Frustrated. Annoyed! Shocked! Rejected?! I can’t quite begin to explain the flurry of emotions that this simple sentence evoke every time I hear these words. How could such a simple sentence carry so much weight?
Okay, let me back track a bit and try to paint a bigger picture here. I identify as a person of colour (PoC) and back home, in South Africa, I belong to an ethnic group which was previously disadvantaged. As a South African citizen, I am gravely aware of this country’s racially segregated and tainted past. I was lucky enough to have grown up in the tiny landlocked Kingdom of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) and my upbringing shielded me from racial confrontation. Having grown up in this safe and tranquil place, I often took for granted the diverse community I was raised in. I was used to being the only person that looked like me in the whole school. This meant that I was often used on the cover of school magazines, newsletters and newspaper advertisements. You know, diversity and all that jazz!
I had the privilege of travelling with my family, and this really opened my eyes to the reality of the world out there and just how little people actually knew about Africa. There have been quite a few times were people have mistaken Swaziland for Switzerland (No! They are two completely different places!), and someone has even asked me if we have lions as pets (No, we really don’t! This is not an episode of Tiger King).
It wasn’t until I moved to Shanghai, China, that I was blatantly aware of the colour of my skin and the fact that I was a foreigner. In a city of 25 million people, I was often the only person of colour on the street or in the metro and this attracted many stares, pointed fingers and quite often (unwanted) photographs. Given China’s sheltered past and highly restricted media access, I somewhat understood their fascination with people who didn’t look like them. It was still bizarre and annoying, and I often felt like a zoo animal.
One of the most important things for a person of colour is representation. Simply seeing someone who looks like you in a position of affluence and influence sends the strongest of messages.
So imagine my surprise and shock when I arrived in the U.K., a first world, developed country with unrestricted media access, and had people comment on my ability to speak my mother tongue! So many things crossed my mind. I feel like people should know better, after all, South Africa isn’t just some small spec in Africa. We are a former British colony, the hosts of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, the home of the late Nelson Mandela, home of the current Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi and most recently the 2019 Ruby world Champions! How then, are people still unaware that we speak English in South Africa?
One of the most important things for a person of colour is representation. Simply seeing someone who looks like you in a position of affluence and influence sends the strongest of messages. It reminds you that you are enough. Most importantly, it reminds you that it is possible. Just having a tangible role model makes a world of difference. As a PoC there have been moments where I have felt that my actions and words would be judged harshly simply because I was surrounded by others who didn’t look like me and just didn’t understand my perspective on the matter. I have felt as though my voice would be taken as a generalized, collective voice for other PoC, and that responsibility is immense.
In order for this to be a reality in our workplaces and institutions there needs to be real transformation. The kind that allows PoC and marginalized groups to feel as though they are welcome and that they too can belong in prestigious places, holding important titles and simply being a beacon of hope to those at the bottom of the ladder.
Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, we have seen corporations and large companies begin the journey towards transformation. This is only the beginning and I believe that in the days and months to come we will see further transformation. However, the onus is on each of us to evaluate the way that we treat each other and pay specific attention to any microaggressions that may arise. It is our duty to educate ourselves on the world around us and step out of our bubbles of comfort every once in a while.
So. In response to that statement: “Yes, isn’t it wonderful that I am able to speak my mother tongue this well. Shocking what a few hundred years of colonialism can do.“
Orielia Egambaram is a PhD candidate in Chemistry at UoK, focusing on the development of energy storage systems. She grew up in eSwatini, a small landlocked country bordered by South Africa and Mozambique in Southern Africa. She is the media and communications manager for newly formed Women’s Researcher Network (WReN) at Kent.