Being the best we can

By Gillian Neish

Firstly my congratulations to those who inspired and organized this conference and to the Sponsors for allocating the funds that allowed it to happen. Thank you, too for inviting me. It’s a great atmosphere and I’m delighted to be here.

There is a great deal of talent among black women here in Scotland and certainly inside this room and yet much of it goes unrecognized not only outside but also by those who possess it. In an ever-changing world which desperately needs the skills and abilities of all its people that is a shameful waste. So why does it happen?

One of the reasons it is so hard to “to be the best we can be” is that we are often made to feel invisible. Although it is now more widely accepted that both sexism and racism are a problem in our society much of the analysis of sexism considers its effect on white women and that of racism, black men. As we all know black women can be doubly discriminated against and yet this is rarely acknowledged. I was, therefore, particularly pleased when the CRE launched its Visible Women Campaign last year to raise awareness of the issues preventing equal access such as unemployment, negative stereotyping, harassment and isolation.

The racism which causes this invisibility can take many forms such as verbal harassment or physical attacks but at other times it is less overt. I recently ran a workshop in a venue in the central belt. In an adjacent room, another black woman was working with another group. She was about ten years younger, for inches taller and easily a stone lighter than me, had straight hair swept up into a French pleat and was wearing a peach coloured formal jacket. I was wearing a dark grey knitted suit. Despite this, during the lunch break, I was approached by a participant from the other group who thanked me for a fascinating and informative lecture! Could she really not tell us apart? I responded assertively.

But no matter how we respond to racism some people will maintain that the problem is ours. If we fight back we’re considered aggressive and unstable, if we cry we’re emotionally unstable, if we ignore or pretend it isn’t happening there is no problem to address, if we use humour to challenge it must be a joke and if we are assertive then we’re likely to be told we’re oversensitive, overreacting or have a chip on our shoulders!

All too frequently we hear people in Scotland say that racism is not a problem here when numerous studies show the opposite to be the case. Though there is legislation outlawing racial discrimination and the organizations we work for or with and whose services we use may have equal opportunities policies they don’t always implement them. Having equal opportunities policies is the easy bit, implementing them requires commitment and action.

Obviously, not all white people are racist and we are not all experiencing racism all the time. However, it’s because we never know when it is going to occur that when it does it is very painful. It undermines our confidence and self-esteem and influences the way we behave because to protect ourselves we develop coping strategies. Sometimes, when we think of the enormity of the problems racism causes us, and I shall not go into them here, we can be overwhelmed. But for our own sakes and for those we love, many of whom are also negotiating a world that is at times hostile and unwelcoming, we must do more than just passively survive. We must find the strength to take action to make changes.

One of the personal development programmes I offer is called Springboard. It was designed specifically for women to encourage us to take greater control of our lives, set our own goals and take action to achieve them, because despite our skills and abilities we are underrepresented both at senior levels in organizations and in positions of responsibility in society generally. Many of the Springboard courses I run, for perhaps as many as thirty-five women in a group, are in-Company and even though there may be an equal opportunities policy the participants are, usually, nearly all white. Part of the course is about “Knowing Yourself” and thinking about your “race” and colour and the impact that that has on the way you lie your life. Whilst some white women who attend are well aware of equality issues and can immediately draw parallels between their own position in society compared with that of men, others see it as irrelevant. Women who found themselves as the only black participant on such courses said they occasionally felt as though they were being used as a learning tool for the rest of the group and that made them feel uncomfortable.

Such feedback prompted me to run a number of courses specifically for black and minority ethnic women. Each time the feedback has been positive. Being with other black women helped overcome feelings of isolation. They enjoyed being together and being able to discuss open problems with others who not only understood but who could also offer ideas, practical solutions and, importantly, ongoing support. They were challenged on the stereotypes they themselves held of people from other ethnic groups and have a clearer understanding of how racism has affected their thinking too. This clearer understanding has brought new friendships which have continued beyond the course and a willingness to form new alliances more widely. Then we can all fight racism instead of each other.

Some have gone on to other training courses or to further or higher education. Others have joined various projects as volunteers some to gain work experience before moving on to paid or self-employment, others for personal fulfilment. Some have decided to improve their fitness and energy levels Others have taken up new hobbies and put some fun back into their lives. All have been encouraged by hearing the life stories of other successful black women, realizing the similarities with their own lives and experience and that it is hard work, determination and belief in yourself that brings success not luck.

All have taken steps out of their comfort zone into what I call the “wobbly area”. It has meant doing things differently but if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got! They have learned to be more assertive, to more readily express their views and opinions and actively listen to those of others. They are more confident with higher self-esteem because they have found a balance that is right for them and is doing what they want to do. And yes sometimes it is scary and difficult but by giving and getting support from their networks of like-minded people they are encouraged to keep moving forward in these ever-changing times.

We black women are a small minority in Scotland and if our voices are to be heard and our needs addressed if we are to be visible women we need to be represented, supporting those who represent us, actively involved at all levels in society, including the Scottish Parliament. Don’t wait for a course to begin to take responsibility for what happens in your life. Begin right now with other women here. Network and support each other, knowing that one woman’s success is a success and example for us all. It certainly means taking risks and going outside our comfort zones into the “wobbly area” but that’s exciting and what living life to the full is all about.

Together we’re a force to be reckoned with. Let’s not wait any longer. Let’s be the best we can be, now.


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