I consider myself to be one of the fortunate ones where my race hasn’t (at least knowingly) held me back within my career and no artificial barriers put in my way by any of the organisations I have worked in.
However, in my earlier career days, I did sometimes feel that I needed to go the extra mile to demonstrate my worth, because of my race. Not because of anything any colleague or senior actually said or did, but because of my own perceptions and feelings.
These were undoubtedly born through experiences I had growing up. The playground childish name calling and the more hurtful blatant racist name calling as a teenager. But the most traumatic experience, stems from my late 20s when I was sat in a restaurant at lunchtime with a friend (back in the day when women used to power dress in sharp suits and big shoulder pads – yes early 90s fashion faux pas…). The table behind me seated a family of whom I assume were two parents, 3 young children and a grandma; I had my back to them, but part way through our meal, I heard a male voice loudly shout “what the hell do you think you are looking at”, this was repeated a couple of times when my friend leaned across and told me she thought it was directed at us. I turned around and the man was stood up glaring at me, which in itself was intimidating, but then proceeded with such raging profanities against the colour of my skin (I won’t elaborate on the language but I’m sure you can imagine some of the descriptive words used to describe Indians) and how “your lot have no shame walking around in your suits stealing our jobs when you should be out on the streets in your own country”. This ugly tirade carried on for a good few minutes and not a single customer or member of staff put a stop to it, it was heads down and awkward glances. We left our meal and walked out with the man following us, continuing spouting his hatred. Through the town centre we walked and again, no-one intervened. I ended up having to go back to my friend’s place of work and then phoning one of my colleagues to come and pick me up. To say I was terrified was an understatement. To this day, I can feel that fear and nausea and to be honest shame, in the pit of my stomach when I think about that experience. Why did I feel shame? Because no-one corrected him, not one person, and so it did make me feel unworthy for a while. Up until that point I’d been proud of what I’d achieved through sheer hard work, so to have someone turn that into shame is quite difficult to swiftly get over.
The next day, I plucked up the courage to go back to the same restaurant and speak with the manageress who had been on duty the day of the incident. She very candidly and dismissively told me that neither she nor any member of her staff had witnessed the incident. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.
Thankfully I haven’t experienced anything like this since, but I guess something like this always stays with you. Someone was basically telling me I wasn’t worthy of what I had achieved because of my race and that’s why I felt like I had to prove myself for a while afterwards. I used to wonder how his children turned out, whether they followed his lead, or went up against him as adults. That was 20 years ago and I’m glad to say things have most definitely moved on, but will there ever be complete equality? I’m not sure. What I do know is that no-one should ever, ever, have to feel the need to prove themselves over and above anyone else, just because of their race. It’s a lesson I’m subtly teaching my 14 year old son; sadly he will experience prejudice at some time in his life, but I can help him equip himself to deal with it.