My name is ManinderjeetMaz Deo,
A few words from our CEO, Ryan Scott:
We’ve all be struck by the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement and it has, rightfully, encouraged countries, governments, businesses, and people to really take stock and acknowledge that racism still exists today and that we must truly focus on change.
At twentysix, we’re actively working on Diversity and Equality across the business – and for us a key part of this is talking to staff and empowering them to share their own stories and experiences so that we can become more aware and educated on how conscious or unconscious racism manifests itself and what we need to do as an organisation to promote equality, alter our behaviour and drive lasting change.
In support of this, we want to provide a platform for people in our agency to share their stories. Maz Deo, a Senior Campaign Manager here at twentysix, has kindly offered to share her powerful account. Her family moved to England from Punjab, India in the 50s. Maz has kindly offered up her personal account of how racism has affected her and her family through this period.
Silence will never be the right answer; therefore, we are proud to support Maz in raising awareness and making that critical and needed step forward in creating a better, fairer, and kinder world.
My name is Maninderjeet.
Black Lives Matter. This movement is much more than the outrage over the latest instances of police brutality; it is about centuries of suffering endured by the Black community. Discrimination against Black Americans is embedded in the political, economic and social structure of the US. Black Americans are failed by an education system, substandard health care which makes them more vulnerable to death, illness and disease, and an economy that leaves millions without access to a living wage.
But this is just an American problem, right? We don’t need to worry about it here in the UK, surely? Plenty of powerful and prominent people would have us believe the UK has moved beyond endemic racism. They are wrong.
It certainly manifests itself differently here than in the US, but racism absolutely exists in the UK. It existed when my parents were growing up here in the 60s, when I grew up here in the 00s, and as I live here today in 2020.
The Black Lives Matter movement has triggered a lot of thoughts and emotions in me recently. It’s forced me to look at my own experiences of racism and think about things I haven’t thought about in a very long time. Yes, this process was uncomfortable, and it still is. But it’s time to get uncomfortable so things can change.
I had a very different upbringing to my parents. They were both born and bred Yorkshire folk, and each raised by hard working Sikh parents that moved to the UK from Punjab, India in the 1950s for the want of a better life for their children and grandchildren to come. My grandparents did everything they could to integrate into their local community, but they were always ‘different’. And people are wary of what’s different.
The racism I experienced growing up was very different to that of my parents. I never had to run home from school to avoid getting attacked for looking different. I didn’t have to take a separate school bus with the other children of colour. I didn’t have children avoid sitting next to me at school or overhearing parents tell their children they couldn’t be friends with me. I am lucky, yes, but I had my own struggles.
My sister and I were the only children of colour at our primary school, but as a young child I didn’t know we were different. I was 5 years old when my classmate asked me ‘why is your skin darker than mine?’. I had no idea. I didn’t really notice it was. So, I replied ‘erm I don’t know, I’ve been on holiday so maybe it’s that?’. That innocent, ridiculous and wholly inaccurate response sufficed for my classmate, but ignited so many questions for me. Why don’t I look like everyone else? What does it mean? How can I look more like them?
But my first experience of racism highlighted to me that how I looked was a problem to some people around me. I was 9 years old and on the school bus home that we shared with children who went to the local secondary school. It was pancake day, and as a secondary school pupil walked off the bus, she shouted at me that my Dad wouldn’t cook me pancakes because he wouldn’t know how, and I should just ‘eat curry’. She left the bus and everyone fell silent. I didn’t get it, but everyone else did. My friend Tom, also aged 9, had to explain that what she said was horrible and it was because of the colour of my skin. I felt embarrassed and just wanted to get off the bus and run home. I was 9.
After that, I started to notice how different I was. I experienced a range of different kinds of racism. There was the obvious ‘in your face’ racism, like being called ‘the walking poo’ at the age of 10, or ‘paki’ throughout my teenage years. This kind of racism hurt. To me, it was a loud and humiliating reminder that I was different, worthless and small. Until recently, that was the racism that I remembered when I looked back at my childhood.
However, the BLM movement has made me think of the more subtle and casual forms of racism I experienced. And now, at the age of 29, I realise that was the most damaging one to my identity.
I think the earliest form of this that I can remember is the school register. My name. Maninderjeet. It is different, long, and hard to pronounce. I get it. But each day, the teachers would take a long pause right before it was my turn on the register. The class would laugh. The teacher would then look up, see I was there and then just skip over my name and move on to the next person. And just like that, I was erased. My name wasn’t even worth attempting because it was different and difficult. And from then, I started to hate it. I resented my parents for picking such a ‘stupid’ name. At 8 years old, I asked my mum if I could change my name to Rachel…I know, Rachel. My mum was heartbroken and told me how ‘beautiful’ my name was, and how it meant that God, grace and love would always be with me. But nope, to me it was stupid and I hated it. My friend suggested I have ‘Maz’ as my nickname so ‘it’s easier for everyone’, and I’ve carried it for 20 years. Honestly, I really dislike it. But its easier for everyone, right? So it stuck.
I was also told as a child that I was ‘quite a pretty girl considering I was Indian’, by my white friend’s mum. In that moment I remember thinking, would I be prettier if I wasn’t Indian? Who else thought this?
In every school play, I would play the person of colour. For our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I begged the teacher to let me play Titania. I wanted nothing more than to be a Queen of the Fairies. But no. I was told I had to play the Indian Boy because I would have an ‘ethnic’ outfit at home to wear. And that was that. And my white-skinned, blonde haired friend played Titania. Would I have been given that role if I looked more like her?
I thought my life would be so much easier if I were white. And maybe it would have been. I would be prettier, get the roles I wanted, and have a name people could say. So, I wanted to be white. I grew up in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, and our family was the only family of colour for miles. I only had white friends growing up, and I would only feel comfortable being around white people because I thought I would ‘blend in’ and no one would notice I was different. But I was.
In secondary school, I bought skin bleach. I write that and I feel so ashamed. I only said that out loud for the first time a week ago. I wanted to change a huge part of who I am to look like everyone else. Luckily, I didn’t do it - my mum found the bleach – but I was so close.
I didn’t want to be different anymore. I resented the culture I was born into because it meant I had to go to temple most Sundays instead of playing out with the kids in the village. It meant that I had a family function almost every weekend so I couldn’t have a sleepover at my best friend’s or go to a kid in my class’s birthday party. It meant that I had to work so damn hard at school to get all A’s because I had to be a doctor or a lawyer. Until recently, I was ashamed of my culture and heritage. When my granddad was alive, he always used to say what made us different made us beautiful, and that I should be proud when I look in the mirror. But I wasn’t, and to some degree I’m still not.
Casual racism has followed me into adulthood. With waiters at restaurants just handing me the Halal menu without asking me what my preferences are, being followed around shops by security, being pulled over by the police and asked if its my car I’m driving, being called racial slurs as random people walk past me, being worried for my safety each time I leave the house in case I come across someone who really hates the way I look and has to show me, being asked to work on certain clients because the client contact is also a person of colour and I would ‘get it’, being gestured to in a meeting when someone mentions the words ‘Asian markets’, having people trying to guess what my full name is by pulling up Google and searching for Indian names beginning with M and shouting their findings across the office, being told I was a diversity hire, and always being searched at airport security. I could go on. Its uncomfortable, sure, but its my life and experience.
I’ve made peace with the fact that casual racism may continue to follow me around. Though, I hope it won’t. And I hope the next generation experience it even less. That starts with education. It starts with people asking more questions. Read. Donate to meaningful causes where you can. Listen to what people of colour have to say and make them feel heard. Correct your friend, neighbour or family member if you hear something wrong or racist. It’s a privilege to educate yourself about racism rather than experience it. So, use that privilege for good and make a profound change.
I have made incredible friends throughout my life who have always made me feel that I can be myself, who have supported me and encouraged me to talk about my experiences, and who have made me feel safe. With this encouragement from my wonderful friends and my amazing teammates, I feel a little more accepting of my culture and my skin colour. And there have been improvements - 2 years ago, I changed my name on LinkedIn to display my full name, and that’s progress!! However, I’m still Maz and I would like to still be called Maz, but I’m learning to accept that Maninderjeet is just as much a part of my identity.
And now? Well, I don’t want to be white anymore. I want to love the skin I’m in. I want to live in a world where we see each other’s skin colour. We respect it, we honour it and we celebrate it. I want everyone to believe what makes us different makes us beautiful, just as fiercely as my granddad believed it. I have to be hopeful that one day, we will.