“We need to rock the boat” – Sherry Malik

The author of this post is Sherry Malik, who is passionate about social justice and social care. She has over 30 years experience of leading and managing a diverse portfolio in public services.

She is currently a NED @Dimensions UK and a former DCS @NSPCC, exec roles @MyCafcass, @LBofHounslow and GSCC.

I told myself that talking about what I experienced in the context of my gender and my race would somehow label me, that it would stop others from seeing me as a credible senior manager….

The airwaves continue to resound with the issues raised by Black Lives Matter campaign. While I am really pleased that everyone is engaged and there is permission to talk right now, for me personally, there is also a sense of fatigue and déjà vu mixed with anger and sadness. However, there is also hope.

These conflicting feelings are emerging for me now, because the stories I am hearing are stirring up my own memories. I had parked these in the recesses of my innermost thoughts, for fear that sharing this would not help me. I told myself that talking about what I experienced in the context of my gender and my race would somehow label me, that it would stop others from seeing me as a credible senior manager. Colleagues, I fell into the classic trap of trying not to rock the boat because it wouldn’t be comfortable for anyone.

For the past 16 years, I have worked as a Director in different organisations and as Non-Executive Director on various boards. I have been the only BAME member of those teams. On a day to day level, that has not mattered, we all had a job to do. However, on the occasions when I have been made to feel lesser, intentionally or unintentionally, I have tended to assuage the discomfort others were feeling and quickly moved on. I didn’t acknowledge my own hurt and on sometimes instead, I laughed it away.

I laughed away the ignorance of the man at Kings Cross in a suit carrying a briefcase asking me where I was from. Bewildered I looked up from my book and he whispered I should go back to where I had come from. I made a joke of the occasion when the golf club manager asked me to take the lunch order for the meeting I was chairing, because he thought I was the PA taking minutes. I showed incredulity at the teenage girls who kicked over my laundry in the launderette calling me ‘Mrs Patel, go back to Pakistan’ – didn’t they know that the Patel’s came from India?! I buried the memory of the young couple who watched and did nothing to stop those teenage girls from pushing my young children around, calling them ‘little Pakis’. Oh, the shame of it. I couldn’t protect them properly.

I myself had a very protected middle-class upbringing in India and emigrated to the UK aged 19. My early experiences of racism shocked me. Why would anyone doubt my worth based on my race? Why would they question my ability to speak English as well as they did? Why would I be told by the local authority seconding me to study social work, that my application to the LSE wouldn’t be accepted, because I went to school in India? Why would my white colleagues’ express resentment because I was paid more than them despite my job being a specialist one? And why would my white male colleague tell me the only reason I got the job was because I was a BAME woman? I have worked twice as hard to be judged just as good, even though I earned that job through an open rigorous recruitment process.

I feared for my children when they were growing up. I had to develop the language and figure out strategies to explain our experiences both to myself and them. I had to teach myself and my children to believe in our own ability to succeed. And this leads me to talking about hope….

Almost 30 years ago, I designed and delivered a 10-session programme for the after-school club my then primary school children attended. This was in response to the playground racism they had been experiencing.

Over 10 weeks, I engaged with this group of children and saw their attitudes shift and change as their understanding grew. We talked about different cultures and religions, the similarities and differences in food, language, celebrations of birth and weddings, festivals, race, colour, identity, respect and much more. At its core, these things held the same meaning for all children regardless of where they were from. I hope that group of children have grown up to be the kind of adults who call out racism when they see it on the street or in the work place and reach out to support their BAME friends and colleagues. That support has always meant so much to me. And it has hurt enormously when people ignored or pretended it wasn’t anything to do with them.

So in this moment, while we are being asked to share our experiences and some of us feel brave enough to write or talk about them, my hope is we will be heard and that change will follow.

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