Wednesday, June 3, 2020

I can't breathe

I came across a comment about how people are "jumping on the bandwagon" in the UK for racism in America. 

I understand how it may be difficult to see the need to speak up for what you stand for, in a society where racism is mostly covert. 

However, the danger is that continued silence has encouraged behaviour that has slowly chipped away recognition of the value and dignity of black people within society. 

The truth is that many black migrants are not even aware of various racial connotations in their everyday interactions. Sometimes even when we are aware, as long as it does not interfere with our daily bread, we brush it aside and carry on. 

For first generation migrants coming from a society where almost everyone is black, most people have no idea what racism actually is. White foreign workers, missionaries and those who marry into families in Nigeria for example, are treated with reverence. They are never called migrants, which has somehow become a derogatory term. They are called expatriates.

In the worst case, they are assumed to have foreign currency and hence are target for theives.

Very sadly, most of the African continent does not seem to be able to recover itself to a level of independence in spite of its rich human and natural resources. 

White people are confident travelling anywhere in the world for holidays and adventures because they expect to be treated with fairness and dignity wherever they go. 

Unlike me, they will not be asked when they arrive in South Africa or Bahrain or New Zealand to work, "Was life too hard for you in your country that you had to come here?"

I have now lived most of my adult life in England. I am a British citizen. I speak English. I do not think that I look dangerous. I have a decent job, I pay my taxes and stay out of trouble. 

I continue to have experiences of direct and indirect racism. Some unintentional, some out of curiosity and many just plain ignorance.

A senior white colleague many years ago, advised me to put my photograph in front of my CV when applying for jobs and to always go into the workplace to make direct enquiries and speak to somebody. Simply sending in an application with my traditional name and undergraduate qualification from Africa will quickly send my file to the bottom of the pile.... or into the bin.

At first I thought it was just honest advice as he understood the obstacles in my path but on reflection, I realise that it was his recognition of the inherent racism within the system.

A patient walking into my clinic the day after the Brexit results to console me that he wasn't one of those that voted for "people like me" to be sent away was extremely ignorant and so daft that my next statement was something like "Can we just concentrate on these boils in your groin that I am trying to help you get rid of?"

I remember doing a home visit as a trainee in a rural practice near Burnley in the North of England. It was to a farm house down a narrow, winding downhill path with a male patient probably in his late 60s. He had poorly controlled diabetes with long standing leg ulcers that had become infected. I changed his dressing, prescribed some antibiotics and rang round to ensure that the district nurses were going to come out to replace his dressings regularly. On my way out, I noticed a sign on his door hand-written in coal. "No dogs. No Blacks or Asians allowed here".

A small part of me was annoyed with myself for not reading the sign before entering his house. It would have given me a good reason to drive away and leave him with his rotting racist leg. 
But a bigger part of me was thinking how lucky he was that I hadn't seen it. 
I looked at the sign, turned to him and shook my head, making a note to update his records to alert any future Black or Asian doctors not to visit him unaccompanied in the future. 

Another time, I was visiting a nursing home in the company of our secretary, a very lovely white lady. The nurse, a white male, led me to the patient's room. As he went in to inform the patient that the doctor had come to see him, I overhead him saying "I don't want to see any coloured doctors. Get me an English doctor. "

I turned around and walked away, telling the now embarrassed nurse to transfer him to another practice as there were no white English doctors at our practice, much to the poor secretary's awkward unease.

Of course there have been many more incidents.

Most people I meet are however not racist. They may be curious or ignorant and ask you if you know one Ola or Kanu because the person is from Africa like you. (Like asking an Englishman you meet in Mauritius about Erik from Sweden). 
Some people start to tell you stories about their visit to Kenya when you say that you are from Nigeria. (Like telling an Irishman you meet in South Africa, about your visit to Germany).

I understand that people have a right to preserve their culture and I think that is the right thing to do. I do not have any grand delusion that things will suddenly become equal and fair.

But by not addressing fundamental prejudice, we sacrifice the future of our children and their children many of whom will continue to suffer bias and bigotry in overt and covert forms not because they are migrants themselves, but because of the colour of their skin. 

We do not have to wait until someone is kneeling on our neck until we cannot breathe before we cry out.

We see. We hear. We are here. We are human.