Updated: Jan 18, 2021
As a child, I was constantly told to get good grades and strive to be the best that I could be. This came from my parents, other family members, school teachers and the media. I was also told that it was the only way I was going to be 'happy' and successful in my life. So I followed their instructions and became the best I could possibly be. I was often the highest achiever of those around me and left school with the highest GSCE grades that any student at my school had achieved at that time.
At home, my white stepmother would praise her own daughters and very rarely praise me, even though I had achieved more academically. I was confused; isn't this what I was supposed to do to 'fit in', to belong and be successful in the white world I grew up in?
Soon enough, I started work, where my reality was the same, especially with the white women who often managed me. I was usually one of the only women of colour in most of my working environments. For years, I watched as the white people around me received promotion after promotion, while I mainly received criticism and monitoring.
I was a retail manager for years. During this time, I worked for 6 months as a temporary store manager. When the permanent position came up, I naturally assumed I'd get it. My store was the top performing in the area and the numbers spoke for themselves. But the two white women who interviewed me declined me the job, saying I didn't 'talk the talk'. Race was never mentioned, yet I found out soon afterwards that the white person they had hired after me was performing really poorly and that my colleagues missed me.
In the domestic abuse charity where I worked after that, I had two managers, which no-one else did. During a 'progress chat', they called in a third white woman, the CEO, and all three sat across from me as they offered only criticism for my previous year's work. Having been a manager who had completed many successful progress chats, I knew it had been managed really unfairly, and I was outraged and upset. After I complained, they meekly apologised. There was no acknowledgement of racial bias, yet I knew this hadn't happened to my white colleagues.
There have been plenty more experiences just like this, or much worse - and I know that many other people of colour know what I’m talking about.
The cognitive dissonance I experienced as a result of this continuous gaslighting and lack of acknowledgement of my capabilities has been really damaging to my mental health, my confidence, and my ability to put my work out into the world. When I looked at those who had received praise or promotions, I knew I had their capabilities or more, yet it was constantly denied or ignored. It took me a while to reach the truth, which has been truly painful to metabolize.
My capabilities as a brown woman is a threat to white people. I, who had only done what white society had told me to do, was denied the rewards that it had promised. Instead, I was kept in my place, which was one utterly subservient to them, despite often having more experience, higher intelligence or capabilities.
For some BIPOC, this may not be the case. There are some professionals who have reached a high level of success. But for many of us, there is a quota; an invisible line which we cannot cross, lest we gain more power than white people. We are relegated to subordinate positions and gaslit into thinking that that's where we genuinely belong. But when we compare our performance to some of our white colleagues', it is genuinely dumbfounding and concerning that we uphold so few positions of power.
As BIPOC we are fooled into an education system which tells us that if we work hard and assimilate into the system, we will get far. We are led into believing that there are no other unfair biases against us. It is all made to sound straightforward, as though this is all that is required from us. Yet when we do work hard and achieve this excellence, it is very clear that this is not what is wanted at all.
Assimilation is a painful lie. A double edged sword. A trap. We will always fail to truly succeed when we're employed within systems built by white people, exclusively for white people. It's rigged to only let a handful of people of colour in at a time, and more often than not, it is only to show that the organisation is 'diverse'. Anything more than that, and we are often perceived as a threat, whether they are conscious of this or not.
We have to start decentralising the power within these systems. For those who have the support, ability or privilege to do so, branching out into self-employment, starting our own collaborations and working creatively with other BIPOC or true allies are all ways we can start doing this.
Speaking out when we've received racist treatment is also important, but it's worth bearing in mind that these systems will very rarely admit to white supremacy and make any change beyond performative allyship. However, it can be very healing and empowering to share our painful experiences with our communities and white allies who are open enough to listen and be willing to sit with any discomfort that arises. It's also really important that other people of colour know that they're not alone in being discriminated against, and that we have power when united.
We have always been more than worthy and capable. But we have been taught to swim upstream against impossible currents, generated only for white people to succeed in large numbers. The time to start questioning and actively dismantling these systems, is now.