Let’s talk about race!

Ambika Natarajan is a Senior Digital Project Manager in Portfolio and Delivery Assurance at DWP Digital. To recognize International Day for the Elimination of Race Discrimination, Ambika shares her journey from South Africa to Britain and remembers some of the great Black people that have shaped her thinking today.

 

My personal journey

Being of Indian origin and having lived in South Africa in my younger years, I am no stranger to the controversies surrounding colour and creed. I was eight years old when our school caretaker in South Africa was seriously attacked for simply daring to work in an establishment that welcomed children of all races. It didn’t make much sense to me then and still does not now.  I remember being very afraid and wondering if my teachers and friends would be safe.  Thankfully that was the only violent act that happened in my otherwise idyllic life of the eastern cape’s rolling hills and wild coast. However, it was a stark awakening that such evils exist.

There was a well-known ‘trouble maker’ called Nelson Mandela who made his voice heard.  I remember the news pictures of him galvanising a change. Some called it inciting violence whilst others called it a freedom movement. The current Black Lives Matter movement has brought so many of those memories to the forefront. Some people view it as an inconvenience as large demonstrations may spread the Covid-19 virus and many believe that the problem of racial divisions resides somewhere else, not here in the UK.

In the late 1980s, just before apartheid in South Africa ended, my family moved to Britain.  I loved Britain, for its weather (no more broiling hot sun), for its language (no more Afrikaans which I was especially bad at), for The Royal Family (I still have a scrap book of Lady Di’s wedding gown from newspaper cuttings)!  It was a place of order, etiquette, of politeness. However, not all aspects of life were polite.

I missed South Africa and my friends and had a tough time fitting in.  Being one of a minority of brown skinned children and being a geek to boot didn’t help matters. I received a good number of insults, mostly all focusing on my apparent brownness.  Some of my classmates had misconceptions of life in Africa as an undeveloped nation where everyone had to collect water from the local streams. My short temper didn’t help matters, ‘South Africa is one of the richest nations in the world!’ I would scream like a banshee, not being the good ambassador to South Africa that I wanted to be.

I didn’t understand the world, it was full of disconcerting and dangerous stimuli. I instead put myself through the therapy and escapisms of fiction.  It was in these books I found some understanding of human nature, explained to me by people that understood these things better than I did.

 

Remembering influential people

It’s important to remember some of the great Black people that have shaped my thinking and helped me to understand the world warts and all. From reading Malorie Blackman and Toni Morrison to remembering Nelson Mandela’s words that actually hate is in fact taught, never ring more true now than ever.

So when I read about the latest projects in machine learning or the latest algorithms that have baked in our prejudices and biases, it surprises me that we have advanced so far technologically and yet have not rid ourselves of these ills. It’s disheartening to think we have only used them to find new ways to divide ourselves further.

But I am being wholly unfair, there is much to be hopeful about. There is a real democracy and transparency in technology. It’s open and it is diffusive but we have to use it responsibly and we all have to understand it, be part of shaping it and not just simply consume it.

Mandela believed you can never have an impact on society unless you have changed yourself, and peacemakers must be of integrity, honesty and humility.  I truly believe that too.

 

How I challenge myself

Whether I‘m dropping my children off at school, visiting my local gym, or out socialising, I ask myself two good questions on a regular basis: “Am I only associating myself to people with the same background, same life experiences as myself?” Is my thinking and my decision based on evidence and fact or am going down a warren of lazy thinking?”

Without these queries in my mind I know I will never grow, never be challenged to think differently and never truly be able to be fair to those around me.

 

At DWP Digital, we recognise that diverse teams are needed which reflect the society we serve leading to more creativity and innovation. If you’d like to work for an organisation that will value your voice, find out more about how we value diversity and inclusion at DWP Digital.

 

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