The day I started seeing colour…

Tuesday 9th October 2018 at approximately 5.45pm.. my world started to become less B&W in some ways. More black and white in most other ways.

Ok, let’s rewind..

It wasn’t until I was called a “Paki” at school at the age of about 9 that I started to question my heritage. My father and mother had always told me to be proud and not shy away from being Indian. They also said keep your head down, avoid conflict and work hard. They had placed a huge value on “education” as the way to hold your head high. My grandfather had been a teacher in India, my father’s eldest brother was a teacher in India, later on my father’s younger brother started a school in India AND my father was a teacher in India before he emigrated to England in 1963. Read Why 1963?

It wasn’t until I was called a “Paki” at school at the age of about 9 that started to question heritage.

This put me in a dire conflict, how could I hold my head high and keep my head down?

My most common response was, at the time was “I’m from Bedford not Pakistan”. At the time the way I coped was to deflect, confuse or ignore. What I didn’t acknowledge at the time was that I was trying to get let off on a “technicality” rather than dealing with the injustice. At the time and age that I was, it was an easy solution. Easy was ok. Easy enabled you to get on with life.

My lower school football team.. a very diverse neighbourhood. Can you spot me?

“Wow, you speak another language!”.

My next memorable moment was when I was invited to a friends house after school, unplanned. I asked my friend if I could call my home to them know where I was and that I’d be later than usual. When I came off the phone (yes, we had corded phones, with dials and yes we memorised numbers. “Mobiles” were temporary buildings to create extra classrooms lol) my friend said “Wow, you speak another language!”. I felt chuffed that he hadn’t up until then noticed I was different.

My upper school rugby team.. I maybe a bit easier to spot?!

Over the coming school years I experienced variations of the above. I did see colour but perhaps not of myself. To the point at 17 I was part of the local anti-apartheid movement.. I saw the injustice and as many young people had also felt incensed.

So my decolorisation continued when I finally moved away to study. Moving to the northeast was definitely an experience. Wholeheartedly positive, laced with some blunt racism born out of ignorance mostly. I didn’t help myself. My first year, at freshers week, I’m ashamed to say I further turned my back on who I was.

“Hey brother, where are you from?”

An innocent enough question. Big groups of Asian students huddled together, laughing and making friends. What was wrong with that? I did not want to be part of it. I did everything not be part of it. “You are not my brother!” went constantly through my mind. “Just because we are the same colour does not mean we have to be friends!” I shouted at the top of my voice, in my head. “How dare they assume…” and on and on. Yes, another shameful moment to digest.

The years that followed in various workplaces, I was oblivious to anything that may or may not have impeded my journey in the workplace. I frequently told myself that maybe I was just not good enough. That, in hindsight, may have been more true than not. Like any young professional, navigating the business world, it’s tough. A lucky break here and there, a set back there, I saw as part of the learning curve to be successful and happy.

“Arv, I’m really sorry about that comment in the meeting today. Are you ok?”

That was the start of the phonecall with my regional manager after a meeting of senior managers. I was perplexed. I really didn’t know what he was talking about, I really didn’t. He explained about the racially charged remark, said in jest by one of the managers. One of the other attendees was so upset by the remark, on my behalf, he called the regional manager and raised a complaint. Once I had time to reflect, I realised I had heard it and I had laughed… that had always been my default to cope with such situations. Read “Why I wore a watch on holiday…”

Even after all these moments and no doubt, many others that bypassed me, I still didn’t get it. I didn’t see that I was different and I should hold my head up high.

“I tick so many boxes for you, you’ll never get rid of me ha ha”

2007, the year I made a call to my local school in Kent, requesting more details about their teacher training advert under the then work-based GTP route. No-one I told about my “sudden” career change were surprised. They said “Yep, I can see that!”. Affirmation is important but I knew I needed more fulfillment in my work-life, I wanted to make a real difference. I stayed in the school I trained in for my first 8 years. I predominantly white working class area; white staff and white students. I used to joke with my head as the only non-white teacher for 7 out of the 8 years, “I tick so many boxes for you, you’ll never get rid of me ha ha”. There was some truth to that! However, for most of the time I was there, I did feel extremely valued. What helped was the extremely narrow and focused lens I saw my world. I was given opportunities, my work was showcased and I made life long friends. It was there that I also met my future life-long partner in crime.

Photo credit: Kent Messenger. Whole school Movember annual event organised by me at my first school.

Was there racism in the school? Were any of the practices racially biased? Was I treated differently because of what I looked like? Of course, there are varying degrees of “Yes” to all of those. It wasn’t until towards the end of those 8 years that I started to have an inkling that it was a bigger “yes” than I could’ve imagined.

“Write\ list of all the reasons why you would be good in the training school and I’ll have a look.”

That may seem like a perfectly legitimate request from the head of the training school and in most scenarios it would be. Seven years prior to this, one of the reasons I was employed was because of the business experience I had and more importantly, the experience I had in management development and training. So after 7 years of “asking” how I could get a role within training, missing out on numerous opportunities to colleagues who had no track record of staff development and were never asked to qualify their reasons for doing these roles…. the request seemed far from legitimate.

The first time I really saw colour was when I took a role in London fringe academy school.

After years of climbing other ladders in various schools, I started to see things that didn’t sit comfortably with me. The “halo” that the education sector I perceived to have had, was slip.

The first time I really saw colour was when I took a role in London fringe academy school. It served a deprived area and had students from all types of socio-economic backgrounds and heritages. The main staff body was fairly reflective of this in terms of heritage. However, the majority of middle and senior leaders were most definitely not. It was noticeable. I remember sitting there one afternoon with some colleagues and blurted out “why are all the head of departments and SLT predominantly white when the teachers aren’t?” Stunned silence followed. They had all been where I was but never really said it out loud.

2018 we moved back to my home town region after my father passed away – read Funeral & Tea. Being close to family is important and being able to support loved ones even more so. What this meant was new jobs and new home… and we got married! All this in the space of a year.

This brings me to the most recent period of my life. With the support of an old school friend, I was put in touch with an academy trust in the area I was moving to.. and I became a Specialist Leader in Education (SLE). I worked mainly in a girls school and spent a day on school to school support for maths. The community I worked in was predominantly Muslim of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage. Although I “looked” similar, the culture was alien to me. I had so much to learn…. and still am.

Tuesday 9th October 2018 at approximately 5.45pm.. my world started to become less B&W in some ways. More black and white in most other ways.

That was the date that I was to put together a bid for the DfE Equality & Diversity Fund. I hadn’t got a clue what that was and why it was needed. I was 2 months into my new role, in a new Trust, in a new town and I had never had to deal with inequality. Or had I?!

For the next few weeks.. and then months I had very little sleep. I couldn’t sleep. My mind was buzzing, it was tense, I was frustrated and most of all angry. How could I not have been aware of racial inequality in the education system? At that point I had been in teaching 11 years, worked in 3 schools for 3 different MATs, with varying degrees of diversity amongst the students and staff.

Surely I would have noticed something at least?! I can’t have been that blind to this?

Over the past 2 years I have spent most of my time educating myself and listening to the voices that have been here for many many years. I have learned so much and come to the conclusion that this learning will never end.

I am now about to embark on the next stage of my journey where I will be focusing on this full time.

Ps (but definitely not a “ps”) this man has been my support, ally, mentor and inspiration from the moment I met him in September 2018. This video was taken during the #BAMEintoLeadership Winter Dinner 2019 which I organised and hosted over 240 educators from over 70 institutions.


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