“What is this?” she shrieked as she turned around.
“Is this what you call a press release?” Her tone still slightly raised as she waved a piece of paper marked in red across my face.
I squinted as I looked at the paper. Our eyes met and I realised she was waiting for a reply.
Silence. Stay quiet.
She continued to look at me. For a moment I thought she could see right through me.
“Go on then, tell me, what is this?”
“A press release?” Oh God! I mumbled. Why did I mumble?
“Yes, I can see that but do you not know how to write?” Still staring at me, she must have felt my hesitance.
She pursed her lips, unaware of the sweat that ran across my palms.
Time stood still. When will this end?
“Tell me,” she said as she held the paper out, expecting me to take it from her. “Do you not know what an active sentence is?” I didn’t. There’s no way I am saying that!
She must have guessed this and dealt another blow.
“What did they teach you at school?” She may as well have asked if I had been to school. That’s what I felt she had asked.
“Erm.” Come on, try and say something clever.
“Tell me, did they not teach you the difference between an active and passive sentence?” They might have, but I couldn’t remember.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?”
I gulped. Trying to hide the tears, I forced myself to smile, feeling my lower lip tremble.
“I mean, I don’t know. I went to Grange!”
She blinked. A look of confusion swept across her face. Then she moved back in her seat – ever so slightly but enough for me to notice.
I didn’t need to say any more. I know she knew what I meant. “I went to Grange!” I may as well have said I didn’t go to school. That would probably have been better.
You may or may not know this but in the UK, there is a city called Bradford. It is the third largest city in Yorkshire and in the nineteenth century, it became known for its textile manufacturing.
Immigrants, particularly from South Asia, came to Bradford to make it their home. As the textile industry declined, Bradford, a once booming city, began to experience economic and social challenges. Add to this the pressures caused by segregated ethnic minorities, Bradford has experienced more than its fair share of rioting and unrest, becoming fragmented and broken.
Decades later, second, third and even fourth generations are still picking up the pieces. Whatever they say or do – whatever we say or do – is never enough. The reputation Bradford has is tarnished and will stay beyond you and me.
And as I said aloud those four words “I went to Grange!”, I, a 21 year old, British born Pakistani Muslim, the granddaughter of an immigrant mill worker, admitted to a 60-something year old privileged white woman that I was not good enough.
Fast forward a decade later to when there’s a spotlight on equality and diversity. A conversation that is also happening in the PR and comms world; a conversation I have tuned into for a decade now and one that has been going on longer. Whenever I listen to these conversations, or read thought pieces, I’m instantly taken back to this episode I experienced exactly a decade ago and I wonder…I wonder how someone who may not have experienced any of this can expect a 21 year old to overcome this and continue?
From the family I belong to – the only girl in a family of boys. The culture I have grown up in – Pakistani parents who carried with them the 70s values of a country they were born in. The religion I follow and practice – Islam. I have lead a somewhat protected life. Despite the generalisations that exist, my Pakistani parents did not push me towards a career in medicine or law, nor did they push me towards being a housewife. So long as I was happy, they were – and still are – happy.
And as clichéd as it may sound, I didn’t choose a career in comms. It chose me. I fell in love with it and its endless possibilities. I fell in love with how words can make you feel connected, how they can tap into your inner most desires and feelings and give you an avenue to express yourself.
I laugh as I write this because when I think of words, I don’t just think of the English language; I was raised speaking Punjabi at home, I was taught to read Arabic at mosque, I learnt French at school, I watched Bollywood movies as I grew up – listening to songs in Hindi, and during my summer holidays, I was taught to read, write and speak in Urdu.
My brain has been operating in multiple languages from before I can remember and like many polyglots [a person who can speak several languages], I can mindlessly switch between languages to try and find a better word or phrase that fits the message I want to give. Sometimes, even today, I struggle when I can’t find the right words in English – I struggle to translate what I am thinking in Urdu. I struggle to find my true voice.
And when we talk about diversity in pr and comms, it feels as though this is something we overlook. Rather than celebrating this skill and allowing a person to refine it, we make them feel inadequate and somewhat uneducated. We make them feel as though this is a different world, one that isn’t theirs. A world they don’t belong in. Why? Because they may not have had the same exposure to language as us. Who is us?
That’s how I felt a decade ago, at 21, when someone privileged, who had studied in private schools and had one of the best educations available, quizzed me about what I was taught at school. A public [state] school that didn’t have the best reputation and came from a city that was fighting for its.
I felt like I didn’t belong.
Unbeknown to her, she left a wound I am still unpacking. Honestly speaking, I know this may not have been her intention. She probably didn’t even realise the harm her words were causing, the feelings they stirred.
Years later, as I work amongst some of the greatest academics and communicators, her words and how I felt run through my mind as I try to write the simplest of sentences. Not because this industry isn’t mine or because I don’t belong, or because I don’t have the knowledge or know how to write. But because for one brief moment, ten years ago, one very privileged white person failed to realise that my world was different from hers. That I didn’t have similar experiences or opportunities as her. That my understanding of language was unique to me and was very different from hers – something I wish I could go back in time and tell my 21 year old self to own, celebrate and be proud of.