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For a couple of weeks after police murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, Darryl Brown couldn’t bring himself to talk about systemic racism.

The Toronto-based fee-only investment planner felt there was an expectation to speak out as a Black advisor in a largely white industry, and it was uncomfortable.

“There’s a thing I found I had to do to survive in the industry, and it’s to kind of internally pretend that I’m not Black,” he says. “This might sound totally crazy.”

Brown, the CEO and founder of You & Yours Financial, remembers meetings early in his career with groups of corporate clients who were all middle-aged white men. He was very aware of being different.

“This is a feeling that I always actively and subconsciously worked to avoid — the feeling that you’re other and different,” he says. “Part of me, to survive, just wants to blend in.”

But Brown says systemic racism in the financial industry needs to be addressed, even though “it’s uncomfortable for everyone.”

“The industry has not talked about systemic issues,” he says. “People have been so offended talking about it.”

Since Floyd’s murder in May and the global anti-racism protests that followed, a number of large financial institutions have acknowledged systemic racism and announced plans to increase diversity.

Black advisors, investment managers and executives say there’s a lot of work to do.

Gregory Chrispin, a 35-year veteran of the industry who held senior management roles at Desjardins and State Street Global Advisors in Montreal, says he’s experienced discrimination in his career, sometimes of the silent type. He remembers feeling the eyes on him when he attended large industry conferences.

“The looks ask: ‘Why is he here? Where did he come from?’ They seem to be saying, ‘Someone must have needed to satisfy a [diversity] statistic and that’s why he’s here,’” Chrispin says.

Lisa Hayles, investment manager at Trillium Asset Management in Boston, grew up in Toronto and started her career there. She moved to London in the early 2000s before landing in Boston, a city she describes as more parochial and where the financial industry is more white.

A major business publication recently talked to the CEO of Trillium Asset Management about the lack of diversity among environmental, social and governance (ESG) investors. The article that followed noted the recent hiring of Hayles and included her photo, though she wasn’t interviewed.

Hayles says the treatment made it look as though she was a diversity hire, since the article didn’t mention her expertise and almost 20 years working in sustainable investing.

“People who don’t know me could read that and think, ‘She got the job because she’s a Black woman.’ That’s infuriating,” she says.

She eventually wrote a post on LinkedIn about the article and has since talked to the reporter. She says her initial reaction was revealing, though.

“Immediately upon reading that article I understood there was a problem, but I really pushed down my initial response and thought ‘I don’t want to make a big deal out of it,’” she says.

“I find that telling because that is the experience of people of colour in investment management, and probably across a whole bunch of sectors. You experience something and you weigh how much of deal you want to make, how much capital you want to spend.”

Chrispin says he’s dealt with what he calls unconscious stereotypes and prejudice. When a person asked one time about Chrispin’s background and family, Chrispin talked about his three brothers.

“And none are in jail?” the person responded, before patting Chrispin’s shoulder and saying he was joking.

Chrispin attributes such remarks to ignorance more than malice. “But how many people are prejudiced in this way?”

When Brown started his career more than a decade ago, he wanted to help people manage their money and avoid the same financial insecurity he felt growing up. But starting advisor salaries at the time were often less than $30,000, and by the second year it was all commission, he says.

“I remember thinking at the time, ‘Do I hit up my dad’s friends who come over and play dominoes on Sunday night? Do I get a calling list from the Guelph Caribbean-Canadian association that my mom’s a part of?’”

What he needed, he says, was to be at the golf club or have access to wealthy prospects.

“You’re just collecting from existing pools of wealth,” he says.

“Because of who you are, you have such a significant disadvantage.”

Brown says it felt like “a ridiculous battle” and ended up taking a research job, even though his strengths were in client-facing work and explaining investments. “That was hugely disappointing for me.”

He eventually gave it a shot again, and founded You & Yours Financial in 2017.

Hayles says white supremacy and institutional racism are global phenomena and have led to underrepresentation of minorities in the “very white and very male” world of investment management.

“If we want to really address, with an intersectional lens, the barriers to having diverse and inclusive workforces, we have to understand the historical reasons why we’ve produced the kinds of workforces we have now,” she says.

“The murder of George Floyd has caused a great deal of soul-searching and it’s just lifted a veil on the truly intractable nature of how racism plays out,” Hayles adds.

“For well-meaning liberal folks, it’s not enough to be well-meaning. The moment actually requires a real shift in power dynamics. We actually have an opening because the vast majority is willing to contemplate that.”

Brown says he’s frustrated so far with the reaction from industry leaders who say they didn’t realize how serious systemic racism is.

“They just didn’t want to hear that,” he says.

“We need to be honest and explicit about it, and not feel so offended. We are here, and if we want to move forward we can’t kid ourselves. It’s going to take a lot of time and really slow work to do this stuff.”

While Hayles says it’s easy to be cynical that the “outpouring of concern and announcements” will dissipate, she believes in the current opportunity.

“I want to stress my optimism that this can be addressed,” she says.

With files from Didier Bert. Forthcoming articles will examine the anti-racism commitments made by financial institutions, and investing options that address racial justice.