IF I’VE GOT THIS FAR I’VE DONE SO UNDER MY OWN STEAM
At school, Lorraine hated being typecast. So she changed the narrative on her life.
One day when I was at sixth form at a school in Croydon where I grew up, a teacher pointed at me and my group of friends and said “You lot, the best you can hope for is nursing”. This stung. Not because there’s anything wrong with being a nurse, of course. But because we were all West Indian in my friendship group, and I hated the feeling of being typecast, put in a box. Was nursing the only career option for the likes of me? Why shouldn’t I be whatever I wanted to be? Couldn’t I decide for myself like many of my ambitous white friends did?
That sensation of being put in a box was a familiar one. I know that feeling of not being good enough because I don’t talk in a certain way. The knowledge that I had to go over and above to prove my worth, because you can’t be mediocre as a black woman – in fact you need a whole load of strings to your bow if you want to succeed.
Black girls internalise the message that we’re not as good as the rest. If I’m honest, not many black girls were in the top band at my school. We weren’t the best at English because our West Indian parents couldn’t help with the homework. My dad had never been to school and couldn’t read and write and after Mum died in my teens I struggled. I was embarrassed by my background. I couldn’t speak the Queen’s English, never felt quite correct. Nonetheless I strived really hard and got good grades – yet still I felt trodden on by the likes of that teacher. The sad thing is, back then I thought it was normal.
Even once I’d got a good degree, this feeling remained, this internalized belief that I couldn’t match my white friends. And it stayed with me throughout my career in Human Resources, when I constantly felt like someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I was there by mistake. Even when I was a high-flyer in charge of business development, marketing and recruitment for a City law firm that ‘I am not worthy’ feeling was always there. No matter how well I did, I always felt I didn’t quite make the grade.
When I read that studies show women of colour are particularly likely to experience feelings of self-doubt and imposter syndrome, it makes me sad for the next generation – because I know what I was up against back in the late 70s and sadly not much has changed. Even if you work with people who don’t necessarily make you feel different and unworthy, those ridiculous racist stereotypes about black people being lazy, unintelligent or lacking integrity still cause us to doubt ourselves and feel like we don’t deserve to be there. In my case I worked extra hard to compensate, but it didn’t fulfil me.
If I’d had role models who looked like me, black women in positions of authority and power, it would have certainly helped to have someone to look up to and inspire me, make me feel less alone. It would have also helped if I’d had a teacher who helped me to believe in my ambitions, rather than stereotyping me.
Thank goodness I decided to ignore that teacher and the many like her during my education. Now I’m a property developer and mentor, I marvel at how far I’ve come. My new development, Fountain Gates, with an array of apartments and houses that will soon be ready for first time buyers to purchase on the Help To Buy Scheme, and I couldn’t be prouder. Funnily enough, it’s just around the corner from my old school where I was pigeon-holed and made to feel my ambitions were worthless. Little me, a property developer! And what makes me especially proud is knowing I got here under my own steam – and in spite of those internalised limiting self-beliefs.
To find out more about how the narrative needs to change for people of colour, join Lorraine for The Business of Black, her monthly series of online, panel-led conversations supporting Black Lives Matter, with a focus on brands, entrepreneurship and business. With these discussions and a growing online community, she hopes to further expand understanding of racial inequality, inspire positive action, and build unity in business and in life. For more info go to View From My Window.
Words Marina Gask