I wear my heritage with pride every day of the year embracing the fashion, the history, culture and the food (oh the food) but this hasn’t always been the case, writes Judith Ibukunlayo.
Judith is a project manager in the finance strategy and development team at Network Rail. She is also chair of Cultural Fusion, our Black, Asian and minority ethnic employee network aimed at recognising the benefits of a diverse workforce.
I remember very vividly growing up in the north east of England in a particularly in my teenage years I just didn’t feel like I belonged; we lived in a very white British neighbourhood and I went to a school in which I was one of the two young people of Black heritage for many years.
You just couldn’t see diversity as we see it today. Coupled with that, my home experience was so different to that of my peers and I couldn’t reconcile my reality with the reality of others.
For example, we ate food that I would never speak about in school because I felt that people wouldn’t understand and to be honest, I didn’t want to have to explain.
I lived for many years in a constant state of confusion. I remember quite vividly the words of my mother, “inside this house is Nigeria, out there is England”.
Without her outrightly saying it, I felt the need to constantly shape shift to fit the narrative of who I felt people wanted me to be in any given space and it was exhausting furthermore this led to me being insecure in my identity as an ‘Afropean’.
It was also a time where Black history was never spoken about in school or at home; and there were few role models of African heritage outside my parents that were present.
Those who were present were rarely accessible. We knew some parts of our heritage, mostly the bad stuff. Rarely was there talk about the contributions or celebrations of particular individuals who made positive societal impact.
Our daily reality
Although the month of October is the national month in the UK in which Black history is celebrated, let’s not forget that for individuals of Black heritage, Black History Month is everyday because being Black is the suit and the lens to through which we experience the world, we don’t get to take of our Blackness; it’s our daily reality.
But Black History Month is precious to me because it presents a unique opportunity to change the narrative, to tell the stories of positive contribution to society; to bridge the gap between the dreamers and the achievers.
As a parent it’s a moment of pride to see my children encounter stories of people of African and Caribbean heritage across all industries who are changing the world in a positive way. It speaks to better representation, visibility and allyship.
By sharing our own stories, we demystify the myth of success and inspire the next generation of black children and young people.
I also like to use Black History Month to normalise cultural food and dressing. We often think there is a right or wrong way to dress but really there isn’t. We need to take pride in our heritage and stop asking for permission to be our authentic selves.
The theme for this year is ‘time for change: action, not words’. It’s time for each one of us to embody the change that we so desire and it starts with you and I taking a step.
Below I have listed a few meaningful steps you can take …
Seek to understand the lived experiences of those from underrepresented communities.
Enjoy the culture. Experience Black culture with an open mind; that way you will see all the beauty and the value that it brings.
Make up your mind to be an inclusive leader building systems that embrace the diversity that we all bring.
Participate in Black History Month by celebrating the positive contributions people of Black heritage have made to society
Evaluate your allyship journey.