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My story: Six ICS alumni share their experiences of racism

Six ICS volunteers from around the world share testimonies of their lived experience as Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals.

As anti-racist protests continue worldwide, we are grateful to these volunteers for sharing their perspectives on living through an unprecedented moment in history. We thank them for their time and energy in sharing their reflections and advice with us all, and appreciate the emotional labour it takes day in, day out to confront this.

Jessica Francisco, 25, volunteered in Nepal in 2020 

It’s taking me a while to understand what’s happening. It’s not justifiable nor acceptable.  

It hurts my heart (and mind) to know that in 2020 people like me are still experiencing outrageous episodes because of the colour of our skin. 

It makes me sad, deeply sad. It’s been extremely hard to process all this and find the best way to voice it out, because in my mind I cannot understand it at all. When this is your reality and you’re constantly experiencing it on a daily basis at school, at work, abroad, at a coffee shop, anywhere via micro-aggressions... you adapt to it, brush it off and make it your new normal. Mainly because if you complain, you’ll always come across as playing the victim card, and who you explain this to may not be able to understand what it’s like to be in your skin.

This is not a Black, White or Brown problem: this is a humanity problem. 
Jessica Francisco, 25
Volunteered in Nepal in 2020

I’m here telling you it hurts. It hurts. Having been raised in a European country that was/is not as open to talk about race or accept others of different cultures, I had to adapt and believe it was normal. I didn’t understand the rights and wrongs and how to voice it out. Constantly thinking about it and constantly addressing it becomes tiring. I am tired. Extremely tired. Mostly mentally tired. This is not a Black, White or Brown problem: this is a humanity problem. 

My name is Jessica Cristina Lucamba Francisco, I’m born Angolan, raised in Portugal and I’m Black. I was Black 25 years ago, Black yesterday, Black today and Black tomorrow. It won’t change. This is my message to you:

If you have the power and privilege to challenge systematic racism and unacceptable behaviour towards anyone of different background, race, religious beliefs, gender, disability and sexual orientation, please step up. 

Try also to get yourself educated in this matter, as it may be confusing to understand certain aspects. There are helpful resources such as books and documentaries out there. It may help you understand the issue and how to get involved and contribute to change.

Imagine just how hard it is to “belong” in a society that doesn’t fully accept you and strips away most opportunities because of the colour of your skin. Learn. Act. Change.

Bobnus Zonda, 23, volunteered in Nepal in 2020 

Let’s imagine life was like a game and before you were forced to play, you were given the choice to choose your own avatar, given the freedom to control how you look, deciding the colour of your eyes, texture of your hair, colour of your skin, height and gender. Given this wonderful opportunity and knowing what little I know about life right now, I am already certain of my decision: it would be so much easier as a white male. I wouldn’t really care much about my other characteristics, but my colour will be a deciding factor.

I want you to see my colour. I want you to respect it, to acknowledge it. I want you to embrace it, I want you to accept it.
Bobnus Zonda, 23
Volunteered in Nepal in 2020

Looking at the George Floyd situation, it is causing such resonance within the Black community, it shows the deep pain that most of us are going through. I say deep because it is much more complex than just the death of a fellow brother. Everything that should be a considered a human right is just not that easily available to us, which just shows how hard it is for us to be considered human, for we are clearly not treated as much.

Peaceful protests are belittled, there's a change in terminology when discussing Black participants (very common to see Black people described as thugs), and more aggressive methods are used to deal with people.

To help us heal, just accept the pain Black people are feeling. Do not try to justify it or defend it. Just accept it. Let them mourn, let them air out their grievances.

Often you hear people say “I don’t see colour”. That’s part of the problem. I want you to see my colour. I want you to respect it, to acknowledge it. I want you to embrace it, I want you to accept it.

Accept the fact that my colour brings me disadvantages, accept the fact my colour brings me pain, accept the fact my colour brings me prejudice. Accept the fact that my colour brings me death. Only when we are all in true understanding of each other’s pain can we truly stand in solidarity.

As I stated above, given the choice of my own avatar in life, the easier choice to me would be to be white but I would always choose to be who I am. A Nubian prince. This is what has been and is being fought for: a fairer life that given the choice, everyone will come back exactly as they are no matter what race they are. 

Ravina Marwaha, 25, volunteered in Zambia in 2019 

Please take the time out to listen and learn. I understand that you may be silent because you are afraid to say something wrong, but please, don't let this stop you from speaking out. To be a true ally, you will have to get it wrong a few times before you get it right, and it is okay to get it wrong. You will be checked for it, but that is okay because you will learn so much from it.

Use your privilege for the better.
Ravina Marwaha, 25
Volunteered in Zambia in 2019

Don't ask your Black friends to educate you; they are exhausted and tired. There are resources all over the internet that Black people have put together to help you on your journey of unlearning and learning. The journey will be uncomfortable, but please understand that Black people have been dealing with discomfort and pain all their life, and you are only feeling a small amount of it.

To be a true ally you will have to engage in uncomfortable conversations with your friends and family, and you may even lose some friends along the way. Most importantly, use your privilege for the better. The journey will be tiring and you will feel discomfort, but it will be worth it.

Susan Waruingi, 28, volunteered in Nigeria in 2015 

It was in the year 2015 when it dawned on me that, based on my skin colour, I could either get special treatment and a warm welcome from the community even before speaking, or be ignored and have to work harder to prove that I could actually deliver something beneficial to the community, being a Black volunteer.

I had left my country, Kenya, to volunteer on ICS in Nigeria alongside other volunteers from Kenya, the UK and Nigeria. This felt awful - we had all been selected on merit (through an ICS assessment day), yet our races became like the ‘pass’ to the communities at first. 

It dawned on me that, based on my skin colour, I could either get special treatment and a warm welcome... or be ignored and have to work harder to prove that I could actually deliver something beneficial.
Susan Waruingi, 28
Volunteered in Nigeria in 2015

Through the interactions with the community and fellow volunteers, I realised that much of the history consumed in Africa and the world over has created the ideology of White race superiority over the Black race. This has been reinforced over the years through various sectors like the education system, where it is taught and passed down to incoming generations.

It is for this reason that after volunteering I trained as a social inclusion facilitator where, in my little efforts, I help incoming ICS volunteers, communities and organisations to see, understand and reverse how ideologies of superiority are created, internalised, reinforced, and given a platform - and how this leads to oppression and exclusion of those deemed inferior by the society, while the oppressors feel no guilt or go scot-free. 

It saddened me when I recently visited the USA. From my interaction with various professionals in the field of diversity and inclusion, I could tell how frustrated they felt because of the existing inequalities, especially on race. Yet, they felt helpless and inadequate because it seems systemic. For this reason, I appreciate and stand with the massive #BlackLivesMatter movement. Not because I ignore the fact that all lives matter, but because Black people have become an endangered race, and I believe this movement is reversing the ideology of White race superiority today and to the incoming generation. 

Demera Giles, 18, volunteered in Kenya in 2020 

You won't fulfil me,
Until my people are free,
Well, really it's our people,
But in fools' eyes surely only we feel,
Betrayed, hurt, confused, angry - we kneel,
A murderer tried to make a mockery and
Floyd...can't breathe,
Breonna...can't breathe,
Brown...can't breathe,
We can't breathe...
Though the racists are getting bolder,
Us anti-racist youth grow stronger,
It's hard to fight racial injustice but we must try
Would you rather we die?
We are now faced with a new disease,
Africa is not a testing ground so Stop. Please.
Press press on us, so we needed some form of release,
Police give us no time to freeze,
No time to put our hands up, we make a fist,
Fighting for the right to exist.

James Denham, 25, written whilst volunteering in Nigeria in 2019 

I am used to people questioning my racial identity. As a person of mixed Black-African and White-British heritage living in the UK, my hair and complexion often draw a lot of unwanted attention. This usually results in passers-by groping my locks or asking uncomfortable questions about “where I’m from”. So when I found out I’d be spending my summer working as a volunteer on a development project in Nigeria, my thoughts immediately turned to the reaction of the local people once I arrived in-community.
Having spent my entire life in a country that is predominately white, I was excited to live in a place where dark skin is the norm. Although I was apprehensive at first, I knew that getting the chance to live and work in West Africa would allow me to explore an aspect of my identity that I’d kept hidden in plain-sight for as long as I can remember.

Upon landing in Enugu, I instantly felt a wholesome sense of belonging. It was as if I’d filled in the blanks to a discarded crossword puzzle that I had buried deep within myself. Wherever I looked, across all positions in society, I saw Black faces staring back at me: pilots, air traffic controllers, keke drivers, kings, soldiers, market traders and everything in between.

I think I naturally felt at ease, because back home I identify more with my blackness. Despite the fact that I wasn’t raised on yam and plantain, and my mother speaks with a thick North London accent, I still feel as if my racial identity swings in favour of my Ghanaian heritage. This is because the way I’m treated in the UK is a consequence of my West African make-up; my sprouting curls, wide-set nostrils and plump lips are signposts that direct people to my otherness.

Since arriving in Ibagwa Nike, I’ve become something of a local celebrity. Word has spread that there is a particularly peculiar looking man in town, and both children and adults shout my name as I walk to work, or sit on the front porch scrubbing the pap stains from my clothes. My newfound stardom was something I was expecting, but the things it led me to question about my own identity were not.

Initially, I assumed that the people of the community were interested in my presence due to my shaggy appearance and my host family’s boasts about the speed at which I clean my plate at mealtimes. However, after settling in further, I’ve begun to realise that their curiosities are no different from the uncomfortable line of questioning I’m bombarded by in the UK.

This may lend itself to the fact that for many people in Ibagwa Nike, I am half-caste: a thing, or creature made impure by the presence of its blackness. The use of this word, and its younger cousin, mix-breed, have been common occurrences in my presence. However, I have learnt not to take offence to the use of it. As having become a part of this community, I believe that its usage, and the derogatory connotations it espouses, are most likely a consequence of the lack of mixed-race people in Ibagwa Nike, and Nigeria more broadly.

On several occasions my race has been the topic of conversation. Some have told me that I have no right to claim ownership over my blackness because my father is white, while others believe that my dark complexion is merely a case of severe suntan! These points of view are deeply troubling to me, since I came to Nigeria seeking acceptance in a world, that on the surface, appeared more familiar than my own. Yet, the reality remains the same, I am an outsider (onye ocha!). 

While this is disheartening, I know that this attitude to mixed-race people is down to a lack of exposure. I should point out that I am among the first team of volunteers from my organisation to work in Enugu state, let alone this Ibagwa, so it is understandable that people may be somewhat uninformed about the intricacies of postmodern identity politics. For this reason, I do not feel anger towards the communities’ use of language, or their understanding of my racial identity, since I wouldn’t expect them to know otherwise. Instead, my anguish is thrown inwards, as I cast doubts over the validity of my blackness. 

Nevertheless, it is important to state that while I can come to an understanding as to why people view me in this fashion, I don’t think it is acceptable. Moreover, just because I’m met with some unsavoury reactions to my racial identity does not mean that I should pack up my things and hop on the next plane home. Rather, I believe that I should use these instances as a source of strength, in particular, as a foundation from which I can actively educate people on the issues of race and identity, and hopefully, change things for the better.

Coincidentally, my approach to tackling the community’s attitude towards my racial identity mirrors the ethos of the development work I’m here to conduct. The process, like improving the lives of the young people in Ibagwa Nike, might be slow and testing at times, but the rewards for doing so, are unprecedented.

Now I wear my beautiful mixed-skin like a suit of armour. I use the words I hear and the questions I’m posed as a talking point from which I hope to spark cross-cultural learning, and alter the preconceptions of the community. And it is from here that my story goes full circle, as I aim to use the way I have dealt with questions about my race in Nigeria, to fuel the way I respond to them when I return to the UK.

So if there is one life lesson I have gained from my experience it is this: patience and adaptability are key to a life lived politically. By turning the negative comments I receive into avenues through which I can start important conversations about identity politics, I can make a difference. With this valuable lesson in mind, I am confident that I will return to the UK with a new sense of empowerment.

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