Has someone ever told you a story that stays with you, long after the conversation is over? A story that makes you pause, makes you think, makes you see the world differently?
The story I’m about to share is one of those for me. I heard it in October last year and it’s still rolling around in my head.
You probably read this headline and thought this post is going to be about Azeem Rafiq’s blowing the lid off racism in English cricket, but it’s not. This is a story from a facilitated conversation about inclusion that I was leading for a group of civil servants.
We were exploring feelings of belonging for UK immigrants – who belongs, when you know you belong, and what the criteria for belonging is. Then a man who had been quiet up to that point spoke up and said “Sometimes even when you feel like you belong, you realise that other people don’t think and feel that you do.”
I sensed a story behind the comment, so I asked him to elaborate if he felt comfortable doing so.
He told me that over the weekend there was a cricket match.
I have to pause the storytelling now for a quick aside: I know I’m from the West Indies and so you’re probably expecting me to know a whole bunch about cricket and passionately love it, but the truth is cricket is really not my sport. Please, no questions about what kind of cricket (Test, One Day, T20). I don’t know. All I know is that there was cricket.
Anyway, he watched the cricket and India won the match. He was a little sad about it, as you are when your team loses, but he really enjoyed watching the match and yelling at the TV. On Monday he went to do the school run and when he was dropping his son off at the gates, the Headmaster who is also a cricket fan said to him “Did you enjoy the cricket at the weekend? Your team won!”
He smiled and said he enjoyed it, but he was really confused. Because as far as he’s concerned, India is not his team – England is.
While his parents did come to England from India, it was before he was born. He has never lived in India and rarely visited. He’s a British citizen and considers England to be his home. In his mind, he is English. But he realised in that moment that people who look at him don’t see an Englishman.
He started questioning the core of his identity and whether or not he truly belongs. And if he doesn’t, do his children? How many generations need to be born in the UK for you to really belong?
He told the story and asked the questions with a touch of sadness, and I could tell it was still bothering him even days later.
I think this story haunts me because it was such a simple interaction, started in a spirit of kindness that had such a profound effect. I also doubt very much the Headmaster realised the weight of what he said, how his words were interpreted and the effect they had.
Think about how many similar little interactions take place in a day that serve to let someone know (whether intentionally or not) that they are different, they are ‘other’ and don’t quite fit.
Now are you haunted too?
Language is so powerful. It can bring together and it can divide. While we can’t police everybody’s words, we can control our own so that’s a good place to start. But I also think there is something here about telling stories like this, no matter how uncomfortable they make us feel. Because only by making the unconscious, conscious can we truly begin to change our behaviour and the way we see others.
What stories are you telling? What words are you using to tell them?