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NEWS > Alumnae News > My Experiences of Racism

My Experiences of Racism

Sabrina, who has requested that we don't include her full name here, is an alumna from the Class of 2008, and has kindly agreed to share her personal experiences of the racism she faced growing up.

Aware of the importance of opening up discussion, she is keen for people to reach out to her if they want/need to talk, so if having read this you’d like to do that, please contact us and we will put you in touch with her.

“A host of recent incidents in the USA, most notably the death of George Floyd, have quite rightly pushed racial issues to the forefront of everybody’s minds. It is particularly striking that, in the midst of a global pandemic, this issue has finally been given the stage it so deserves.

Whilst the issue of racial discrimination may not have been a priority for many people until now, it is something that has featured heavily in my own life. By reflecting on my own experiences, I hope that it can provide an understanding of what we must change, in order to help tackle racial injustice.

My experience of racism started in my childhood and has persisted throughout my life. The earliest memory that I have of racism is being on the receiving end of racist language from a child in my class, at the approximate age of five. Since this experience, my approach to racial issues has changed significantly through different stages of my life, perhaps not by choice, but because I have been forced to adapt.

As a teenager I was embarrassed by the fact that I was ‘different’ to my friends and did anything I could to downplay the fact that I did not look like my friends or classmates. At this age I was called a ‘p***’ when walking along the road in a predominantly white area with a white friend. Looking back, the most striking fact about this incident is not the racial slur itself, but rather that I did not discuss it with my friend in the immediate aftermath. Rather than discuss how I felt and bring attention to it, I chose to shy away from the conversation and pretend that it never happened.

Recently, I spoke with my friend about this incident, and she recalled writing about it in her diary at the time. Clearly, it was an incident that had a significant impact on both of us, albeit for different reasons, and over time we have become far more comfortable with these types of conversations.

Several years after this particular incident, I was walking in the same area, but alone on this occasion, when a group of white males drove past and threw a milkshake at me whilst shouting out racist comments. I actually do not recall if I told my friend about this incident when I reached her house. It is highly likely that I pretended it never happened, but I do remember the extreme embarrassment that I felt. As a teenager I wanted to ignore the topic of racism and I would rather the ground swallow me up than discuss the issue, even with those close to me.

On another occasion, when at a friend’s house, I overheard one of the boys talking about me and saying, ‘Yeah but she’s REALLY Indian, isn’t she?’. He then sat and laughed with the other people in the group. I recall it being said in a negative way, as if being Indian should be something to be ashamed of. Regretfully, I look back on this incident knowing that, at that moment, I was ashamed of being Indian, because it made me different and seemed to be a reason to mock me. Again, I never discussed the incident with my friends and I pretended it never happened. I would openly state to my friends that I disliked the individual who made the comment, but I never explained the reasons why.

All of these incidents in my early years have taught me that conversations about racism and discrimination are important from childhood through to adulthood. We must encourage children to talk about these issues with their friends of all races. We must teach children to discuss this topic openly and honestly, even when it causes discomfort.

Feeling different, and being treated differently, continued into my early twenties. It was during this time that I began to feel increasingly frustrated about the issue of racism, as I was beginning to find my voice but did not know how to be heard.

In the queue for a nightclub in London I overheard the bouncer tell the two white girls in our group that they could come to the front of the queue. As the good friends that they were, they explained that they were with their friends and did not take up the offer. In response to this, the bouncer pointed at me and the other Indian girls in the group and stated ‘You won’t get in if you’re with them’. He was not aware that I had heard this comment.

Although I anticipated this being an issue when we reached the front of the queue, we continued to wait (highlighting how my response towards racism has changed, if this were to happen now, I certainly would not continue to wait in the queue – although I fear I am too old for nightclubs these days anyway!).

As expected, we were not allowed to enter the nightclub. No valid explanation was given and although I told the door staff that I had overheard their comments, they were not at all embarrassed or remorseful.

I did feel more comfortable voicing my opinion on this occasion because I was with other Indian people, who I knew felt as angry as me. However, I would not have spoken up had I been the only non-white person in the group, simply due to the embarrassment and the fear of being ‘the odd one out’. Whilst I do not doubt that my white friends would have supported me in such a situation, racism was not something we really discussed. Therefore, with little other choice, on that night our group simply moved on to another location to enjoy our evening.

On reflection I wish I had followed up the incident by reporting it, but I honestly felt that it would be pointless and nothing positive would result from it. Several years later I came across a number of news articles about this nightclub, which evidenced their discriminatory door policy, particularly against groups of Asian and black people.

You might be surprised to read that I feel guilt for the way in which I have tackled the topic of race throughout my life. As a 30-year-old woman, I now feel that I should have been prouder of my ethnicity as a child and young adult, and I should not have tried to fit the mould around me. In reality I accept this was difficult, particularly as I attended schools in predominantly white areas, where I often felt I was very different to others.

Memories from this time in my life include my primary school class playing a game, in which we were required to line up in alphabetical order based on our middle names. My middle name is Kaur, as is the middle name for all Sikh females. I reflect on this day with embarrassment because I remember pretending I did not have a middle name. As a child I was mortified about the fact that my middle name did not sound like all the white girls’ names. It was easier for me to lie than to have to answer questions such as, ‘WHAT? Like an apple core?’.

As an adult I am ashamed about how I acted during this game and the memory has stuck with me. But life teaches us lessons. And experiences such as these have encouraged me to be more open and to be prouder of my faith, even if it does make me ‘different’. I am increasingly more open with those around me about my ethnicity and my background, and I no longer feel like I have to fit a mould that is not mine.

Working in the security industry has only increased my awareness of race on a day-to-day basis, as the industry is predominantly white, middle aged and male. If I had a penny for every time I have been mistaken for the one other Asian girl in my team/department/network, I would certainly be very wealthy!

Although I have joked about it in the past, this highlights a bigger issue: I have unfortunately faced racism in my working life, and whilst friends and colleagues gave me their support following these incidents, what I really needed was for other people to speak openly about this topic too. I am fully aware that it is difficult to speak up when the topics of conversation are uncomfortable and difficult, but we must get better at tackling these issues. Over time it only becomes easier.

I often reflect on the times in my life when I have actively ‘called out’ racism in the workplace and I question whether I did the right thing. I maintain that I did, because things desperately need to change. I only wish I had spoken up sooner and that more people had spoken up with me. A collective voice is far stronger than a single one. However, I recognise that my past experiences allow me to fully appreciate the positive and inclusive environment I now work in.

My experiences have made me stronger, and I would not be the person that I am today had I not dealt with these events in my life. I want to highlight how my experiences of dealing with racial discrimination have taught me that talking can help to tackle these issues and that it is extremely important to speak up, even if the issue does not directly affect you.

In particular, my concern is for those who are not as confident as I am, who need the people around them to support them even more than I did. It can be easy to think that something is just a joke or is ‘close to the line’ but not over it, but if it makes somebody uncomfortable, I can assure you it is not ok. I regret the times when I have awkwardly laughed in situations when, really, I wanted to say how uncomfortable I felt, but did not want to be the only one to raise the issue. It can become draining when you are the only one speaking up and are accused of being ‘sensitive’, when in reality you just want things to change for the better.

We can all benefit from talking more, asking more questions and learning more about those who are different to us. I am extremely fortunate to be able to say that my LEH friendship group continues to be my closest friends to this day. After 19 years of friendship, this essay was the first time that I was truly open with them about the topic of racism, and my personal experiences, and they were of course as amazingly supportive as I had expected them to be. Whilst I do not believe in having regrets, I do wish I had been brave enough to talk to them about this sooner.

Lastly, I would like to note that I often hear people say that the UK is not racist, to which I say that it is very easy to be unaware when you have not experienced racism first hand. Putting yourself in the shoes of somebody who does not look like you may just highlight issues that were not on your radar before.

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