I was a racist once

I need to discuss this uncomfortable concept here. I was thinking that, although we all, in British society, try to raise the awareness of racism we rarely talk in details about what it actually is and what it isn’t. The British don’t want to touch this subject because they are worried they will be attacked about having misconceptions, so I thought I’d try.

I experienced racism myself, unfortunately, and what I mean by that were comments made by the British about me having ‘two room flat’ when I clearly stated it’s two bedroom, or that I eat a barley groat that is part of our cultural heritage because ‘it’s cheaper than potatoes’. I also heard more direct comments, like ‘there’s too many Polish people in this country. NHS won’t cope, we don’t have enough schools’ like if that person forgot that loads of us, Polish, work as nurses, doctors, teaching assistants and builders.

It got particularly bad just before the Brexit referendum. I remember once a manager at work came up to me and asked me abruptly, in front of other staff, what am I going to do if Britain choose Brexit. I said I’d wait till I get deported and I laugh. At least I found a response for that, because usually I don’t know what to say.

But I was racist once too; it happened in Poland, a few years ago when I was eating lunch in one of Tomaszów Mazowiecki ‘homemade dinners’ places. We had a lot of Ukrainian workers in Poland at the time, they were often builders and we did need them because Polish buliders preferred to work in the UK.

As I was eating I realised two men at the table nearby are speaking Ukrainian and my first reaction was ‘they’re not supposed to be there’. I did think they should be eating cheap, home made sandwiches somewhere at the side of the road while drinking tea from a flask. Oh, believe me, I didn’t think they didn’t deserve hot food and I wasn’t worried that it’s not going to be enough for everyone. I was just stereotyping: I knew most of them wanted to save money so I just thought they don’t eat out at all.

When I told my mum how ashamed I was of my reaction she said they get vouchers from their employer for that place and, as much as I believed they deserved it, I thought when mum said it out right like that it didn’t sound very good.

Is stereotyping racist? I think it is, unfortunately, because we should be making an effort to really get to know the person instead of making assumptions. I wonder how this can be achieved though if, the entire British population is so focused on ‘being professional at all times’ – they use stereotypes to do that and they then transfer this behaviour somewhere else where it doesn’t serve very well.

But I also wanted to say here about what racism is not; in my opinion of course, and my opinion is shaped by my life experience.

Do you remember my friend Wanda? She’s Polish, around 25 years older than me and extremely sociable and chatty. If I met her in a large group of other Polish people, we’d probably never speak much. But I met her at work where only two of us were Polish and we loved working together and still keep in touch. I also once wanted to accept a job only because the manager was Polish.

Somehow Polish people connect better with other Polish, British connect better with British and I guess Germans would connect best with other Germans if there was enough of them in this country. Is this racism? I don’t believe so, however, this may cause situations that will look like racism: where for example a job offer will be given to a British person even though both candidates were equal.

I’m not really sure what to advise on that because challenging doesn’t seem to be the right approach. Perhaps looking for your niche would be better?

We need to say here, however, that the British are generally much better with understanding the job market. They seem to know instinctively something that people from certain minority backgrounds seem to not realise very well: if you want a career, you need to go and get it. You need to chase opportunities, because even though you may be very good at something, if you didn’t prove it on your CV, it doesn’t mean a lot at all.

I was once working with a girl from a minority background who was only in her mid 20s but had excellent social skills. She had the rare ability to tell everyone what they needed to hear (instead of what they wanted to hear) without hurting their feelings and without putting any effort into it at all. I was thinking she could become a high profile negotiator for a government maybe, but this is not the kind of job one gets in their 20s, you’d probably agree?

She worked in care and was complaining there’s no good jobs around but she wasn’t trying to chase experience, instead she was chasing university degrees. And I thought, that by itself is not going to help her to get where she wanted to be, while I was also wondering whether family recognises her unique skills? They didn’t see her at work, coping with conflicts, and at home it would be easy to say she’s just a nice person.

Which then brings me to the conclusion that it’s not just autistics that don’t get their abilities easily recognised.

So that is, moreless what I wanted to say about racism: it is very much real, but people from minority backgrounds shouldn’t be discouraged from going after what they want. I’d like to encourage all of them to believe in themselves, recognise their unique strengths and focus their career efforts around those.

That’s what I wanted to say during that employment training I came up with before I applied to uni. Studying dementia is going to take a lot of time so I may let go of this idea, as much as it’s close to my heart, but at least you get the idea of what I wanted to say.

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