Unheard voices, Race and COVID-19

(5 min read)

Woman holding child, pointing and looking out towards seaThe prettiest of rainbow spikes, fanned in a row of stiff and sky high triangles, in the middle of two shaven sides.  Jewellery and buckles clanging together, metal on metal.  As he picked me up, I remember being enchanted by the coolest hair I had ever set eyes on. In complete contrast to my two tightly braided plaits, his hair was standing in rigid spikes from the top of his forehead running down to the nape of his head. He pulled a coin from his pocket and placed it in my hand.  I was thrilled. This cool man was giving me pennies, in the middle of my dad’s shop. There was never a shortage of sweet old ladies, smiling endearingly and passing me coins, “for you lass, to buy a sweetie.”  (I must have been a cute kid).

I remember holding the grudge of all grudges when my dad came running over and grabbed me out the man’s arms.  He hurriedly ushered the group of men out the door, and on returning, gently took my 20p, put it in the charity box, and handed me a consolation Marathon bar.

You see that was my earliest and most vivid encounter with racism.  At the tender age of 6 or 7, I had no idea what the National Front meant.  I had no inkling of the discriminatory views they violently and vehemently upheld, but only weeks earlier, this ‘kind’ man and his group had come into the shop and used physical violence, intimidation and threats towards my father.  Only as an adult did I piece together the memory of my father, bloodied, with a gash above his eye, sitting in our living room with police officers, somberly flicking through an album of headshots. Like an age old scar, a forever reminder of a painful wound, this was the experience that set me on a path of study and work within race equality and inequalities.

As I write in the comfort of home with a warm cup of tea and my family safely tucked in bed. I think about the world easing slowly out of lockdown, and how my experience could be polar opposite to someone living a few miles down the road.  Because coronavirus thrives on inequality. Being in poverty lowers life expectancy, increases the chances of contracting the virus, and doubles the risk of not surviving it.  If you’re black Asian minority ethnic (BAME) in the UK, then you’re disproportionally affected by the virus: you’re twice as likely to get it, more likely to be in overcrowded accommodation, and may already have pre-existing health conditions, which in turn decreases your survival rate.  Racial inequalities and disparities in health, education, housing and employment have blighted the lives of BAME communities, and have existed long before COVID-19.

STOP.

This is where this 2 week blog tepidly sitting in draft, halts. I’ve pondered over sending this in to Corra, my new workplace. In all the years I’ve worked tirelessly in race equality, I’ve never shared the above story.  Why? Because it’s an emotionally charged, overflowing, memory box. But two years ago, I tragically lost the very person who taught me how to work compassionately across all faiths and communities, who lovingly showed me how to build community spirit in places and neighbourhoods, and to embrace difference with kindness, despite what he went through his whole life. The community resilience we see now, with people reaching out to neighbours, reminds me of childhood memories of my parents. They would invite anyone in for a cuppa – the postie, neighbours, Jehovah’s witnesses… you knocked, you entered, you left belly full.  My mother cooked with all the windows and doors open.  Neighbours arrived following the scent of freshly made pilau and slow cooked curries, and left with dinner packaged in tupperware boxes (I’m talking empty margarine and ice cream containers) – a tradition I have embraced proudly, Flora tubs and all.

Back to reality
As my Twitter feed rapidly unfolds with the stories from America, I find myself mentally exhausted at the thought of summarising my heartache in 280 characters and a multitude of hashtags.  In the midst of a pandemic, the discourse continues in a flurry of messages, from global protests to riots, pent up anger to resistance, from activism to placards of hope.  So, I shrug off the weariness and start to write again, but this time with new found clarity.

As a person of colour, I have countless examples of racism and discrimination that have happened to me and people around me.  I know activists will say to me, but this was your chance. You could have raised awareness of our fight. Give examples!!  But it’s not ‘our’ fight!  Do I cut myself open, so people can understand?  Rip off the plaster to show you the damage?

That’s part of the structural problem of racism. I shouldn’t need to justify myself, or prove it.  It’s a societal issue; it’s one for all of us.  Now is the time to get together as change belongs to all of us.

At a time when things feel ever so dark, I look for that light as I always do.  Like always, I eventually find it in the form of kind souls, friendships and my family. I think back to a few months ago, to why I was drawn to Corra, an organisation which works to strengthen and amplify people’s voices and their power to make change. And, I don’t need to look too far because, it’s resonance. I’ve been that voice that wasn’t heard, had a seat at the table and also been left out the room.  This is why Corra’s Community Stories campaign is super-important to me. It’s a shout out to those unheard voices.  A call to action to those who need to listen, and those who need to be heard.

To a hopeful future
As COVID-19 starts to loosen its grip, many people are seeing this as a real opportunity to make radical changes.  Not to go back to how it was, but to do different. I’m hopeful for a future, where your income or lack thereof does not have an effect on your life expectancy, where kindness and compassion rise above any form of prejudice and injustice. I want to be part of creating the very positive change that I long for.

We all hold power in some way or form – some more than others and some in the form of prestige and privilege.  But every single one of us owns OUR own story.  This was my story, and I hesitantly tell it, but in doing so, I hope it encourages you to share yours.

I’m going to leave this blog with a conversation I recorded with some wee voices, because it’s important that our chats about the future include our next generation.

 

Join me in the #SameStormDifferentBoat #BuildForwardBetter conversations. Have a look on the Corra website if you’d like to find out more, or drop me an email at shasta@corra.scot.

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