The woman in the mirror

When we allow limiting thoughts, other people’s low expectations and misconceptions about our capabilities, purpose, etc, to enter our psyche, inertia seeps in leading to stagnation, demotivation, and helplessness.

We can easily find ourselves suffering from ‘BLAMEUS’ a made-up word but nonetheless, I’m using it to describe when a person becomes fixated on blaming others for their lack of progression, success, and self-fulfillment.

Look in the mirror. No, look in the mirror and you will see that the woman/man in the mirror is you. You have the power to determine your destiny, how you react, feel and allow your current situation to affect how you feel about yourself.  Irrespective of your gender, race, and class, you have ‘power’. Power to influence, the power to make changes, the power to accept/reject your situation.  As long as you have breath you have power, power power.

Remember Nelson Mandela? He was incarcerated for 27 years, but his mind, his thoughts, his dreams of freedom remained intact. His oppressors failed to destroy his dream, his ambitions, and his purpose.  He was inaugurated as the country’s first black president on 10th May 1994, at the age of 77. The man who was once a prisoner became president.

This shows that irrespective of our gender, race, class, or our situation, we have power over ourselves, our thoughts and aspirations. You may find yourself in the depth of adversity, banging your head on the concrete ceiling, or in the thrust of oppression. But remember you have power.

The problem is that we do not necessarily exert our power in a productive way.  For example, you may find yourself in a situation at work where you have been overlooked for promotion, your contribution and views are being ignored, or you may be in a situation where you feel there is no positive outcome.

Where there is a will, there is always away. My Grandmother’s words of wisdom. Or how about a Yoruba proverb:

Ubee eese l’use, onen yo gbe jake oun o se l’use.
Translation: A good beginning is of no value unless one perseveres to the end.
Meaning: He who perseveres to the end will be rewarded

To overcome challenges, adversity and difficult times require perseverance as well as resilience. These are terms bandied about and occasionally used interchangeably.  They mean different things. When you continue to put in the effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, challenges, or opposition, you are persevering. While resilience is shown by your ability to brush yourself off and recover from or adjust to misfortune or adversity.

For those of us who bear the scars of gender and racial oppression, we are testaments of resilience and perseverance.  Personally, I have and continue to draw on my arsenal of tools, support, and energy from my many BWA – Black Women Amazons, who remind me of the power within to move from the valley to the top of the mountain, metaphorically speaking.

Therefore, if I can keep going through trials and tribulations, and apply my power within to maintain my sense of purpose, continue to pursue my dreams, and fulfill my aspirations when others attack me. Then draw strength from my words – you have power and you will overcome.

Traveling while Black

I decided to write this post after reading my husband’s poem about his experience of staying at a plush hotel in Southern England.  It was quite sad listening to the stanzas that echoed the pain of racial isolation in recreational spaces owned by the dominant racial group.

I have lived in white areas and worked in predominantly white organisations for over 20 years. So, I had become accustomed to being the sole black person in these environments.

However, the sole black person phenomenon became exponentially obvious when I began traveling with my husband and black family/friends to European countries, but more so when we go for walks in my local towns and villages.

The stares are blatant and uncomfortable. We receive stares from white people of different age groups. For those who have traveled while being black, you’ll understand the look. 😲 Mouth open, neck crooked and eyes bulging as though a black person has never trodden the pavement. In fact, the looks received frequently make you feel as though you are an alien from a faraway place.

Now, I could assume when abroad that the locals may not have seen a black person before. However, when you receive the same looks when traveling in the UK, river thamesI find myself asking the following question:

Have attitudes really changed from the ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs in British pub windows and houses of yesteryear?

I’m not sure. There are some white people who may have a genuine curiosity when they meet a black person for the first time. I have engaged with individuals who have declared I was the first black person they had met and spoken to in the UK, not abroad, but here, the country of my birth. While there are others who have displayed hostile attitudes, as though ‘we’ as black people have no right to enter certain towns, villages, and businesses in the UK.

It is easy to make the assumption that traveling while black in Europe and in the UK, encountering curious stares or hostility from white people, is a form of everyday racism. But are these situations in Europe and the UK the same? Before I continue with my discussion, let me first explain what I mean by everyday racism. Everyday racism is more than individual prejudice, or discreet acts of discrimination. It’s the manifestations embedded in practices, artifacts, discourse, and institutional realities. Brown et al (2003) eloquently assert that everyday racism is akin to the water in which fish swim.

Another question. Do all non-white people experience everyday racism in the same way? I can recall while conducting my interview for my book: Black Women Prison Employees: The Intersectionality of Gender and Race. I interviewed a participant – Raisa, a British Asian woman, who had explained that she had never experienced racism until she worked for HM Prison Service. I have met other men and women of Asian descent who have informed me that they have not experienced racism. There has always been an assumption made by the dominant group that all non-white people experience inequality in the same way. Clearly, they do not.

Now the 2011 Census, showed that 19.5% of the UK population were from non-white groups (Race Disparity Group, 2018). So there are plenty of non-white people dispersed across the UK, and we do not all live in large cities. But don’t be quick to assume the demographics of the different ethnic groups are the same. Or like my friend, when I was discussing writing this post, had made the assumption that people of black Caribbean and/or African descent were the largest group. We are not.

People from Asian ethnic groups make up the second-largest percentage of the population (at 7.5%), made up of Bangladeshi, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and Asian other. Followed by Black ethnic groups (at 3.3%), which comprise: African, Caribbean and Black other. Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups (at 2.2%) and Other ethnic groups (at 1.0%).

Similar to the variation in numbers amongst ethnic groups, there is a difference in the experience of inequality and everyday racism amongst black and Asian people in the UK. Unfortunately, UK policymakers, organisations, individuals, etc tend to treat ethnicity and race as a monolithic concept, in which all those who are non-white share the same experience of inequality. This approach acts as a means to minimise the diversity that exists amongst different ethnic groups.

I strongly believe there is a need for a new way of understanding, theorising and addressing the ways non-white people are affected by everyday racism. And for policymakers to recognise the inadequacy of treating all non-whites as a homogenous group. For this reason, I have continuously advocated for a bridge to be developed between policymakers and academics, as there appears to be a lack of understanding that ethnicity and race are socially constructed in different ways, and therefore explain different aspects of inequality within different conditions, context, relationships, etc (Valdez, 2017).

I had planned to give a few tips on how to remain safe, and comfortable when traveling while black. But I got distracted when I began to think about the difference in the experience of everyday racism between black and Asian people. I am of the opinion that everyday racism is the root cause of the negative experience we encounter as black people when traveling. I strongly believe there is a need for intersectionality to be used as a psychological framework for understanding multiple social identities. And until this framework is applied across disciplines, we as black people will continue to encounter everyday racism when traveling while black.

References

Brown, M. K., Carnoy, M., Currie, E., Duster, T., Oppenheimer, D. B., Shultz, M. M., & Wellman, D. (2003). Whitewashing race: The myth of a color-blind society. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

A family affair

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Proverbs 22:6

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Before my son could speak, I told him he would go to university because that’s what we do! I was determined to instill in him the importance of education, studying, working hard and doing your best, as they were non-negotiable.

I would take him to campus from time to time and made sure he attended all four of my graduation ceremonies.  He was 4 years old when he attended his first graduation ceremony.

I wanted my son to understand the symbolic importance of not just completing the qualification, but walking across the stage, receiving the handshake and having the achievement publically recognised.

For him to get to this point, it took a lot of hard work on both our parts. My son had to complete his assignments, pass his exams and live on campus. For me, I had to support him emotionally to endure the racial isolation he would experience and prepare him mentally to endure the challenges and barriers created by institutional racism.  But it was not just our efforts.  Family and friends supported him too, with words of encouragement, prayers, and laughter.

I strongly believed it was important for my son to recognise that this institution was a place he would travel through on his life journey.  He had every right to be there,  regardless of whether others of his reflection chose to opt-out, or not attend at all.

The odds were stacked against him. He almost dropped out of university in year one because of the negative gender racial stereotypes bestowed upon him because of his Caribbean heritage.  Read my blog post entitled Insights from my son, 12th February 2019  and Mother of a black man, 16th July 2018.  Every time my son returned from the holiday break, he was welcomed by shock and astonishment from his white peers and lecturers because he had not quit.

My son shared stories about racism, racial isolation, racial-microaggressions, racial ignorance, etc, etc. What was particularly sad was time and time again he was made to feel as though he was an outsider and an intruder in a space that was clearly dominated by white patriarchal ways of thinking and functioning, which welcomed only ‘certain’ non-white ethnic groups.  A surprise for some as ethnic data in its current format does not capture the gender/racial difference in experience between ethnic groups. This is the reason why I constantly campaign for the application of intersectional analysis of gender/racial differences between groups.  This would provide an in-depth view of the experience of all and capture the nuances that exist, rather than creating the assumption that a monolithic experience exists shared by all non-white ethnic individuals.

My son’s graduation was a very special moment because it signified completion.  He had not succumbed to the negative labels given to him in his early years in education.  He had traveled through and achieved a degree with honours.

That’s my boy!

Don’t lose track

Since returning from holiday, I have pondered for the last two weeks about writing this blog and sharing with you the efforts I have made over the last six months to:

  • Raise the profile of my PhD research and book.
  • Educate senior leaders predominantly in the Ministry of Justice, about the value in applying an intersectional approach to not only diversity in its broadest sense, but how it can be used to broaden understanding and address the disparities that exist between different ethnic groups in the workplace.
  • And explain and describe in simple terms, how organisational psychodynamics can be used by organisations to avoid regurgitating the same practices that were wittingly/unwittingly devised to position people from non-white ethnic groups as ‘deviant’, ‘othered’, or ‘victims’ of institutional structures that perpetuate institutional racism. By this I mean, the misconception that talking about race without taking action to remove the structures that create racial inequality, does nothing to create an inclusive workplace or increase equality of opportunity for all.

The root of my indecisiveness stems from the backlash I am currently encountering from some individuals who fear culture and organisational change.  And from others who lack an understanding of the benefits that can be gained by bringing together academics and policymakers to address racial and diversity inequality in the workplace. In addition, there are those who are attempting to discredit my study because it provides a new way of thinking and approach to address the entrenched practices and structures that perpetuate white patriarchy in many organisations.  Sadly, I have found that the presence of educated black women such as myself, is disrupting the status quo.  There are individuals and groups who feel they need to defend (Bion, 1961) the status quo and destroy (Jacques, 1965) – psychoanalytically speaking, those who pose a threat.

However, when I started my journey to make black women visible in Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, and contribute to prison occupational literature.  I knew it would be difficult and expected challenges along the way. And believe me, there were many.  But I must admit, I never expected to be going through this current ordeal.

Determined to make a positive difference to support the Ministry of Justice to be more than diverse, but racially inclusive in all areas of the business.  I have continued on my quest to meet with all the Race Champions and Gender Champions at the Ministry of Justice. I have met with the majority and engaged in illuminating and thought-provoking conversations with them.
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I am fully aware that culture change takes more than goodwill and emotional labour by a few.  It takes more than increasing the visibility of race and gender champions talking about race, gender and diversity inequality at senior levels, because the ‘gate-keepers’ – middle managers and below have the greatest influence on the success of culture change, especially when it clashes with existing structures such as institutional racism, systems that are embedded in all levels of most organisations in the UK.

I hope improvements will be made, but I remain skeptical. As a practitioner-researcher and specialist in organisational psychology and race relations, I have endeavoured and will continue to use my experience, knowledge, and research to support organisations that have a genuine interest in creating racially inclusive work environments.

References

Bion, W. (1961) Experiences in Groups and Other Papers, London, Brunner-Routledge (this edition 2001).

Jacques, E. (1955) ‘Social systems as a defence against persecutory and depressive anxiety’, in Klein M., Heimann P. and Money-Kyrle, E. (eds) New Directions in Psychoanalysis, London, Tavistock Publications.

Keep going!

After an intense week of pushing my way through the challenges of systemic racism, racial micro-aggressions, ignorance, and white patriarchal superiority.  I received the following endorsements from women who have read my book and thesis.  These comments reminded me of the reason why I undertook the audacious task of completing a PhD and publishing my research in a readable format.

My advice to those who are afraid to try.  Tired of the challenges and barriers and want to give up.  Keep going.  We need more black women academics producing knowledge through research across different disciplines.

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