Rajwinder Kaur Cheema, Head of Participation at XenZone, discusses racism and anti-racism against a backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Let me start with a story.
Avtar is an ambitious young man who lives with his large family in a small farming village. He is the first person in his family who can read and write.
Realising there isn’t anything for him to do other than farming, he makes the decision to leave his family and find work elsewhere. His parents are upset by this decision but they want their son to be happy.
Pretty soon, he gets a job working as a kitchen hand on a ship, makes friends with different kinds of people and lands in England. He decides to stay in England for a short while, but misses his family.
One day, he is coming out of a tube station in East London and three young men attack him. They take his turban off, pull at his beard and shove him around.
He manages to run away but is frightened and shaken by this incident. He has never experienced this before and questions whether he should stay in England. He decides to stick around on the suggestion of his friends.
Shortly afterwards, Avtar gets married and starts a family.
As his three children are growing up in a different country, he finds it hard to understand their experiences and how to help them. They often ask him to explain why other children call them certain words, why other children say they smell like curry and why they feel scared when these things happen.
He speaks to them about racism, tells them to ignore what other people say, asks them not to get into fights and instead focus on their studies.
His children grow up and start working in jobs he could never dream of. Their achievements make him feel proud. But now he’s noticed his children talking about their experiences of working in an office. They’ve noticed they don’t seem to get recognised or promoted as often as other people.
They feel like their voices are ignored in meetings but perhaps they’re being paranoid. And they feel lonely because there aren’t many people like them in the office. When Avtar tells them they’re being treated differently and unfairly, they refuse to believe him because “it’s not the 70s anymore, Dad!”
But years later they find these patterns of behaviour keep coming up.
Avtar is my father. And this is a short story of how racism has affected and continues to affect my family to this day.
Growing up, I learned quickly when/who to talk to about racism and when/who not to talk about racism. And even with all the lessons I’ve learned along the way, it still feels like one of the hardest topics to talk about openly even though it is such a damaging experience.
Constantly seeing the images on my phone, TV and YouTube in the last few weeks has been really hard. I’ve been feeling anger, confusion, disappointment and guilt.
I’m finding it hard to focus on my work in this emotional state. I haven’t been able to eat and sleep properly. I’ve had a feeling of sickness in the pit of my stomach. I’ve also been feeling tired; physically broken sometimes.
I’ve been asking myself lots of questions like:
Could I have spoken about my experiences and other’s experiences sooner?
Could I have spoken about my experiences and other’s experiences more often?
Could I have made people feel uncomfortable by asking certain questions when they needed to be asked?
Have I done enough to speak up about this topic?
What can I do to help others understand why it’s important to talk about this topic?
How can I contribute in any way to make it better for the next generation?
As a first step, I decided it was important to share my family’s story. Because this story matters.
We need to start talking about our stories and our experiences. Because only through our personal stories can we help others understand the pain and impact of racism on our families, communities, health, and happiness.
Second, I am also making a personal commitment to use the term racism when I know this is happening to me or others.
Because when we cover it up by using other words – we are not doing ourselves any favours in building a better future. We are denying the reality of an experience. The protests are a clear sign that it is time for us to face up to what’s happening for a lot of people.
Third, I want to do everything I can in my job to ensure the voices, stories and experiences of our users inclusively shape our work so we know we’re doing our best to meet everyone’s needs. I am making a commitment to ensure we are engaging with users from different communities and with different identities to do this.
Call for action: If you want to help us to shape better services for the future, then please connect with the Participation team at firstname.lastname@example.org*. We are set up to encourage user participation to design and deliver better services in the future. If we don’t respond immediately, please bear with us. We will get back to you.
Before I finish, there is only one thing I want to say to you: keep talking, keep sharing your stories and experiences, and keep supporting each other.
*If you are using our anonymous Kooth or Qwell mental health support services, please note your anonymous status will be broken if you choose to email us and express an interest in getting involved in any participation activities. The Participation team will ask you for your consent to hold your personal details in a secure place and will let you know what your data rights are in their follow up with you. You cannot get involved in any participation activities unless the Participation team has this consent from you.