the energy? No, not today, maybe not ever.

Chantal Cox-George: Hi. I'm Chantal. I am an associate in the London office. And I've been at the Firm for just over a year. I'm an integrative consultant, which technically means I do a bit of everything. But because I'm a medic by background, or I guess you call it an MD in the U.S. I found myself doing a lot of sort of healthcare and medically related studies.

Sophia Luu: And I'm Sophia. I'm a designer in digital, but I do a lot of work in healthcare practice as well. I identify as a woman of color in that I'm mixed race, Vietnamese and English, but I'm very aware that I look white. And I actually met Chantal on a project that we're going to talk about today, but she's now a really good friend and also my mentor. So, I thought it was a nice wholesome package to bring to this podcast.

Chantal Cox-George: Yeah, so we worked together on a public sector healthcare project.

Sophia Luu: A lot of us, I can't remember how many people on the team, but everyone except one on the working team identified as a person of color. And we were also female majority on that project. So, the very nature of this project was talking about race, we naturally got to a point where we were forced to have discussions about race and intersectionality from day one, from week zero even, and especially, well, Chantal and I's part, a huge part of this was about what Blackness means in the U.K. And also, what does it mean for myself, for example, as someone who isn't Black to do a project where you are affecting so many people's experiences, especially one with an experience that you don't identify with. And also, the pressure that it put on Chantal and other colleagues that we had who were Black, about taking off that pressure of feeling like you had to represent your whole race.

And Chantal, please correct me if you think I'm wrong. But we had so many in-depth discussions about what that meant. And I think what it meant changed pretty much every day with the more conversations we had.

Chantal Cox-George: Yeah, that's really well put. I think we were forced to confront it, even if we didn't want to, right? Like, because you'd be so surprised at how flippantly a comment is made. And how much, when you're working in a team room with four walls and a door closed, how much that sort of hits harder. And I remember there being comments about, like, sweeping generalizations about certain supermarkets that ethnic groups shopped in, or you know, assumptions that I would know how all Black people felt and things like that. That I was still learning how to be a professional, and professionally safeguard myself against that, whilst also recognizing, like, "Hey, I'm a Black woman, you've just offended me."

Sophia Luu: Because the project we were doing was focused on patient experience, there was a whole body of work where we had to talk about personas and journeys, so basically creating fictional profiles and trying to encapsulate how they feel and how to factor them into the system. And, of course, any sort of work where you are generalizing groups of people is borderline stereotyping. So, what happens when you're factoring race into that? I just, yeah, like, again, within design theory and practice, which is what I can talk to, there is no sort of guidelines or even conversations about how to factor in or how to talk about race when designing workstreams that affect people. And you can't design racially blind, because as we have seen from policies, they do exclude different groups of people. So, I think having to, like, literally challenge the very fundamentals of design in my first two months working as a designer was a bit deep.

Chantal Cox-George: No, I think, no, you articulate that so well. But and I think there's an additional dimension to this, in that, like, how do you design teams, when that's your subject matter, right? Should we have designed that team better? Should we have staffed that team better? Not in the way that says, "Hey, let's make it an all-Black team because it's a Black problem," because that's putting the burden on the minority, which is absolutely not what we want to do. But is there a world in which either you ensure the right training, the right support, the right guidance is there for every level of this study, so that, like, when things happen, people aren't either on their back foot or they don't notice.

No one quite realized how much we'd uncover through doing a project that on the face of it looked like supply and demand. But that's what it looked like. And then as soon as, like, and this came from the design team, and I am forever grateful for being in their presence, like, as soon as they saw that I'm picking what the drivers were beneath the numbers, it became so much bigger. And then you're, like, "We can't solve for this." Like, and this isn't about width, this is about, hon, this has been going on for centuries. Like, you are not fixing this, like, anytime soon. How do you stay within scope, but acknowledge the struggle? Like, how on earth do you do that?

Sophia Luu:  There was so much that weighed on our minds, and I can't even begin to imagine how it must have felt for you, Chantal. Because, as you said as well, it's your lived reality that you're then having to confront as part of your job. And there's a very fine line between, "I'm doing my job as a consultant and really genuinely trying to solve this problem," versus "I'm also now having to dig deep into what it means to be Black and live the way I live, and have all the institutions that are just not built for me, let's face it." And challenging that as part of your job. It--the lines got so blurred. And definitely for me, I think I went into that project so naive.

Chantal Cox-George: We all did.

Chantal: I had a situation. It was literally three days after George Floyd's killing. And I was on a really tough study. I was just, I was struggling, because it was--it was U.S.-based, so I was tired. And then this news was coming out, like, and it was all over Instagram, right. And it, you just couldn't pick up your phone without having to engage with it. And I'll be honest, I'm not proud of it, but I just, I didn't want to, I wanted to bury my head in the sand. I was, like, "I cannot." I don't know why this one hurt so much more than all of the others that came before, but I'm tired and I'm struggling and I'm emotional.

Chantal Cox-George: I was also going to ask the question. And I've never asked you this personally, so feel free to not answer. But how did your family's conversations around--Asian privilege change around COVID? Because obviously, at least in London, we were hearing some of these quite horrific stories about the treatment of certain ethnic groups. And I would just love to hear about whether or not your family discussed that. And if they did, like, what the general thoughts were.

Sophia Luu: So obviously, by Asian, I can only talk to, like, the small Vietnamese community in London. Which we are very much part of. My family are very much part of the Vietnamese community here. And I think, for a lot of Vietnamese Londoners, who are mainly refugees, the feeling of being part of the U.K. is one of pure gratitude. And that is almost echoed to authorities. And I bring that up, because a lot of the time, my dad particularly has been maybe mistreated and not realized. And funnily enough, by doing this project, we actually, and me bringing up about racism all the time that I was seeing actually allowed my dad to come to terms with his own experiences of racism. my dad said something, like, "You talk about Black racism as if you've experienced it yourself. Like, why are you doing that?" And we had this really long, long discussion--where I talked about like, all these minor comments and how that made people feel. And how that is embedded, and how, you know, authority and structure and institutions have been built on a very small group of people who wouldn't have factored in people like him. And that's why we have the problems that we have now. And I literally remember on his face just gradually thinking, "Oh, that's happened to me. In one conversation, he was, like, "I've experienced racism, and it's not just little comments, it's embedded into the assumptions about me. It was embedded into the assumptions of me even getting into music school. I had to work so much harder than everyone else to get the same result." You know, this kind of thing. And so that was when it really, or at least as a daughter and a father, as a conversation, that was the first time we'd experienced talking about race in that way. And then I remember, because it definitely has been stayed on his mind. Because when COVID did happen, he came to me and he said, "I meant to tell you this here, but the other day I was walking through the park, and this guy just came up to me." And I was, like, "Yeah?" And he goes, "And usually before me and you had spoken about racism, it's the sort of thing I just thought, oh, it happens to everyone, but the guy said to me, 'Ah yeah, like, I like Chinese people and everything, but they're definitely responsible for corona, aren't they?'" And just started harassing my dad to be, like, "What do you think, what do you think, what do you think?" And my dad was just, like, "Yeah, I just played it cool. I kind of wanted to tell him that I wasn't Chinese. But I just kind of left it." But it did start to make me think. Whoa, this is really strange, and how one virus can make people think about race in a whole different way. It's not just the fact that racism happens and that there are these incidents. It's that when it's talked about more, people who experience it more are able to reflect and be, like, "Oh, that wasn't okay."

Chantal Cox-George: This leads really onto, like, what it means to be an ally, right? And I think Sophia and I were in some allyship training not that long ago. And there were some really, really powerful pieces in there about being an ally, and accepting that you'll just never know it all. Like, you'll never know all the answers, and that's totally okay, and you'll trip up sometimes, but at least you're trying. And we got, like, real-time experiential learning in that. And it's something I kind of wish everyone had. Because then I've been on other studies since where I've in no way felt a sense of belonging or the sense of being looked--out for in the same way.  Because that burden I think is what often people feel fearful about. They don't want to hear the bad stuff about people from that same background as them, right? They don't want to hear these sad stories. "It's not like this anymore. But I'm not racist. These things don't exist. Like, well, you can't really think that the U.K.'s as bad as America." Like, comments like that are really, really, really common. And that feels like a burden. It can be a burden to be an ally, and I think it's just--a burden you've got to suck up, because unfortunately, life is still better for you. So it's just the way it should be. And that's an ally on any dimension, right? I don't just mean it from a race perspective. It can be, like, a religious ally. An ally in terms of sexuality or disability or anything.

Sophia Luu: And I think these are some examples where, as Chantal said, I'm always learning. And allies are always learning. And I would really like to address this fact of, so many people are petrified of saying the wrong thing and offending people and making it worse. And there's such a fine line between, "Yeah, say your thing," and at least you tried, versus consistently analyzing that yourself. And it is going be hard, and you are going to feel really guilty. But I'm only able to talk about, so comfortably about race now because you force yourself to go into that situation. And allyship isn't just the, oh yeah, of course, I'm not racist. It's this very long and internal process of reflecting and also thinking about how the work you do is always going to have these kinds of ramifications.

Chantal Cox-George: Yeah. That's it. I think, yeah, I mean, allyship is something I'm very much trying to learn about myself and, like, learn how to be as well. Because I think in the context of everything that's happened this year, allyship now is not only a buzzword and not a bad buzzword by any means, but it is a buzzword. -I think it's being present and reflective, and recognizing your privilege, right? And that can happen in different spaces. For example, in a room where, yes, maybe I am the only Black woman. But say someone is making jokes about people who identify as queer, it is my job to be present, like, to be aware that someone has made a comment. To be, like, totally, totally reflective about it, both internally and externally with them, like, to check the hell in. Like, really to check in.

Sophia Luu: I went to this event, and it was called Do Black Lives Matter in the Healthcare System? And it had a mixture of different healthcare professionals, patients with long-term illnesses, and actually blood donors. And they were all Black, and they had a panel discussion. And it was very much a safe, community-led, grassroots space. So, I messaged the organizers, and I said, "I don't identify as Black, can I come?" And they said, "Yeah, but obviously remember, this is a safe space, and just sit and listen." So, I did sit and listen, and I really, really listened. It was one of the only times where I had been in such a big, safe space and visibly stood out as the only white-looking person. And it was such an honor to sit in that room. And in that conversation, someone mentioned inherited trauma, and basically what it means to be a second, third generation of an immigrant family who naturally has distrust of the healthcare services.00:36:27:06And what that means when it to trying to access those services. Because then their pain isn't taken as seriously, or their services aren't even built clinically to support these people. And then there's a mutual sort of fear and mistrust. And then nothing gets solved. And then we had a break, and we were in the toilet, and she just happened to be in the queue in front of me. And I just said, "Oh, you know, that was such a wonderful point you have. I could really relate because I'm the daughter of a refugee, a Vietnamese refugee, and I felt X, Y, Z, dadada." And I kind of sprang it on her, and in my head, it was my way of relating, right? And she was really quiet, and very, like, not bothered. And I didn't notice this at the time. I only noticed it a couple of days later after I consistently reflected on it. And I realized what I'd done essentially is gone into a safe space for Black people to talk about health trauma and access to health services and made it about me, and sparked a conversation where I was, like, "Oh, but I can relate because I'm XYZ." And this the whole point. And she wouldn't have felt, had the energy, and she didn't say it to me, and I might have gone around and not noticed that. And you have to really kind of trace back your steps and just think, "No, that was completely and utterly the wrong thing to do, as part of entering that space." And there will be I'm sure more times where I mess up and don't support in the right way. And to be honest, it's part of the learning process. Just listen and looking and factoring in how people feel goes leaps and bounds.

Chantal Cox-George: I think you massively hit on a big one, Sophia, with asking how people are. Such a simple question. You'd be surprised how many people don't ask, like, walk into a room, immediate transaction. Like, it's just, "I need this, I want data." Blah, blah. And it's, like, "How about just a hey, how're you feeling? How are things?” Takes two minutes, or not even that.

And then I think, lastly, and this one's really tough, right. And it kind of feeds a bit from that whole McKinsey obligation to dissent, but it's also just being human. It's just, like, "Speak up." Like, even if you're an introvert, you can speak up. Like, if something doesn't sit well with you, if your gut, something's saying to you something isn't right, if you don't like it, it's probably right. Like, humans are pretty impressively wired species. Like, if something bothers you, say something. And I think we learned that every day of this study. If it’s not sitting, speak.

Sophia Luu: I think it goes back to the thing about it taking oodles of strength it takes to be yourself at work, doesn’t it?

Chantal Cox-George: And just at life. It’s not just at work is it? You’ve given me a load to think about tonight. Thanks, Sophia. I’m not going to be able to sleep.

Sophia Luu: It’s alright hun. It’s alright.