Today's blog in the #BeTheRippleBlogs series is an insightful piece from Willorna Brock.
Willorna is a Senior HR Business Partner, a freelance HR Advisor and Career Coach and a sessional Lecturer for CIPD Level 5 qualifications.
You can find Willorna on LinkedIn: Here and on Twitter: @Ilondalb
Over to Willorna:
My honest reflections on recent events
It has been a few months since the death of George Floyd. I experienced so many emotions following that moment and had been wanting to express my feelings about it how I do best…in writing, but I simply could not bring myself to do so. But I knew I would eventually.
That video…Wow. Initially, I could not bring myself to watch it. The words “I can’t breathe” sent chills through my spine. Then the fact that he was calling for his deceased mother…Wow. That was the bit that got me. I have 3 boys….I am very close to them and I am incredibly protective of them…I tag myself “Mum of boys” when I post anything related to them.
That episode was also shortly after the Amy Cooper incident. In the middle of COVID-19 when my race has been disproportionately affected by the disease, and a time when the pandemic has rendered emotions very fragile. So you can just imagine how raw my emotions were.
I have male family and friends. OK…we live in the UK so we would say that the UK doesn’t have that sort of rampant killing of black people. However, the George Floyd killing somehow got everyone talking about race not just in the UK but globally. Everyone was outraged. The last time I experienced a similar feeling was in my early 20s after Stephen Lawrence was killed.
This time it felt different. The demonstrations, the call for statues to be removed, the convos being had about what could be done to alleviate racial inequality, the CBI dedicating some of their daily Coronavirus webinars to the race issue, the optimist in me was relieved that change has finally come.
This got me thinking…
I was born in the UK to Sierra Leonean parents from the Krio tribe, descendants of the slave trade. My parents came to study in the UK in the 1960s. I come from generations of highly educated and influential Krios on both sides – the Beckleys and the Fashole-Lukes - my maternal great-grandfather ATA Beckley was the first African District Commissioner who obtained an OBE in the 1950s.
My family had been coming to the UK since the 1930s – my maternal grandfather studied in Hamble, Southampton, and one of my great-uncles Desmond Luke studied at both Oxford and Cambridge. While my parents remained in the UK, my younger brother and I were raised by our maternal grandparents in Freetown.
Some Krio families including mine are very Anglophile, so we were raised to embrace all things British. We were not even allowed to speak the local dialect at home – had to speak English, had bacon and eggs for breakfast on Sundays, had turkey and all the trimmings at Christmas, and attended an Anglican church, all dressed up in formal attire.
We mingled with expats who we would often entertain at home. So from a very young age, I learnt the art of intelligent dinner party conversation.
I seriously never felt different because I was at ease with all these people who were friends of the family.
During my years in Sierra Leone, I spent a few summers in England.
When I finally moved back permanently at the age of 14, I had the shock of my life. My school friends made fun of my ‘accent’, called me names and did not believe that I did not grow up in a mud hut. My teachers were very surprised that I was top of the class and always commented on how good my English was. I do recall when I mentioned that I will be going to University that they were rather surprised. I would not have been the first in my family to attend University.
That was the first time in my life that I felt different.
I always say I am proudly British Sierra Leonean, I have been very bold all my life, and I have sought opportunities without ever thinking about the fact that I was a black woman. I guess my upbringing provided me with a lot of confidence.
Whilst I have not experienced overt racism in my time in England, I have had to deal with some annoying incidents, what's been called 'micro-aggressions'. A couple of years ago I attended an interview for a role at a firm in the City. There were two people in the Reception area - a white lady and me. When my interviewer arrived to collect me, she went up to the white lady presuming she was me and completely ignored me. Needless to say, I withdrew my application for that role after the interview.
I have begun to consider my future in the UK as I climb the career ladder in HR, because I do not see many like me at the top. I have had moments when I have felt that in order to reach my fullest potential I might have to do what many of my close friends and family members have done, return to the African continent.
They all cited racism, career progression, and opportunities to contribute to the development of the continent as their reason for relocating. Also, following Brexit and the hostile environment where we are being told to “Go back where we came from”, it’s no wonder.
I used to think “Oh well the UK is a conservative country, people can’t come in and try to change the status quo.”
That was until I started to educate myself on Black history which I realised I missed out on as it is not in the British Curriculum. One of my sons who is studying politics at University told me that it was at University that he learned about the Slave trade.
As a descendant of the Slave trade, I honestly had not completely grasped the entire story. My family never once said anything derogatory about the British and I never grew up feeling any resentment. On the contrary, as I mentioned earlier, they love Britishness, one of my cousins wears Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet which he always tells me his hero, Sir Winston Churchill, used to wear.
But now after reading up and educating myself about 400 years of slavery and oppression, I suddenly felt like I have lost my identity. Who am I?
When I tell non-black people that I am originally from Sierra Leone, a former British colony, they look bewildered. Most have never even heard of Sierra Leone. They don’t know much about Britain’s colonial past and don’t realise that I speak English because the country my parents come from has English as its offical language, and has a Legal and Educational framework based on the British system.
So with this in mind, telling us to “Go back where you came from”, is rich coming from anyone whose ancestors “had their feet on our necks so we couldn’t breathe”, to quote the Rev. Al Sharpton at George Floyd’s memorial service.
I am a pragmatist and one of my mantras is “It is what it is”. I also find it hard to harbour negative feelings. The past is the past …so many wrongs have taken place…we cannot change the past but we can the future.
So many conversations are now being had with people asking what can be done going forward.
I am not an expert but as an advocate of Education and Lifelong learning, I think we need to start with Education.
People need to learn about Britain’s imperial legacy so they can understand all the connections and why some of us are here instead of the motherland. I was having this discussion with my boys and I think I understand why something like slavery is not a feature in the history curriculum at primary at least..…how do you explain that to an 8-year-old? But let’s find a way… people need to know the history of black people in the UK.
People also need to dispel all their misconceptions about the black race and realise that there are lots of educated and hardworking black people – as a race we are very aspirational…a recent report showed that despite being high performers we were unlikely to be deemed as high potential. (HR Data Hub 2020).
Another thing that needs to happen is for people to let go of bias and not to look surprised when they see an articulate black person – I say this because I delivered a piece at an event and afterwards I was told that I "read very well”. My aunt who was with me at the time, was offended. She asked "Would she have said that to a white woman?” She felt that I was being told this because I was a black woman and for them, it was surprising that I could read well.
Africa is rising and is an emerging market despite the images of poverty and destitution.
I am hopeful that change will come and my Gen Z boys will be able to reach their full potential and live in the world that Martin Luther King dreamt of.
You can find out more about the Krios if you are able to visit the current exhibition at the Museum of London, which I believe is open until March 2021.
Thank you so much to Willorna for sharing this insightful piece.
Willorna's piece discusses the importance of education in aiding our understanding and the importance of not making assumptions about other people based solely on what we see, or what we feel.
The report findings that Willorna refers to demonstrates how far we still have to go before there is true equity in our workplaces and as she asserts, it is vital that we first understand and address our own bias in order that we can move forward, overcome discriminatory views and practices and truly create the world that Martin Luther King dreamt of.
Thank you once again to Willorna for this insightful piece.
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