Intersectionality is a term used to describe ‘overlapping social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination’. As a young woman growing up in a working class, South Asian background I faced biases from many quarters.
I was treated differently by my parent’s community because I spoke Tamil with a cockney accent. Even the priest’s wife mocked me. At Tamil school, when I spoke to the teacher, he would respond in English. When I volunteered to perform at the school festival, the teacher laughed and challenged me to on the spot. I sang a beautiful Classical Indian melody in perfect pitch and the entire class was astonished. At the festival, the community was in shock as the cockney won first prize for singing, was able to recite 150 verses of the Thirukural and danced Bharatanatyam on stage. I like to surprise people.
Yet I never felt like I belonged. I was treated differently, because I was born in London.
Growing up in East London, we were not permitted to call ourselves English. The National Front marched up our street in the 70s chanting ‘Pakis out’ and ‘Go home’.
So, I was in a cultural limbo. As a child, I just did not feel like I belonged anywhere.
If I wasn’t English or Indian, what was I?
My gut said I was English but I wasn’t allowed to tick that box on forms. There wasn’t a box for British Malaysian Indian. Boxes. I detest them. Tick a box and some people are relieved - they don’t have to think about who you are, where you come from. They know enough. It. Is. Lazy.
At school I recall the Deputy Head assuming that I won’t go to uni & the careers advisor laughing when I said I can speak Tamil ‘That’s not much use is it’. At uni, assumptions were made about me & my background due to my accent and/or my ethnicity. As a teacher, my colleagues admitted they took one look at me and thought ‘She's gonna be eaten alive’. Like I said, I like to surprise people.
Consequences of unconscious bias on me
Consequently, I have spent my whole life trying to find somewhere I felt I belonged. It also made me a fighter - continuously trying to prove that I can.
I spent my early years trying to fit in, to be a good little ‘Indian daughter’. At school, I tried to be as English as possible. I had low self-esteem but no-one would ever have known it.
By my latter teenage years I tried not to conform, whether it was to conform and have an arranged marriage or get pregnant at 16 or read law. In fact I became the epitome of non-conformity. I left home at 17 - unheard of in the Asian world. I read History at uni ('Why not law??' said my dad), I worked in a bookmakers for years and then became a history teacher. I live with my Irish partner, (we are not married) and have 2 beautiful children.
Unfortunately, a drawback in my 20s was that I rejected the ethnic side of my background.
In my 30s I came back to it, I craved it. I realised it was part of who I am.
I'm in my 40s now.
This is me. I am a Londoner. I am British. I am Malaysian Indian. I am not one of those things but all. There isn’t a box for that. I make my own.
Steps moving forward in addressing Unconscious Bias
Summary of my career as a teacher - Head of History, Head of Faculty, Assistant Principal for Humanities, PSHE, Literacy, Assistant Principal Teaching & Learning , Senior Assistant Principal for CPD across a multi-academy trust. I now live in Dorset, with my family and am an Education Consultant & Coach. Unconscious bias is a fact, it's how we deal with it that matters. Here are my tips:
Know thyself – Fitting in is boring. Don’t try to be something you are not or think you should be. You are unique. Celebrate that.
Remember limitations are what someone else tries to impose on you. Don't accept it. Question it.
Worried about unconscious bias before an interview? Visit the school. Meet the Head. This will give you confidence in the interview, as they will already ‘know you’.
Feel overlooked for promotion? Time to reflect. Are you at the right school? Do the values of the school fit your own? Moving on from a school where I did not 'fit' was the best thing I ever did. I found my professional tribe & it was onwards and upwards from that moment on.
Consider how you are coming across. Have you had feedback that you are too aggressive? Easy to dismiss and take offence but have a read of Charmaine Roche's blog on being a lone dissenter. http://tinyurl.com/le467vc Very useful advice .
Had this quote below on my office door and by my desk. Don’t be good – be exceptional. That’s been my philosophy. Don't give them an excuse to say no.
Both conscious and unconcious bias has had a profound effect on me. It has made me the person I am today. I am proud to be the little cockney Tamil who was the first in my family to gain a degree, to leave poverty behind and be a role model to both children and adults alike.
I'm 44 years old and I feel I belong - at home, work and my local community.
If you are struggling with any issues above, a coach can help you navigate your way through. Get in touch!