WREN Stories: Born in Huddersfield

This month's WREN (Workforce Race Equality Network) Stories blog comes from Dr Nuwan Dissanayaka, a Consultant Psychiatrist in the Leeds Assertive Outreach Team.

I was born in a Huddersfield bedsit. Well, to be precise, I was born in the Infirmary across the road and upon my arrival I was well looked after as my mum worked there as a theatre nurse. She was one of thousands of ex-colonials enticed over to sixties Britain with the promise of a brighter future – doing the jobs no one here wanted to do! My parents’ love story is for them to tell but, in short, my dad abandoned his destiny as the heir to a thriving family business to set sail for England and attempt to win her hand. Luckily for me, he succeeded.

Like most immigrants, my folks are grafters. As a textile student at the local Polytechnic my dad literally gave himself a hernia with the backbreaking labour he took on. At weekends I had to keep the noise down so as not to disturb my mum’s sleep after her never-ending nightshifts. Money was tight as they squirreled away most of their pay for private school. Their cultural ethos of hard work was coupled with the unshakeable belief that education is the key to success. Their example matched their advice – if you have Brown skin you have to work twice as hard to succeed.

My parents both faced discrimination but their responses couldn’t have been more different. My dad, ever the Buddhist, practised acceptance despite repeated racial injustices but my mum was far less forgiving. Aged one she recounts that a young man approached my pram and spat in my face. She chased him down; an instinctive but risky response for a Brown woman in the early seventies. Thankfully, I’ve no memory of that incident but, as a small child, I do remember her courage facing down racist thugs who spat on our car (why do racists spit so much?) and taunted us in the street. Resilience is an overused word but my folks have it in spades and my admiration for them is immeasurable.

I have no ancestral memory. Living five and a half thousand miles away, my grandparents were strangers to me. Their lives were mythical stories set long ago in an ancient land and narrated in a foreign tongue. I’d like to say that I was curious about my roots growing up but I’m afraid I wasn’t. At a time when our institutions didn’t even pretend to care, assimilation was the best survival strategy. From the jackbooted National Front enthusiastically “Paki bashing” on our streets with apparent impunity from the police, to teachers mimicking the racist tropes of the “comedy” show Mind Your Language, being proud to be Brown didn’t feel like an option, especially at a school with an affluent White majority. So I shunned my heritage and put as much distance as possible between me and community gatherings, my religion and even the amazing food which I love so much today.

It was at medical school that I started to rediscover my culture. In a North East city with less Brown people there seemed to be less racial division. The overt racism paradoxically reduced, liberating me from the limiting philosophy of my school. My circle of friends consisted not of middle class students ostentatiously slumming it but instead the people I worked with in a local bar. With them I felt more comfortable in my skin and even overcame my aversion to “going for a curry”. Societal attitudes were changing or at least that’s how it seemed and I finally had a safe space in which to embrace the beauty of my origins. Indeed the only scenario that episodically shattered this illusion was the way White men reacted to me being out in public with a White girlfriend. Take it from me; it is no accident that this theme features on racial discrimination questionnaires…

I have three kids of mixed heritage and I hope things will be better for them. But in my younger boy’s first weeks at primary school an older child stopped him from entering a Wendy house because he was “too brown”. And more recently my older boy was sledged at cricket with Islamophobic slurs by jealous adults whose asses he was whupping. So, I’m taking no chances. I’ve told them this cautionary tale and they know that, at least for now, they too should expect to work twice as hard if they are to succeed in life.

This blog is about identity but you’ll notice I haven’t yet shared my ethnicity. The reason is that if you can identify with any of what I’ve said, then we share something important and, if this has touched you in any other way, then you could be an ally. And, in our fight together against racism, this matters more than the fact that my folks came here from…Sri Lanka.