Taking care of the hurt caused by racism

I got a message on LinkedIn a couple of days ago from a Black woman who had worked at Friends of the Earth (England, Wales and NI), when I worked there too. She reached out to me because she remembered me leading conversations on equality/diversity. It was a kind and thoughtful message. She started it with ‘I’m not wanting to bring up anything that might trigger you but…’.

I read it and forgot about it. Then yesterday morning when half-asleep I had a flashback to my first FOE annual conference in 2008. I was 26 years old and recently recruited to run the community empowerment programme on the Rights and Justice team. It was the annual ‘Motions’ debate at the conference, which was a kind of pseudo-democracy process between FOE’s local groups and the centralised office staff. I was the mic-runner in the debate, running around handing people the microphone to people speaking.

My manager had previously written an organisational policy that FOE local group members would refuse to share a platform in the local elections hustings with candidates from the British National Party. One of the motions was from a local group member (White, male) who wanted that policy to be overturned. He argued that the BNP was a credible political party and therefore it was damaging to FOE to not engage with them, if we want the best chance of achieving our environmental goals. The racism of the BNP was not relevant, not our business.

There had been some debate about whether the motion would be debated at all earlier. I had felt angry and worried, and then a temporary relief as it seemed the session was closing. Then all of a sudden, as people were leaving, the proposer of the motion demanded that it was brought forward. A lot of staff had left the room already. I don’t remember any other BME folks being in the room.

If I had just been ‘me’ at that point I likely might have responded to the proposer directly. And the Chair of the board who facilitated him, also a White man who knew what power he wielded and was consistently offhand and rude. (I still don’t understand why he was allowed to hold that role for so many years). I had already in previous weeks gotten into a skirmish with a (White male) member of senior management, told to ‘watch my tone’ when challenging the tokenistic use of BME folks’ images in climate change campaign materials, but I still had fire and willingness to use it.

But in that moment of chaos, I was the mic runner too. Imagine being in a role where you are part of the machinery of the debate whilst also being a new and junior member of staff, feeling exposed in front of an auditorium full of people. Traumatic events can cause us to fight, to run away and to freeze. I froze. And watched as people tried to argue (I remember a friend from Birmingham particularly having a go) but his motion was passed. I am sure I’m not the only one who wanted to do something and froze.

Humans are designed to handle stressful events. Stress becomes traumatic when you feel alone, unsupported. In that moment, I watched the organisation, the movement, I had joined to help progress issues I passionately cared about circumvent its own procedures to pass a racist motion, with very little challenge. I had continued in autopilot, handing round the mic. I sank into myself, as if watching the events from afar. At the same time horrified, livid, powerless, physically shaking. And perhaps worse of all, shame… feeling that it was somehow all my fault. That I was responsible for all this. That I had f*cked up and let down everyone impacted by racism and the BNP

A few of us talked on the train home and tried to fix it afterwards, but that involved writing long papers for management and the board and the effort fizzled out over time.

I didn’t get a chance to process the emotions of that time, so I buried them – there was no-one to talk to who really could help me make sense of what had happened. I had lots more of stressful occasions where I tried to speak up and lots of more regular day to day racist/sexist microaggressions such as people ignoring an idea when I said it, but loving it when said by a White person, having others take credit for my work, or being called Gita (the other Indian woman on my team). I told myself that because these experiences weren’t nearly as bad as the racism and violence other people experience, they weren’t important. I’ve since realised they can be both.

One of the ways I dealt with the emotions I buried was to try and fix things so something like that never happened for me or anyone else. I poured effort in the coming years at FOE into coordinating an internal organisational campaign and learning programme on equality and diversity and to try and ensure that our Rights and Justice work was reaching and shaped by the needs of folks worst affected by environmental justice issues. To ensure we recruit better, that our internships are accessible and paid. That work wasn’t new at the time – others had tried to start the conversation before me and others have taken up the baton since.

Lots of wonderful folks supported the effort when I was there, including a number of amazing BME staff and volunteers, and local group members. The ‘Environment is for Everyone’ core group could fill a room with staff and volunteers from all parts of the organisation. I learnt as many community development skills as I could and tools such as Theatre of the Oppressed, and we trained local groups at successive conferences to build relationships in their communities. We challenged management and the board to change organisational practices from HR to disability access to democratic decision-making to better communications. We were aiming for a deep and wide culture-change and we knew it. We were a victim of our own initial success, in some ways. Senior management then tried to co-opt the core group and its work into its 5-year strategy-planning process, splitting the group’s cohesiveness as it did so. Classic, right.

My Rights and Justice project networking community groups across East London on fuel poverty and housing standards was slashed (and thus I lost half my job) because management felt progress was too slow. I was actually taking time to build relationships with community groups (mostly BME) across Tower Hamlets, Newham and Barking and Dagenham and co-planning with them. Management wanted a ‘more obvious climate change focus’. The then-Director of Campaigns said he didn’t understand why I was working to build relationships with Gypsy and Traveller groups, why they were relevant and not a reputational risk. I had a phase of bad health and left in 2012.

There were many things I loved about FOE. Some of the Power Up weekends my team ran, the informal BME lunch group I set up in the latter years and the singing group I started in our office roof garden are some good memories of beautiful nourishing times. A couple of my current closest friends, I met at FOE.

Over my 4.5 years there I had ideas, facilitated, argued, persuaded, encouraged, persisted. But I never really showed my full rage or hurt. I learnt at the conference that it wasn’t safe to do so, despite being amongst people who claim to be on the same side. I toned down the badass side of my personality, made myself more ‘likeable’, to stay safer. I took care of others, often not realising that I needed to take care of myself, ask myself what I needed. And that’s me as a person of an Indian/Hindu family. I suspect (and heard, on occasion) that FOE was a much harder place to be for the few Black and Muslim staff.

The personal impact of day to day racism is sad. The wider impact is debilitating for all of us: racism kicks the legs from beneath people who are able to lead and inspire radical change. It’s one of the reasons it exists I think – a backlash from a system that doesn’t actually want the change, even if your organisation claims to be working for it.

So… this amazing ex-FOEster writes me a kind message on LinkedIn and yesterday morning I woke up having a flashback to a memory I had buried and then puddles of tears, which kept welling up throughout the day. I know it is a gift – that the trauma of that time (which will be linked to childhood trauma too including racism at school and challenging sexist, racist, caste-ist norms in wider my Gujarati family) is looking to be witnessed, cared for and released. With the help of skills I have learnt from my teachers, my meditation practice and love from family and friends. My friend put her hand on my back between my shoulder blades yesterday – a simple gesture that really helped. Being supported and learning to really feel my feelings has been crucial in helping me support and build community amongst BME folks. It means the workshops and coaching I do now are all the more effective.

Why am I writing this story? It’s not cos I need apologies or analysis about that incident at conference or cos I think what happened to me at FOE was unusual or particularly noteworthy. I’m writing it cos all kinds of stories are needed and the ones I can tell best are my own. This feels like a particularly intense time of change. I want to remind myself and others of how much support and care is needed right now. Remind us that stopping, feeling, resting for a while at a time where so much ‘action’ seems to be asked for IS ACTION in itself. As is taking time to build communities of care and warmth around us

BME folks who have experienced racism in White-dominated organisations, particularly Black folks, ask yourself if you feel supported. As many of your White colleagues are waking up to structural racism and anti-Blackness, you may be being asked to do a whole load of extra work explaining, educating, taking care of other’s emotional responses, dealing with the memories this period evokes. It’s an exciting time of change in some ways and it’s exhausting. I’ll say to you what I’m saying to younger versions of myself – it is NOT all your responsibility to make better. The idea that things need fixing NOW and it’s all my responsibility is a kind of trauma response in itself, the voice of fear. Take time to build your support networks of people you don’t have to explain anything to, who will proactively ask you ‘how are you today?’ and ‘what do you need?’. Be that person for others, particularly young people. Remember what you love, what you enjoy, what brings you alive. Being in nature can really soothe. Consider therapeutic support of different kinds. Baatn.org.uk is the Black and Asian Therapy Network. Also see https://www.blackmindsmatteruk.com/ and https://www.blackthrive.org.uk/ in Lambeth, London. Massage and craniosacral therapy really helps me.

White folks who want to unlearn racism.. You are needed. This isn’t a Black or BME struggle, it’s yours to lead. Don’t let your organisation stop after making the reflexive public statement supporting BLM. You also need to love and take care of yourselves and other White folks who are trying to learn and stay with the feelings of this time. Stop for a while and feel it all, without jumping to do something. Check in with others, talk about what you are learning about racism and Whiteness at home and work. Challenge any bullshit behaviour without trashing the person. Be kind. Particularly reach out to young people. Men, please support other men, don’t rely on women to do the heavy lifting. Right now don’t ask your BME colleagues to teach you stuff, ask them what support they need. Listen. Listen hard. Show you can be trusted. Step up to meet the needs you’re hearing about. If they need to take some time and space out, be ready to release them from some workload for a while. Ensure your organisation pays for therapeutic support for your BME colleagues at this time if they ask for it, of whatever kind they prefer. Consider donating to initiatives like this or this. When planning the necessarily-uncomfortable discussions on structural organisational change (culture change and changes in specific practices and policies, redistributing resources, changing how decisions are made), allocate enough time and work to have them in a way where folks feel able to listen.

I was listening to this as I type, bansuri (bamboo flute) music which soothes my soul.

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Placard for BLM demo, Brighton, 13/06/20

3 thoughts on “Taking care of the hurt caused by racism

  1. Shilpa, thank you for laying it out in such beautiful, clear words and with so much widsom. Your guidance for white people and organisations has really fortified me today. Power to you as you bring love to the pain. x

    1. Thank you, Shilpaji,for so clearly and kindly filling in and linkingtogether– the details of this human experience of yours and all of us as we read you. Your warmth and depth are a balm and inspiration and catalyst.

  2. I read this after Dave Powell posted a link in Twitter.

    Thanks for sharing Shilpa – this was upsetting reading and my heart goes out to you. It raises so many issues about the environmental movement, racism and social justice. Now seems a really important opportunity to start having what can be uncomfortable conversations and to sharing understanding – like you say, all kinds of stories are needed and the ones we can tell best are our own. And then we must listen hard. And also to start taking action, both within organisations, and with the wider supporter / activist base.

    There’s a lot of interest in making change happen at work – but whether it’s sustainable or not, only time will tell. Your story and you advice are really helpful, so thanks again for posting it.

    Martin x

    PS I’m glad you’re still singing! And I’ve very fond memories of our runs along the canal – which thankfully seemed to focus on chatting more than exercise. 😊.

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