Today's blog in the #BeTheRippleBlogs series is an emotive piece from Sasidhi Silva.
Sasi is a Learning & Development professional and I was her Tutor when she was studying for her CIPD Level 5 qualification in L&D - we have remained in touch ever since. She is such a kind-hearted person and when I read about her experiences, it literally brought tears to my eyes. Tough, but important, reading.
Over to Sasi:
I was recently reading an article on the CNN health with the following title “Children aren't born racist. Here's how parents can stop them from becoming racist.” The article is a very interesting one but what caught my attention is that at 3 months, babies can distinguish faces by colour and at 3 years they can understand racial categories. After reading this article I found myself thinking of my childhood. I was 6 years old when I left Sri Lanka with my mom and moved to Italy. This was in the early 90s and there was no internet, phones, or anything back then that could have given me any idea of where I was going. My first two thoughts when I arrived in Italy were: 1- “It is freezing cold” (it was winter!) and 2- “People are “white” because there is no sun!” This made no difference to me (or my artistic skills) as I have always coloured people in yellow (yes, yellow!).
One day however, when I started school, my teacher pointed out in one of my drawings that “they” were not yellow, and neither was I. That seemed legit from my 7 years old point of view, so I decided to start using pink when drawing the kids in my class and using brown for myself. That did not bother me, I was different from them but that did not mean they were better, or that I was better than them. And I still had strong beliefs that Italy was lacking sun and therefore they could not get a proper tan, or they would have been like me!
Image is not of Sasi, taken from: https://globalnews.ca/news/7143557/girl-7-fundraises-diverse-crayons-books/
Despite my beliefs though, I soon understood that they were seeing things quite differently. When I turned 10, they started to call me names and even though they were jokes, I stated to feel uncomfortable. I realised that for them, “different” meant “of less value”. I started to feel hurt more and more. I talked to my parents, but they always told me to be the stronger and the more mature one. I was 10, I was not strong nor mature. Soon the hurt started to turn into anger, anger towards my parents who were not able to help me when I needed them, angry at the teachers who did not do anything useful apart from telling the kids off every now and then, angry because we had to move to Italy where people were making me cry and angry at myself, because I wanted to be like the other kids, like them, pink.
One episode I remember quite clearly which made me very sad. The kids in the class were playing truth or dare, one of them picked dare and was asked to give me a kiss on the cheek. The boy’s reply to that was “Eww, I would rather die than touching her!”. I quietly left the class, went to the toilet, and stated crying. I hated my skin. I hated it. But, I could not be pink, that much I knew. I only had one hope: after the 5th grade, I was moving to middle school and I had a small hope that I could make some friends despite the fact that I was brown. Well, needless to say, it did not happen. I soon got a quite long list of names the kids in my class they were calling me and ended up stopping relating to anyone. Head down, ignored everyone and everything, not listening to others, coming back home, crying for a bit and then start my homework. That was pretty much my usual day. I became so insecure and I did not feel comfortable when people were around me, I did not want them to see me so that they would not make any comments on my skin.
But, my school grades were pretty good and my parents could not be prouder of me. The fact that I was confined to my room studying was not a bad thing for them. Back then, I was angry at them as they saw what people were doing to me and they chose not to step up.
When I moved into high school, I did not have any hopes of making friends or being accepted. That’s when something unexpected happened. I remember one of the first days in class, one of my new classmates, came to me, rolled up a sleeve of his jumper, putting his arm next to next to mine. I was already expecting something obvious like “oh why are you so dark?” or worse, but instead he said: “I am milk, you are coffee, do you mind if we go and have a cappuccino?”.
That was my epiphany. In that moment I woke up and realised that not everyone sees “difference” as “negative” but there was someone who was seeing difference as “richness”. I started seeing myself at that point as a fundamental ingredient for a cappuccino!
Things got even better when I started reading and studying about wars, cultures, and racism. I learnt the history of Sri Lanka and Italy but also the American Civil War, the Second World War… Knowledge not only gave me information but also power and the self-confidence I needed. And The self-confidence I had weirdly enough, had to come from outside. It was more ex-confidence (external confidence) which allowed me to grow self-confidence. Little by little, I started loving myself, I started feeling better in my skin and when you love yourself, somehow people around you started appreciating you too. I made friends, I started going out, I started talking in public!
This does not mean that everyone around me stopped seeing me as different or “less important”. It was common that random people walking would shout things to me related to my colour. But I laughed and I was not alone, I laughed with my friends.
Looking back at my childhood, I see that education is the key. Education frees you and empowers you at the same time. It shows to yourself how much you are worth because you have to love yourself first so that others can see what an amazing person you are.
Parents have a great part in educating their kids. My parents have not done much about what I was going through. True. But I do not blame them. How could I? They did not go though anything different probably. They moved to a new country, without speaking the language, learn everything from scratch, finding jobs, providing me with food… and probably they did not even know what discrimination was before coming to Italy. They have provided me with the best they could, and I cannot judge them as I have not been in their shoes. I can only learn from their mistakes too, share them and raise awareness.
Another important moment in my life is when I decided to change. This time, to change country.
Moving a few years forward, I realised that Italy was too hot (I was tanned the whole year!) and decided to try the UK weather. Let me tell you that it did not disappoint me! I have all the fog and the rain I could ever need. Along with this weather I also experienced bad office politics. With no training, I started doing this job but when a task was not done, “the manager” did not waste time in pointing fingers saying that it was all my fault. I was verbally abused, and a sentence I would never forget is “Are you going to complain to HR about me? You’re just petty”. “The manager” started buddying up with my colleague and I was excluded pretty much from everything (not that I wanted to be anywhere near “the manager”). I was feeling broken again as I thought I left these things behind me. Going to work was feeling heavier every day and I did not want to go down that road again. Again, I had support from three people there who gave me the courage needed to try to change things. I decided that I should start speaking to HR. With my great surprise what I was told in between the lines was that if I was unhappy, I could leave. I took their advice. I left.
Thinking about it now, the advice of leaving was the best and the worst one ever given by an HR representative ever. It was the best one ever for me as I found a workplace that was worth fighting for, with amazing people and a wonderful manager and the worst advice because now, as part of an HR team, I would never, think of giving such advice.
I have no regrets with the decision of leaving. When you cannot change things because of a toxic company culture, the only thing left is to find a better fit for you elsewhere. I have no doubt that everything that happened, it was for a reason. I learnt how important is to have good colleagues, a positive office environment and the importance of being a fair leader or manager.
“I am where I am because of the bridges that I crossed” and I could not agree more with this statement by Oprah Winfrey. But, to be able to see where you are, you need to remember not only the bridges you crossed but also the paths you took and what you found on the other side of the bridges.
A wise person once said that we all have a duty towards others and it is important to share how we feel about these things so that we can learn from the mistakes and ensure they do not happen ever again. I hope that sharing this helps everyone in understanding the impact of our actions, how powerful words are (positive and negative) and how education is essential to raise awareness.
Thank you to Sasi for sharing such a powerful piece.
As Sasi asserts, often a perception of 'difference' of some kind is what might bring about unkind behaviours from others and education is key if we are to overcome unkindness in workplaces, educational establishments and wider society.
Sharing stories and amplifying voices is part of the #BeTheRipple movement's strategy, allowing us all to hear about experiences of different people and learn of the impacts of kindness/unkindness - leading us all to consider our own approaches and work towards creating a better working and wider world.
Thank you once again to Sasi for sharing such a personal piece, a reminder that words and actions can have powerful and lasting impacts, it is our choice as to whether we leave a positive or negative impact on others.
If you would like to submit a blog for this series, please send your work via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you on Monday for the next instalment!
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