Manny Singh (LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/the-manny/) is a B.Sc. (Hons) Computer Science student. Having returned to higher education after almost two decades of travelling, working, and the never-ending quest of finding himself (still looking btw). Hoping to continue to build upon and learn new technical skills and trying his best to be a better human being.
Why is the current BLM movement important for all minority groups?
This question is being asked by those that have never experienced racism. It is a fair question, for someone that has not, nor will ever experience racism or other forms of prejudice, whether it be based on race, gender, or sexual orientation.
If you have never experienced racism, then it can be difficult to appreciate the impact it can have on your life. This is something I was thinking about before the BLM movement gained the traction it has over the past few days.
The question of prejudice was something I was thinking about when I decided to participate in the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium. This is an annual one-day conference for women students of Computing and related subjects. I had never participated in this before and was not entirely sure of what to expect.
The reason I joined was to support and be a part of an event that promoted a minority group and helped break down barriers and created opportunities for those that had been told “this is not for you”. The reason in my mind was simple: if we can break down this barrier it would have a positive knock-on effect for the benefit of other minority groups.
The experience was a very positive one, and one I look forward to repeating at the next conference. The energy of everyone taking part was incredible and the feeling of being a part of it was refreshing and positive.
The negativity came the following day, in the form of comments from classmates who thought the conference was “unfair”, “divisive” and “non-inclusive”. These comments came from the men that did not take part, even though the event was open to all. These comments are what made me think about my own experiences growing up and the overt racism and negativity I had to deal with, starting in junior school, continuing throughout my high school years right into university and continuing through some, though not all, of the workplaces I ended up in.
For me, the very first time I became aware of the existence of racism was in junior school. The first racist comment I heard was in the playground, around age 7 I think, one of the boys in the playground shouted the word “paki” at me. I had no idea what it even meant at the time and did not understand it was a racist word. I realised it might be a bad word when this boy came over to shout it in my face.
We were all young at that time and I am not sure the boy shouting this word even understood what it meant. Anyway, over the following weeks, months I realised what it meant and became aware of the fact that I was not liked very much, purely based on the colour of my skin and on the basis of the country my parents came from. The words I heard thrown at me got worse and more hurtful and more frequent. The teachers did not seem to care very much, so there was never anyone to turn to for help.
My parents were working 7 days a week, and I would see them for a few hours a day between their work shifts. I never told them because I had heard my dad telling my uncles about the things that he was experiencing in the factory he worked at and on the streets going to and from work. They would shrug it off and get on with life and work.
So it became normal to hear these words and it felt like something that you just had to deal with. I dealt with it throughout my time at school. I moved from junior school into high school, the words got worse and the physical intimidation got worse. I joined the rugby team in high school, and thought, ok I am safe now. I have “friends” and “team-mates” that will stick up for me and be on my side.
This was, of course, not the case.
The moment I realised that I was still on my own was when, whilst with my “team-mates”, someone spat in my face. When it happened I could not even react: I was so shocked I did nothing. I stood there and my “team-mates” kept walking and did not even look back. That is the moment I realised I was completely on my own with this. Since I did not react this was taken to mean, I guess, that I was an easy target. So the racist comments got worse, the physical intimidation got worse. The fact that no one physically hit me meant that I had no evidence that there was a problem.
This went on throughout my time at high school. The only time I reacted was when I was pushed from behind and my head went through a glass door. The glass smashed and I remember shaking it out of my hair. I turned around and it was the same person who had spat in my face. Something snapped inside me and I remember I started to punch the boy but remember very little until I was being dragged off him by a teacher. Suffice to say I was the one in trouble and I was the one punished for this incident.
As these experiences build up, you start to put up mental walls; you look at everyone as a potential threat. You wake up every morning with a knot in your stomach and go to school with the dread of what might or could happen that day.
Then one day I joined the army cadets.
This was not because I wanted to join the army after school, but because one of the boys that was most vocal in his racist comments told me if I joined then the comments would probably stop and the other boys in the cadets would back me up. This sounded like a good deal at the time so I asked my dad to take me there and I ended up joining the army cadets in Edinburgh.
I lasted almost a year, until I realised that the racism stopped at high school but continued within the cadets. I also realised that the racism within the cadets was much worse than anything I had experienced at high school. Within the cadets, the boys think that any abuse you get, be it verbal or physical, is normal and part of the privilege of being part of an “elite” group. Although I didn’t realise it at the time this was my first taste of the world outside of school: the real world.
After dropping out of the cadets, the racism got worse because I was now no longer “protected” by being a part of the cadets. This was ok by me because it was much milder than the racism I had to deal with as a part of that group. This was because not all the boys from the cadets were at the same school as me.
I was getting to the end of my high school years and all the other kids were getting advice on what to do after high school and which university to go to and what to study. I remember being given an appointment with the careers’ counsellor to discuss my future. I was excited not only at the thought of picking a university but also at getting out of high school.
This one appointment with this counsellor was the worst day of my life.
I went to my meeting, I was excited, hopeful, and happy. I left feeling worthless and almost in tears. The counsellor told me I would not pass my Higher exams and I need to lower my expectations and look at realistic options in life. I did not get a chance to discuss my future. I did not get the chance to talk about all the degree options at university. I was never asked “which university do you want to go to?”. I was told that the only thing in life I could do was pick a trade and focus on that, because I would never amount to anything more than that.
After this meeting, I felt sad. I cried. It was the lowest point I had ever been. Then I got angry. I had never felt that kind of anger at anything before, not even with all the racist comments and abuse. The racism was something I had learned to deal with and to block out, but to be told that I would never be able to do what I wanted with my life and my future, this was different.
I decided to show this person that I could do anything I wanted, so I studied more, I focused more, and I passed all my exams. I then applied to university and was accepted to the university I wanted to be at on the course I wanted to do.
I moved on to university. At this point I was living at home and the problem with this was I was still surrounded by the same people from high school. The same comments were thrown at me on the way to and from university. It felt like I could not escape from these people: they were always there.
I did something I should not have done: I dropped out of university. Looking back, at the time, this was the right thing for me. I needed to move away from this neighbourhood and away from these people. So, I applied to a university that was far enough away that I would have to move and stay in halls on campus. I accepted a place on a course I did not want to do, to be in a place that was far from the place I had come to associate with hatred and racism.
The insidious thing about being a victim of racism is that it can make you think and behave irrationally. It can impact a single moment in your life and this singular moment, thought or action can have a huge impact on the rest of your life. I was now away from the people that had hounded me throughout my high school years, but doing a course I had no interest in. I didn’t care because I was around people I didn’t know and I loved it. I met some wonderful people and had amazing experiences.
But this change also led to a future of always chasing and looking for that same feeling. University life does not last forever. I wasn’t looking to extend my life at university: I was looking to hold on to that feeling of being myself and being free to express myself and not waking up every morning with a knot in my stomach and the dread of having to deal with a life I felt was never going to be fair.
We all deal with parts of our life that we think of as “unfair”, and that is normal and expected, but being treated differently purely based on the colour of your skin adds a whole other level of stress. This means you deal with the “normal” day to day life problems that most people can associate with and relate to, but then added to that you also carry a burden that is never seen nor spoken of by the majority of people. To speak of this burden is discouraged and looked down on. The first rule of carrying this burden is to never speak of it, the second rule of carrying this burden is to NEVER speak of it. So you come to term with the fact that you will just need to work harder and do more, not to be seen as being better than those that don’t have this burden to carry, but just be seen as at the same level.
One of the odd things to come out of always having to work harder to be seen at the same level is: if you do this too well those that keep you down will use you as a role model to show other minorities that “see anyone can make it if they work hard enough”. This is one of the cruellest ironies.
So, for the next 16 years I travelled and moved and had new experiences in new countries. In other words, I continued to run from racism. I had a taste of it when I ran from my first university to the second and it felt wonderful to have to focus on a new environment and to be so immersed in it that you forget about the “real world” problems around you. Therefore, I loved moving to different countries; I loved the process of figuring out a new way of doing things, a new culture and new people and environment.
I could look back on these years as wasted. I had no career focus nor any interest in one. All I wanted was to chase that feeling of being free and not having to deal with the problems in the world. I had had enough of them since I could remember, and this was an opportunity to ignore them. Therein lay the issue: I was ignoring the problem, but the problem of racism was always present, no matter where I went or what I did. I just got very good at ignoring it.
But ignoring it cannot go on forever.
I realised eventually that I had to stop and decide on what I wanted and why I wanted it. It is the reason I finally decided to go back to university and to study that degree programme that I wanted to, the one I had dropped out of so many years ago.
Here I am and finally doing what I want, though that feeling of things still not being right persists and it nags me constantly. So many years on, and the same problem still exists, but this time rather than run away from it I want to try and change things; not just for me and for those that are going through the same things as me, but also for other minorities.
So, I decide to attend the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium. This may seem like an unusual choice based on my personal experience. The way I see it is, all events and groups that are trying to change any kind of prejudice or injustice are all aiming for the same end goal: equality.
The people were welcoming and accepting, the exchange of ideas and thoughts refreshing. I even became involved in helping to manage the Lovelace Colloquium page in LinkedIn.com. The feeling of inclusivity and being a part of a conference such as this is quite amazing.
After all the above, this happened yesterday.
A “friend” post this on their Facebook page:
This one post brought back all the feelings I had been running from. It brought back the anger I felt and the feeling of frustration and helplessness I felt at high school. I have seen these kinds of posts over the years, so the actual content was not new. What was new was that this was a classmate on my course. The course I left years ago, to run away from people like this, and this person had sat next to me in classes, had joked with me, talked to me. All the time he had such feeling inside him, so lacking in empathy.
This one post made me so angry that I started thinking about all the things I am currently writing about. This one post, that not only lacks empathy, but he cared so little about the content of it that the name of the cop is incorrect and so is the colour of his skin. This post was written from a place of ignorance. My previous self would have ignored it and pretended it did not exist, but I cannot do that anymore. This kind of ignorance needs to be confronted and highlighted.
For someone that is born with the “right” skin pigment life become so much easier. This does not mean they will not struggle or have no problems in their life, nor does it mean they will be financially stable or even happy. All it means is that they will never have an invisible burden on their backs, they will never feel that they carry something that is absolutely and completely out of their power to change and they will not be reminded of this fact day in day out. Reminded vocally or even worse to be reminded through a brief look or unspoken word or gesture. It is this ingrained and institutionalised form or racism that adds the most weight to the invisible burden.