If it’s anything other than love, you are at war…What does a white woman know of racism? I’m surprised to say, I know more than I realise. Last week set off a time bomb in my inner world, a vibration which was slow to start began growing, a small ember took hold and the heat started to build. Some of the stories in this blog have surprised me because they have been lying dormant for a long time, but as I wrote, memories of times where I experienced racism and sexual discrimination flooded in.
George Floyd’s death has not been in vain, the aftershock is still being felt in our global village. I still feel deep sadness in my heart, I have a vision for a world where every human life counts regardless of colour, creed, sexuality, gender or any other personal preference that one can conceive. I believe that we are fundamentally equal and yet, I am also aware of the need to purify and look deeper into my own life, and the stories that run deep, and how these may be taking root today.
The truth is I have experienced my own form of racism as both a small girl and grown woman. Growing up in a small mining town in Greater Manchester, racial tolerance was low and anyone perceived to be different was a threat. My jet-black hair, often suntanned skin and curvy body meant that I was regularly targeted for my appearance. If it wasn’t the sexual innuendos and accusations, it was the racial slurs, “are you a Paki?” they’d leer.
I remember feeling embarrassed and ashamed, which in itself speaks of the radical issues at the heart of this matter. My father’s Spanish origins saw him encounter racism in many areas of his life. He was turned down for a job that he was over qualified for; at a leading British company because they were suspicious that he was a spy. It took him a long time to find work because of his origins and accent, he’s also had to work harder than his peers to make himself a valued member of the workforce, not that he ever complains of his struggles but as I type, I’m aware that this was not lost on me as a child.
At school, the uncomfortable pauses when teachers read out the register taught me that my full name was unpronounceable. My response was always the same, “yes that’s me or “here Miss/Sir.” I still remember the embarrassed of being different, I so desired to be called “Smith” or “Jones,” something bland and English would be much better. I wanted to fit in, to feel safe, to belong to a culture, which at that time saw me as different.
What that did to me was make me reject my ethnicity, my differences and created a desire to fit in. While that’s not unusual for any teenager, I also felt unsafe and uncomfortable in my own skin and was regularly bullied in the hallways on my way to class. The scars ran deep and took a long time to heal.
As I made my way out into the world as an independent woman, I encountered sexual advances and was ignored in male-only board rooms, to be honest it was an expected part of the role back then. It taught be to be cautious, that ‘no’ was not necessary honoured; that to be taken seriously you needed to be tough, build a thicker skin or learn to run in heels.
When I started my first job, my boss decided to change my name to Karen Kelly, dropping the “difficult” Heras part. I was outraged, as was my Mother and I refused to play my part. My name was my name and it’s a name I’ve grown to love, to the point where when I married the “Heras” remained.
That was a long time ago and times have thankfully changed; or have they? This is the question that I have been sitting with all week. It’s simply not enough to not be racist, it’s time to stand up for others, for our humanity and unite. I do not know how it feels to be overlooked because of the colour of my skin, to be seen as dangerous or threatening because that has not been my reality, but I do know how it feels to be victimised, scared and diminished. I believe that the fighter in me rose young and with every opportunity, a great deal of effort was invested, sometimes too much. But at least the doors where open to me in the first place.
This is a message to everyone, when we divide and point the finger, we have closed our hearts. We are at war. It is only when we have walked in another’s shoes that we can fully understand their choices. We can choose to be kind, empathetic, compassionate, open and curious. When we choose empathy, we unite. More than ever it’s important to join together, as one nation, to say “this is not ok and petition for change.” I believe in peace, I believe in community and that there is always a way through turmoil.
If we allow racism to exist in any form in our day-to-day lives then we are polluting our airways, we are teaching our children that some matter, others not so and the impact of this will be passed on for even more generations.
What about you, what are you believing about this space and time? And are you willing to open your heart and make a shift?
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