Uncomfortable Conversations (about race)

Ola 0:07
When we discussed previously in our planning, we thought first about what our intentions were because I think for me it was really important to be really clear about what’s our intention here, and I guess you know what we talked about, the intention being to enable to encourage people to have these conversations about race and about difference and what it means to each other. To encourage curiosity about the other I guess, were some of the things that we talked about. And so we had a little plan about some of the things we would cover in our conversation. But since then, I suddenly started to really worry about being recorded, talking about race and I struggled with that because I wasn’t sure what it was I was really worried about, especially because conversations about race is something I’m so passionate about.
And I’m very comfortable talking about it with people that I’m close to people that know me, but I suddenly realised that, actually, I don’t want to be sort of like the voice of black people because I suddenly started to think that some of my views around race might be offensive to other black people.
And I wasn’t sure. I mean I don’t know that that’s what we were going to do in our conversation, but with that in the back of my mind, it worried me. And you know since then I’ve had a few conversations about it and thought ok, I’m definitely going to have a sort of thing at the beginning of our conversation whereby I’m making it really clear that you know, my views in no way represent the views of black people on race, they’re just my ideas and my views, and they might not extend much further than that you know, For other people it might not represent them.
But then I realised that actually, this issue of race is such a sensitive and emotive topic. And if me, as a black person, is this worried and anxious about talking about it and being heard and sharing some of my ideas and about race, you know what does that feel like for other races, who aren’t black for example. And I just thought that that was really interesting thing to think about and I wondered if actually us having a conversation about that, in this podcast might be something that we could use and people could listen to and maybe get something from. What do you think about what I’ve said so far?

Jocelyn 2:53
It’s triggered, lots of thoughts in my mind, and I suppose the first thing I thought was, you know, what we’d said initially about, what I’d said about my experiences of having these conversations with black colleagues, and then feeling, you know that sometimes they would be comfortable to talk about their feelings, and at other times they’d feel like they were a token black person.
They’d feel like perhaps people might ask them questions from a good place, from a compassionate place, from a curious place, but that the issues that they might be talking about – and I guess I’m thinking back to George Floyd’s murder – was so emotionally triggering for them, that they didn’t want to have those conversations with a colleague, which sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t.
And I also really relate to what you’re saying, as a white person because you know what this conversation, potentially does is it puts both of us out there in the public domain.
And I similarly to you can’t assume that my views represent every white person’s view. All we can do is speak for ourselves. With regard to how we feel right now at this moment in time knowing what we know. And I suppose the other thing I was going to say was we make; I think this also just speaks to the idea that we shouldn’t make assumptions about people, as a black person, you might, you might be experiencing certain things or you may come from a certain background or you may come from a particular position or emotion on something, you know, and, and similarly, you might make the assumption that, I’m a privileged white South African and therefore, I am potentially racist.
And I would have a whole lot to say about that. Yes, I am a privileged white South African, and I did benefit from apartheid. But does that make me, you know someone who was pro that regime for example.
And there’s so many layers, and it’s so uncomfortable to talk about, but actually if we don’t have the conversation. Then we risk silence.

Ola 5:47
And nothing changes and nothing moves. And I think, you know, when I started to have these worries, you know, someone said to me well don’t do it, and I thought well no I don’t not want to do it. I just want to be careful about the way that I do it. And I don’t want to shy away from these conversations because I think they’re so important, you know, and when you was talking about that token thing, I actually wasn’t sure what that meant I had to kind of have a conversation to get an understanding of well what does being a token mean.
But prior to that, I was thinking in my mind that I don’t want to be the token black person who comes and talks about race in this podcast. And what meaning people might take from me, if they view me that way – to be the token black person coming to speak, because I’m very aware that, you know, whilst the black experience is a collective thing, on some level, but it’s actually a very personal thing and it’s very individual. My position as a black woman in London today, I mean, whilst I don’t see myself as British, I’m not British by birth. I’m very British in my upbringing, and I have been here since a very young age. So, for example, even in this job role that I’m in now. I know nurses that I met, as a newly qualified nurse working on a ward, who are still band six on that ward, I don’t know what their experience of that is. That’s not been my experience; I have been able to progress and I think it’s something that’s very known in the NHS that you don’t find so many black colleagues at senior levels, the higher up you go the less black faces you’re going to see. And so I think that was very much on my mind when I’m coming into here; thinking that I’m going to be talking about race, but other people might not share my experience of race. So for me, I can say things that for someone else may think: Actually, no, that’s not their experience and they might be very angry, they might have experienced very blatant, very overt racism. That might mean that the way they relate to having conversations like this, with their white colleagues isn’t such an easy thing to do and is far more difficult to do.
But I do think these are the things that we need to talk about and we need to think about. I think these are the things that matter. I think its understanding or trying to, being curious enough, and being patient as well, because actually it’s not an easy thing to talk about, and people are going to get it wrong. People are going to say the wrong thing, or they might ask the wrong question. But that patience will enable us to actually be able to break down those barriers really slowly and start to ask the questions and start to understand why something might be a trigger for this person, but not a trigger for another person, because experiences are very different in this regard or they can be.

Jocelyn 9:21
I was thinking about what you were saying about patience and patience takes generosity of spirit. In order for you to, let’s say be patient with me about a mistake, mistake in inverted commas that I might make. You have to be coming from quite a compassionate place and not from a threatened vulnerable or angry place.
I think that’s important to hold in mind because a lot of times people who are feeling threatened or feeling really marginalised and disadvantaged and angry because of bullying, or because of racist comments and treatment and so on, may not have that generosity and why should they actually?
And then I was thinking about something else when we were having a previous conversation about this and I said that sometimes I get into such a tangle. I’m so scared to make mistakes, and I talked about the white South African feelings of shame and guilt that leads to avoidance, because I think there’s so much shame and guilt that I carry coming from that position and that sometimes it can be extremely silencing. And that that’s a problem.
But then you said to me, shame and guilt is a luxury.

Ola 11:01
Well it is in comparison, I mean that’s the thing I have a lot of compassion for my white friends and colleagues, who you know, carry this guilt and shame. Sometimes I think about it in terms of: ‘well it’s not your fault that you was born in a white body, the same as it’s not my fault that I was born in a black body, but at the same time, I would much rather feel guilt and shame, than the feelings that come with racism, experiencing racism, being a victim of racism, so it’s still a privileged position to be in.

Jocelyn 11:37
100% And I totally get that, and that comment really landed with me and I really thought absolutely just get over yourself.
And I feel like that kind of conversation where you can kindly but firmly, you know, make a comment like that is really good.
And I suppose, that’s why it’s worth having this kind of dialogue.
We’re doing this because the conversation, the idea sprang from this idea of black history month. And I wanted to ask you, what does that mean to you, Black History month?

Ola 12:36
This is one of the reasons why I got scared because what I don’t want to do, is say things for the sake of it because I think they sound good. I’m somebody that really likes to stay true to myself. My mum always said, if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all. I actually don’t subscribe to the idea of black history month. Whilst I get it, I get that black people are the one race that, the experience, the black experience is very different. Everybody has experienced some kind of prejudice, I think, and there’s different degrees to it. You can’t compare it, and that’s why I think that I understand that Black History Month is there to pay attention to the fact that black people have had this horrendous experience throughout history. For example, I had a colleague once say to me that, being a Polish woman she’s experienced racism, because when she came to this country, and went in to a shop and they heard her voice, they started to treat her differently or whatever her experience was. I thought, yes, whilst I agree that that is prejudice, the black experience is different to that, and racism is for me anyway, it’s about the colour of your skin.
The difference there is, that when I walk into a shop, they see, I’d have to put a bag or where a Burka or something to cover in order for them to not see that I am black. Whereas she could just go into a shop and maybe not really talk and nobody would really know and it would be fine, that’s the difference, that’s a big difference. The difference in terms of our history, it’s so different. There’s a psychiatrist that I’m really fond of; almost see her like an idol; Dr Francis Cress Welsing I think her name is, and she talks about this generational trauma or PTSD that black people are affected by, and till this day you see the impact of it and whilst I don’t think it’s an excuse, because I’ve heard that argument that oh you know it’s an excuse, it’s actually the reality and I think you have to understand the implications that does pass through in that way, but for me the reason why I don’t subscribe to Black History Month is because I don’t like this idea that history is thought about in a month. Black history is a part of history, you don’t have a Chinese history month or an Indian history month or a white history month. So why have a black history month? I mean, I get the why and I get that’s important for a lot of people, but for me personally, it’s a no. Black history is history and the history is just history, and so therefore history should just be a part of history. It’s just a part of history, and I would prefer if it was thought about as such, so we pay attention to it throughout the year like with any other type of history.

Jocelyn 15:50
And I absolutely agree with you. Because, of course, black history is history, and therefore making it a month means that you just think about black history for October and then you don’t need to worry about it again, it’s really colluding with that. But it’s difficult for me as a white person to say that isn’t it. And I think that’s interesting.
And if it means that it does get people having difficult conversations or maybe get my kids learning something in school, which is outside of the main stream. Then I guess it’s also got to be a good thing to get to a point where we don’t need black history month.

Ola 16:50
I grew up learning about King Henry the eighth and the Victorians, I had to go and learn for myself about black history, not slavery, I’m talking about black history -the kings and the queens and the Warriors. The richest man in Africa that travelled around flinging gold everywhere; Mansa Musa, but I had to go and learn those things for myself. Those things wasn’t taught to me as a child, it was in my adult years I had to go and learn it because I was interested to know. Suddenly I thought ‘what we doing before slavery?’ You know, and I asked myself what was colonisation, what did that actually look like, what was that experience, did nobody fight against it. And I got to learn that actually there was a lot of fights, and some people were successful in their fights to protect their land and all the rest of it so you know I think that needs to be the black history that that people learn about not just the horrendous horrors of slavery, because I’m not even sure how helpful that is actually.
It pushes one narrative, it pushes one narrative that you know black people were slaves. But actually, you know they weren’t, they weren’t only slaves, they were kings and queens and they did great things.

Jocelyn 18:18
And so, it’s a sort of narrative of disempowerment rather than one of empowerment and that’s not helpful.

Ola 18:29
But this is good. I feel so much better about this conversation than the fear that I had before about coming to talk about something that is so, because you know, I feel like we’ve raised, it’s something you can talk about for days even, and you’re still, you know, for me, it’s a constant learning, I don’t know all there is to know. I’m still learning as a black person, I’m still learning. And so some of the ideas and thoughts I have today might change tomorrow and I think that was part of my worry; that we’re going to have a 5-10 minute conversation that people will hear. And I don’t know what people might take from it, but it’s just such a small snippet of some of the things we think and I don’t know for me some of my thoughts and ideas are still being formed and shaped you know by my experiences and experiences of other people who I talk to and learn about theirs. So, yeah it was really worrying. You know, I think one of the things I worried about is that I might say something and it might get taken out of context, or there’s no opportunity for the person who’s offended to ask me a question, to check what I meant or, you know.
I hope that some of the things that we’ve talked about resonates with some people at least, I hope that, you know, if there is anything that’s not understood, people can reach out because they have our contact address, and our email address; they’ve got contact details, so I hope they can reach out to check it. And I hope that going forward. This encourages people to have the difficult conversations because I think this was a difficult conversation for us. I mean for me at least coming into this. But I think, you know, what you said about compassion and kindness and patience, you know, all of that stuff. I think we have that between us so we’ve been able to have a conversation, even what you said about me being able to say to you about, you know, well it’s still a position of privilege, that’s because we’ve created a sort of space, there’s a safety for me to be able to say that to you. And I hope that people are able to kind of go forth and have some of these difficult conversations and, and find ways to have them.

Jocelyn 20:48
And I suppose, I think this might be for some people listening to this, I think it could be quite triggering. And I suppose it’s important that people are aware that we we’re available as a service to signpost people to spaces where they can talk about this, if they feel like they need to.
I think it’s also important to highlight how these conversations are particularly important in health and social care. At the moment, because of people’s experiences, because of the way in which people have really experienced racism and marginalisation. And, you know, being disadvantaged from many years in services. And yes, the pandemic has just, you know, has highlighted this more. The inequities, a light has been shone on them.
But it’s really important that we go on to sort of promote a culture where these sorts of conversations can happen in safe spaces within our organisations.
And that if someone listening to this feels prompted to think about how they’re going to do that with their colleagues and their team or within their organisation, then I feel that even though this was a hard conversation to have. And I think these conversations make one uncomfortable. They should make us uncomfortable right, if we’re kind of glibly having these conversations, then I think we’re not being self-aware or self-critical or kind of, not that we should be criticising ourselves but we need to be, we need to be thinking about our assumptions I suppose, if that means that, you know, people do get to feel uncomfortable initially but then go on to have those conversations then that’s got to be a good thing.

Ola 23:16
Yeah and it’s growth, I think you know, as you were talking I was thinking growth, because you know, I really believe or subscribe to that idea that, you know, in order to progress or to change, or to grow, you’ve got to get a bit uncomfortable. I think for me that’s when I know something’s happening. You know, when things just are just fine, I’m not really growing.

In this podcast to mark Black History month,  listen in on Keeping Well NCL Hub colleagues’ Ola Ajala (black Nigerian born, British mental health nurse and family therapist)  and Jocelyn Blumberg  (White South African born, Clinical Psychologist)  conversation about race, privilege, Black History Month and why uncomfortable conversations are important for growth.

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