Yesterday I went to my second Racism At Work session. The group is led by a Black Clinical Psychologist who specialises in racial trauma. I signed up because I was still suffering from the effects of the racial trauma I experienced with my previous employer, which had left me bedridden from epileptic seizures and mental health issues triggered by the racism. The effects of the racial trauma also left me with a phobia of going back to work.
Thankfully, I’m back in work part-time now, but it’s with an agency, not only because it allows flexibility whilst I finish my MSc, but also because it allows me the freedom I need as a Black disabled woman. While employed with the agency, I don’t have to be bound to a contract with one employer; If I go to one place and hate it, I can just call the agency to tell them so that they don’t send me back.
The best thing about this support group, is being amongst a group of British BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people, who have suffered very similar experiences to me in the workplace; who have suffered such racial trauma at work, that they have been left psychologically scarred for life. Like myself. As difficult at the sessions are, I find it incredibly comforting to be in a group of people who are pretty much strangers, yet they get me, and what I’ve been through and what I am still going through.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how I came to be at “Jule’s House of Pain” (my previous employer), posing questions to myself like,
why did I think that I could work in an almost all-white staffed school?
Other than one Black media teacher and one Black teaching assistant, I was the only employee of colour at this school. I was the only person of colour in the English department. Prior to this, I’d worked in a Secondary school in Hackney for two years, where I was one of many people of colour amongst the staff. My line manager was also a Black British Caribbean woman, who was older than me. At the beginning, our relationship was amazing; She was like a second mother to me, she knew all about the deterioration of my relationship with my own mother and was incredibly supportive. She even let me take on extra responsibilities regardless of my disability and I was the only teaching assistant in the school who was also teaching lessons solo. However, when I decided in the second year of my employment to apply for teacher training in another school, our relationship deteriorated. I’d applied to train in that school the previous year, but my application had been rejected by the mostly white senior leadership team. At first they said that they hadn’t received it (even though I’d had confirmation after submitting the application through UCAS), then after making me wait for so long, they finally rejected my application, claiming that it was because of my lower second-class degree (even though in their application guidelines, they’d said that they would accept and consider applicants with a 2.2). The Head of the English department said that she had fought for me, however the Head Teacher has refused to consider my application. My Line Manager didn’t say anything until the following year when I told her that I was applying again, but to different schools; she told me that I’d been rejected the previous year because of my epilepsy and soon began to divulge apparent murmurings amongst the Senior Leadership Team that I was a burden to the department because of my epilepsy and wasn’t fulfilling my job description… even though I was still working as an Unqualified Teacher at the point, while still only being paid at a Teaching Assistant rate.
The reason why I bring this up, is because in the group yesterday we were discussing toxic relationships at work with other women of colour, who appear to be threatened by the competition they perceive between us as two women of colour and become pawns in the “game” of white supremacy and institutionalised racism, by enacting the behaviour a white oppressor would usually display towards us.
My Line Manager didn’t have to tell me “everything that was apparently being said about me”. She only did it to bring me down, because I had become confident in my role – confident enough to spread my wings to another school even. She was acting like I was gunning for her role, but all I wanted to do was teach! And in a different department! In the grievance, I even put everything that my line manager had told me was being said about me – even by the Head Teacher – and was told that it was all categorically lies. But it’s difficult to know who to believe in a situation like that.
I began to realise that if it wasn’t for this manager, I would never have rushed to “Jule’s House of Pain” to do my teacher training. I was just so desperate to get away from her, that I took the first school that offered me a job. Most of the Senior Leadership Team were leaving during my second year, including the Head Teacher, and the teacher who was taking her place was always supportive of my work. With her and the Head of English looking at my teaching application, I may have had a second-chance. In fact, when I had to ask her to write my Teacher Training reference (she began her role during the last term of my employment), she was disappointed that I wasn’t staying with them to do it at her school. She asked me why I hadn’t applied to train there and by this point, it was almost the end of my employment at the school and I felt like I had nothing to lose by telling the truth, so I did:
I was told that my application last year was rejected because of my epilepsy, so I felt like I had no choice but to go to another school.
We would’ve accepted your application now that I’m Head Teacher. We need teachers like you here.
By the end of my time at the school, I’d had to file a grievance against my line manager and was moved to the English Department until the end of the school year. But, even being in a different department was difficult because she was still in the school and still talking about me to staff.
The irony is that, my Line Manager handed in her resignation after I did. I wouldn’t have had to deal with her anymore. I could’ve stayed in a multi-culturally-staffed school, if it wasn’t for her. When this suddenly dawned on me last night, it broke me, because it brought back all of the trauma I had suffered during my teacher training year. Had it not been for that Line Manager in my previous school, I might have been saved from such trauma. Having to reconcile that although white supremacy played a big part in this game, a Black woman had played a huge part in the demise of my career as well as my mental health, is a difficult pill to swallow. But this is what competition will do, especially when we’re playing the game of the white man. Some of us are so desperate for approval and acceptance from white people, that we will trample over our own people to get it. It’s historical – As slaves, Black people were encouraged to compete for favour from their White slave owners; within families, women in particular fight for the attention and favour of their mothers – and clearly some of us are unwilling to break the generation pattern. Psychologically, unless we make the decision to break that bondage we could all still fall prey to the orders of the white man. Even if they aren’t explicitly telling us to fight each other, we can still implicitly hear the orders because that’s how institutionalised racism works and the closer you are to your white colleagues or managers, the closer you believe yourself to be to the power that they hold, which of course isn’t true.