Racism is hard to discuss. Privilege is difficult to admit. I’ve always had a challenging relationship with both of these. My parents moved from Sri Lanka to the UK over forty-five years ago and, with good intentions, deliberately gave me and my siblings a short first name to counteract our lengthy surname. Based on their own experiences, our surname had given them another reason to stand out. In our predominantly white community it would be hard enough to have different skin colour, so they removed any obstacle they could by making our first names short and easy to say. To their credit, this worked. I integrated into school life despite being the “only one” in my class. I did not knowingly lose any friends or feel held back from any progression. I identified with my largely white community and I did not encounter any meaningful racism on the whole. From time to time there were incidents but none of that stayed with me, thanks in large part due to my friendship group always making me feel accepted. This acceptance has carried through my time working in digital advertising in London and, most recently, in Singapore. I cannot recall believing the colour of my skin impacted a decision or its outcome. 

Recent events have made me realise that I am the exception; my positive experiences mean I struggle to answer the question ‘where are you from?’. Do I say Sri Lanka or do I say the UK? Having to answer this question in itself often makes me uncomfortable. I used to think it was because I didn’t see why it was important but I also genuinely don’t know how best to answer. Because of this I have historically made a choice to generally shy away from race related issues within our industry. This is my privilege.

Why am I telling you this? Race is complex. Privilege is also complex. It cuts deep and will only continue to get more complex over time. I don’t really have strong feelings towards posting a black square or not. I do think the potentially dangerous side effect of creating difficulty for those needing information through #blacklivesmatter should be a good enough reason to think of expressing support in another way. I do have strong feelings that this alone is not enough. The intention is welcomed but we need to do more. These issues are not isolated to the US, they are global and therefore they are present and real here, in Singapore, across South East Asia & India. Much like with gender diversity, the conversation of ethnic diversity only progresses if it is present and consistent in our industry. To this point, I feel it has been at best muted and at worst overlooked. 

One of the notable negative experiences in my life happened on my last trip from Singapore to New York. To my surprise it did not happen to me at Newark, it happened at Changi. At check-in my boarding pass was given a different stamp and I was subjected to lengthy and additional security checks. To this day, I do not know why that happened, I was given no explanation, I asked numerous times. But I know how it made me feel; singled out, powerless, disappointed, and angry because I believe the colour of my skin was a prominent factor. I share this experience as an example of this being very present in Asia and very real. Through advertising we have a hugely powerful vehicle to drive change, we have the opportunity and the responsibility as an industry to be progressive. This is why it matters.

So what can you do? I’m asking this because I have asked myself this very question over the past week as I was wrestling with accepting my own privilege. Here is where I have landed. Awareness is the first step, get educated and understand it is not something happening ‘over there’. Read the many insightful books and powerful films that address racial issues head on. Multiple trustworthy resources are available for free and digitally. We have a responsibility to explore and educate ourselves. Have a conversation about ethnic diversity in your next one on one, your next team meeting, your next company all hands. If you have educated yourself before having these conversations they will be much more meaningful. Take it upon yourself to create a safe environment for everyone to share their experiences. Understand your own privilege and be very conscious of it; privilege is not exclusive to race, privilege can be developed. Privilege can also be spent by those that have it. For example, speaking up for those that don’t have privilege or suggesting a diverse candidate for a speaking engagement in place of yourself are ways of spending your privilege. Help through donations. Monetary donations, no matter how big or small to organisations like blacklivesmatter, the Singapore Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition or any of the multiple local charities that support minorities hugely help. Equally valuable is donating your time; research how you can do this with those organisations, help is always welcomed. Lastly, ask your companies to ensure that they are thinking about all facets of diversity and that it is actively being measured and considered. Make sure all voices are represented in decisioning and in your hiring process. 

It is complicated and there is a lot to be done, we can only start by starting.

Carl Nawagamuwa is an IAB SEA+India Regional Board member, and has spent 15 years in the digital ads industry across the UK and Asia, at Group M, Amobee and Google. His views here are his own.