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Black History Month- My personal experience

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

It is indeed a privilege and an honour for me as a Black Afro-Caribbean Woman to be given a voice to impact people, hopefully challenge mindsets and bring positive change by sharing my journey and experience.

To be perfectly honest Black History Month was not always something I valued. For a start, I am not British but French. France has no Black History celebration in their history. In fact, I discovered that Black History Month is mainly celebrated in the USA where it takes his origin, in Canada, Netherlands and the UK. It is important to acknowledge that for some black people, Black history month is not a celebration but a reminder of the suffering of our race and that as demonstrated by the Black lives matter, little has changed. Nonetheless, for me, the fact that the UK has given it, it’s value and it’s place year upon year since 1987 is a great step towards educating our generation black and non-black and the generations to come about Black People history, understanding the struggles, learning lessons but also celebrating the milestones reached over the last 400 years.

For me, I would like to say that there is no right or wrong way to approach Black History Month. I see it as an opportunity for each one of us to learn, grow and take an active step in making it relevant to our day to day life. It should not be just about the story of Black people but about how we individually relate to Black people journey historically but more importantly what we do today to prevent history from repeating.

You see what I find is that Black History Month means different things to different people. Interestingly enough, the older generation of Black people may sometimes come across as being stuck in a post-stress traumatic state due to 400 years of shaming, torture, being put to death, and forever claiming their entitlement to exist and be free.

However what I find is that the younger Black generation from the late 1980s until now, may have a different take on it, whereby there is an awareness and understanding of what has happened to the generations before yet a desire to proceed and being given a chance to be allowed to exist and grow without being made victims.

From the White people side, it feels like, from those I spoke to, the older generation may simply refuse to change their views or reflect on the injustice inflicted to black people over all those years. However, you also find a more recent generation of white people who condemn the treatment inflicted to black people historically yet feel uncomfortable talking about it because of the stigma of the white man being racist. Then there is the new Word and concept of 2020 of White Privilege which makes the conversation around Black People History even more uncomfortable between both races.

The truth is no matter how we look at it, we cannot deny the fact that Black and Asian people are still being discriminated against and that pretending it is not there is not helping the problem. For me Black History Month is a time to take stock and consider where we are at by hearing history of people in the past but more so history of black people today and see how we are doing. For this reason, I would like to share my own experience as a Black Woman and offer perhaps some learning points.

So Who Am I?

I am a French citizen with a mixed heritage Congolese-Martinican. The Republic of Congo is in the Western Coast of Central Africa and Martinique is an Island and territory of France, in the eastern Caribbean Sea.

I always say that I have the privilege to be both African and Caribbean, due to being born from an African Father and a French West Indian Mother. This by the way makes it harder for me when I come across job application form in the UK which ask me to choose between either Black African, Black Carribean, other Mixed background or tell me to specify. How do you choose one box when you meet them all!!! I hate the idea of being boxed…Perhaps this is a feedback worth passing to all Organisations.

I was raised by parents who were both Politicians and University Teachers. I was privately educated, I can say in retrospective that I was a black privileged child, compared to other children. My school was mixed in the sense that there was a mix of black, mixed race, asian and white children. Therefore, the notion of being black never really affected me. I can say however that I was rich culturally and loved my Afro-Carribean culture and had a very strong sense of who I was.

I went to University in France and completed a French Degree. I then got a sponsorship to come and teach in England in 2003 from the British Council. I worked for the British Council for 2 years as a teacher and had a great time, I never experienced racism perhaps because I lived in London and worked in a school in East London Bethnal Green, where most of my students were Asian and Black. I eventually left teaching as the gang culture increased in East London and started to affect schools.

I later joined the Probation Service as an Administrator in 2007 and 6 months later applied to be a Trainee Probation Officer. I got a job offer and moved to Manchester.

This was a challenging period of my career! You see I was ignorant of the lack of diversity in Staff in the North West Probation Service when I applied. On the day of the Induction, I attended a conference where all new trainees from the North West had been invited, nearly 100 people, attended. However in the entire cohort of trainees, I was the only black person and the fact that I had a French accent and English was not my first language made it harder for me to fit in. It was overwhelming. I could not understand then and still cannot understand today how in the entire North West Probation Service, Manchester, Birmigham, Liverpool and Chester included only 1 black person was deemed good enough to be recruited when 100 of applications would have been made… Questions certainly need to be asked there…

Being the only Black person, throughout my 2 year training, meant that I had to put up with a lot of racism conscious and unconscious from colleagues in the CJS. For example, colleagues would refer to me as “coloured” rather than black, tell me that they could not say my name and giving me nicknames which they found easier to pronounce. I also remember a colleague telling me that there was a black hairdresser down the road in Warrington and that we should be friends. When they would hear me speak French on the phone, they would ask me where I am from and if I said I was French, they would say but where are you originally from? It was like this is not good enough, funny enough some struggled with the concept of a Black person being French. I found myself often asking people, do you also struggle with the idea of a Black or Asian person being British?

So before I move on, I would like perhaps to draw some learning or key points based on my experience: We have got into an institutional habit of calling black and Asian people and non-white people BAME- I personally do not like that term, or coloured. I am black, call me Black, I won’t be offended. The idea of grouping all non-white in a sub-category re-enforce the stigma and de-personify individuals in this category.

We talk about Black and Asian as ethnic Minority though I understand that this is to do with a group of people of a particular race living in a country where most people are from a different race, I still find it undermining as I do not see myself as a minority. It is my view that the term Minority is subjective to the white person looking at the black person as someone isolated and in small number.

Whereas from where I stand though I may be the only black manager in my area, I have a large number of Black and Asian probation colleagues, I watch countless TV programs involving black and Asian actors and read books by Black and Asian Actors, I buy from several black and Asian stores. So from my side of the fence, I do not see Black and Asian people as minorities…Just consider it!!!

OK- Let’s talk about Names and fun facts: My surname is N’Zaba, not common in the UK and makes people unsure on how to pronounce it, I always say why don’t you ask me how I pronounce it. Note to self-If you come across a Black or Asian person with a name that is different to what you are accustomed to hear, ask them how they pronounce it.

To Black people: do not let people calling you by the wrong name just because you are scared of correcting people. Do not shorten your name because you feel it is too hard for people to remember it, keep telling people how your name is spelled or pronounced. Getting someone’s name right is the first step to respect.

Also, let’s not assume that all black people talk to each other and know each other, the assumption that the black hairdresser down the road of the office should wave at me because we were the only black people in Warrington was completely absurd. As a White person you do not befriend every white person you see even when you are on holiday abroad, think about it? Finally, if a Black or Asian person tells you they are French or British, do not ask but where are you from originally unless there is already a rapport built or they volunteer their background information.

Now on a Positive note, though I encountered a lot of racism and English was not my first language, I qualified as a Probation Officer with a 2.1 Degree. This was down to my Christian faith, my determination but also the support of many of my white colleagues and tutors who acted as allies. These allies made it their business to challenge any discrimination they witnessed me go through which was amazing.

As the years went by, this inspired me to coach and mentor other staff members struggling with racism to push through, which I still do today. I feel that it is one way to help reduce inequality and empower Black and Asian people to develop their career in the Criminal Justice System.

Currently I am a Manager in the Criminal Justice System and I can say that though racism is out there, I do not allow it to deter me from achieving my dreams and moving in my career.

I believe that it is everyone responsibility to challenge racism and discrimination. The Black Lives Matter movement has certainly awakened people’s consciences all over the world. However, I wish to state that this is not an American Issue but a UK issue too. Too many people continue to close their eyes to the unfair treatment of black people, and it is not ok. As Human Beings, we have a responsibility to speak up.

I live by one Bible Principle “love your neighbour as you love yourself”. I have learned to love myself and my Afro-Carribean heritage which comes with the history of slavery and that’s why I can love others and challenge injustice. It is part of me, and Black History Month is an opportunity, I think, to raise awareness, challenge racism, educate and celebrate how far we have come together, even though, “far” for now only means “baby steps!”

The Word I have today for black people is: “don’t let history handicap you, embrace it and keep pushing to do what you want to do. There are allies everywhere who will carry you when you feel like giving up. “Many have walked this path before you, just follow the footsteps!!”

To my white audience: if you feel that I have said the word White once too many times, I am sorry but imagine how black people have been feeling for the past 400 years. To those of you who have been and continue to be allies to Black and Asian individuals, I would like to thank you for the positive impact you have made and the commitment you have to change the future generations.

I would like to thank you all for reading and hope that you will take at least one thing with you today from this journey.

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