In many environments, black people often struggle to be their authentic selves because it can potentially hurt their chances of professional and personal advancement. So how do I know? My background is, I am a black woman. I am a UK psychotherapist. My name is Sam. Prior to training to be a therapist, I worked for a Swiss investment bank on a trading floor for over 17 years. Unfortunately, in the last two years of my employment, I faced a difficult racial situation at work, which I found deeply uncomfortable. I was no longer hearing Sam, I was being addressed as Sambo.
I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t breathe, I was not okay.
I struggled in the beginning and like many people I was afraid my words wouldn’t be heard or even welcomed. Until I heard it again and again, I eventually, told them my name is Sam not Sambo. I linked my inability to speak up around feeling unsafe. I was in a white male dominated environment and I was also a black woman.
Even though the physical enslavement of black people has ended, the attitudes and behaviours remain a part of our culture. I was told I was being sensitive. I had to work harder than my white female counterparts to be heard to prove my worthiness and that I was worthy of some respect. I began to realise how impacted I was by this situation, as I put on a brave face and continued to do more than others. However, inside I was in so much pain. I never dropped the ball in spite of what was going on around me. I had the support of my friends but only expressed the deep shame and humiliation I felt in therapy.
I recognised in speaking up, the more I asserted my black identity, when highlighting the severity of the slur, the more of a threat I became to the prevailing order. My felt experience was derailed when I challenged the status quo. I felt trodden on by my peers, the business and by my shame as I made countless attempts to rationalise the situation.
The saddest thing is, the apology exposed raw wounds. It wasn’t genuine. I wasn’t going mad when I assumed it wouldn’t be well received if I spoke up. “They” and you may be wondering who “they” are. “They” are those individuals who think it’s okay to say, do or project onto others without taking into consideration the feelings of others.
As black people, I believe there are pains and wounds we inherit from our parents and grandparents and there are times we are aware of it and times it is out of our awareness. It deeply saddens me because race is something unseen, unspoken of and unacknowledged in a “polite” society, which is the experience of many black people. I viewed myself as a popular outspoken individual at work, never experiencing any difficulties in spite of the paucity of black people, however, I soon realised stepping out of my comfort zone into my stretch zone was a challenge. I eventually did leave after maturely challenging the status quo. It all happened very fast.
Since then, I have been able to channel my energy into a successful private psychotherapy practice. I had legal options to take things further, but I knew it wouldn’t serve my soul if I remained in a state of toxicity. It would have been a sickness of my soul if I continued to fight.
When black people choose to ignore the overt and covert messages that have existed over generations, this can have an impact on their wellbeing. There is an ongoing theme that black people lose their ability to speak their truth in times of strife. When individuals find it hard to express themselves or breathe, it can throw them into a state of flux and they can often deny the reality of what is happening.
So, what did I do? In therapy, I gave myself permission to get to know the parts of myself that I struggled to fully acknowledge. I put me first. This is a concept that many black people struggle to even consider.
I believe as black people get to know and understand their beliefs and their desires, they can begin to realise they no longer need to remain trapped in one fixed version of who they are. Black people bear physical and emotional scars and these wounds of the heart, soul and spirit when often left untreated, can eventually fester corrupting the body and mind.
Most black people discover and are reminded they are black through acts of racism and prejudice whether it stems from the childhood taunts in the playground or the lewd sexual remarks. I believe self-compassion is a concept much needed towards healing the wounds and pains. I believe my experiences continue to shape me and forgiveness has played a big part in my healing. Difficult times can be an opportunity for change because as a culture we can all recognise we need emotional healing and a space to breathe.
Stepping out of the comfort zone is a blessing and a curse, greater autonomy and personal growth can be achieved. Being able to speak up is about being accountable for one’s own journey which includes managing thoughts, feelings and behaviours. I no longer want black people to experience a threat of exclusion. I feel passionate about encouraging others to take healthy risks and to allow themselves the permission to breathe.
Psychotherapist & Holistic Performance Coach