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Celebrating Black History Month

With You staff reflect on Black history, the experience of being Black in the UK and how we can better support Black communities in our work.

By Zara Rawlinson

People from Caribbean and African backgrounds are fundamental to British society. Black History Month is an opportunity for everyone to celebrate, share and appreciate the full impact of our cultural history.

Black History Month is also an opportunity to recognise the challenges our communities face in contemporary UK life. While these experiences have received greater mainstream attention in recent years in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Windrush Scandal, for us members of Black communities they’ve always been there. Negotiating these challenges is part of our lived experience in the UK.

Four of our staff with a Caribbean or African cultural background have written about their culture, their experiences as a Black person and reflected on how we can better support the Black community in our work.

Zara

Black History is more and more important to me the older I get. In many ways, it’s helped shape who I am.

My mum was born in Barbados and my dad in Jamaica and they both came to the UK in the late 60s. I was born in South East London and moved to Kent in 2013.

Caribbean culture is a huge part of my life and it goes beyond the food and music. Family is one of the most important parts of our culture from respecting our elders to family celebrations. I have fond memories of the Nine Nights for my paternal grandparents, events which celebrated their lives for 9 nights after their deaths. Being surrounded by those that loved them and knowing I had my community to lean on helped get me through that time.

I’m a firm believer that representation matters and seeing many great achievements by Black people makes me feel like I have generations of supporters. One person in particular who inspires me is British Nurse Mary Seacole, a strong woman who didn’t let anything get in her way while supporting people.

Equally, I’m inspired by my paternal grandmother. Before she passed she was a true force to be reckoned with. She came to the UK as part of the now named Windrush Generation and worked her whole life alongside my grandad while supporting nine children and then countless grandchildren. I was fortunate to spend lots of time with her and her legacy lives on in us all. I have taken on her strength of character, her resilience in the face of adversity, her kindness and her fight.

I grew up in South East London and, although there were experiences of racism, I always felt that, because I lived in such a diverse area, people had my back and I, perhaps naively, did not understand the full impact of systemic racism.

Within 6 months of moving out of London, my 6 year old son was called the N word at school. As a family we’ve experienced numerous other racist incidents over the last 8 years. This led me to start PART (Panda Anti-Racism Team). We deliver anti-racism education in schools and were recently shortlisted for a Community Organisation National Diversity Award. More recently I’ve started a new role at With You as an interim Diversity and Inclusion People Partner, supporting the organisation to move forward to become a more inclusive place to work.

I’ve had lots of support from my family, colleagues at work and local community in these efforts. Although I think we have a long way to go to end racism, if we stay united we will make a difference.

I work in youth mental health. I’d like to see us reach more Black communities in our work, build trust and educate all to break stereotypes and reduce stigma. Everyone should feel comfortable accessing support regardless of their race or background. Within my role at our Mind and Body programme. I feel that it helps students to see someone that looks like them. This led to increased numbers and disclosures from Black students. I’m a huge advocate for education and if we can educate young people on mental health, racism and equality we will make a difference.

Ruby

To me, Black History means being who I am, unapologetically.

It means wearing my hair the way I want to, because historically that’s how my ancestors wore it. It means good teachings from my community and welcoming others into it. It means happiness and pride in our shared history of determined and hard working people. It means surpassing the stereotypical expectations of my culture by educating myself past what others expected of me.

To me, being Black is being strong and resilient. Being Black is being beautiful, inside and out.

Being Black means celebrating the history that I come from and proudly describing myself as a Sudanese woman (Sudan literally translates to “Land of the Blacks”).

Most people don’t know that up until 2011 Sudan was the biggest country in Africa. People also don’t often know that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt, which are also much older. Sudan has over 60 indigenous languages. Wherever you go, you’ll find a different culture and different language.

The most influential Black person in my life is my father. He grew up on a farm in Sudan and, determined to become successful, he worked hard and achieved a scholarship to Egypt to study medicine. Now he’s among the top cardiac surgeons in the UK and from the first generation of Sudanese doctors to migrate successfully.

I’ve always had a passion for encouraging people to reach their full potential, regardless of what has happened in their lives. Rather than asking “what’s wrong with you?”, I try to ask “what happened to you?”. People who struggle with drugs and alcohol are easily misunderstood and often overlooked, particularly in Criminal Justice. Anything is possible, all they need is support and motivation. I strive to help turn people’s lives around and save as many lives as I can.

I would say the biggest issue I’ve experienced while being Black in the UK is equality in jobs. I’ve had to endure micro-aggression on many occasions and was shut down when I spoke up about it. The worst I’ve dealt with is people using actual racial slurs.

I’m proud to be Black because we’ve endured so much and still managed to believe in ourselves. We have some of the most horrific history that I’ve heard of, yet some of the most influential people of all time. Our cultures and societies hold so much power.

Velma

Black History for me is a way of celebrating Black people and learning the History of the African/West Indian diaspora. It’s an annual event to observe and recognise Black lives, Black culture and everything about being Black.

I am Black and proud. I love my skin and my looks and people. I love how people aren’t able to tell my age from how I look.

I was born and raised in Sierra Leone, West Africa. There are about 23,000 Sierra Leoneans residing in the UK. Britain were the colonial masters of Sierra Leone. At the Museum of London, Docklands, there was a recent display of the heritage and culture of The Krio’s, one of the largest tribes in Sierra Leone. They displayed dress, architecture, food and language.

The most inspiring Black person to me is Nelson Mandela. He served 27 long years in prison and became the first black president of South Africa. He has many very powerful and inspirational quotes which I like such as “it always seems impossible until it’s done” and “I never lose, I either win or learn.”

I’m a mental health nurse and have a lot of experience with mental health and Black people. I worked for years at a mental health hospital and it saddened me about the treatment and generalisation of Black people presenting with mental health problems. There are huge cultural differences and professionals need to understand these to provide proper care. It’s important that we understand why people behave the way they do.

I would like to see the organisation as well as the drug, alcohol and mental health sectors provide more diversity and equality training and to have better representation from minority groups in our senior workforces. We have to be more open, transparent and welcoming. We need to get past the uncomfortable and treat diversity like any business issue where you can improve and have targets. I’d also like to see drug, alcohol and mental health support organisations offer more services specific to minority groups and other hard to reach groups.

I’ve had a lot of negative experiences both in various workplaces and in the community. It saddens me to think about them and would not like to list them all. I hope people can learn and be more accommodating and understanding. People need to understand the psychological damage. Ending racism is not going to make white people’s lives worse, it will make everyone’s lives better.

Nicola

Black history means celebrating and uplifting the significant contributions Black people have made to the world. Every year, I learn something new about our history which makes me proud to be Black.

My family are Jamaican. You may be surprised to know that Jamaica has the most churches per square mile of any country in the world. Family, food and music is a big part of Caribbean culture. Being respectful towards your elders and focussing on your education was a huge part of my upbringing.

My experience being Black in the UK has largely been positive. There have been times when non-Black people have made jokes about tanning to look like me and I’ve had people touch my hair without my consent, both very offensive and inappropriate. But on the whole it’s been ok.

I’ve probably experienced covert discrimination when I was job seeking. I have a very English and Scottish sounding name, so there were times when a recruiting manager was visibly taken aback when they met me in person. I’m often the only or one of the few Black people in a social or professional setting. I sometimes feel that I can’t entirely be myself, that I have to self-monitor how I behave and come across to others.

I’m proud of the fact that in a lot of ways Black people dictate and push the culture, whether that be music, trends, dance, acting, clothes or language. You’ll see a lot of things become mainstream and cool because of the influence of Black people and the Black community. I’m also proud of the fact that we have a rich and diverse history and no matter what we’ve experienced in regards to racism and discrimination we are very resilient.

These are tough times for everyone. With You services are open and we’re here to work alongside you during this difficult time. Visit our website for information and advice, to chat to a trained advisor or to find your local service.

Want to find out more about our work at With You? Sign up to our monthly roundup of what we’re working on or thinking about across the organisation, including opportunities to get involved.

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We are one of the UK’s leading mental health, drug and alcohol charities. We provide free, confidential support with drugs, alcohol and mental health.