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56 years later: One man’s journey to a world of work without bias.


October 10, 2019

1963 My first recollection of being called a “little black bastard”.

1989 ‘Oi, nigger!’ I look up from under the bonnet. Did I really hear that? Yep, sure enough, a few doors down the road a young man is telling me to f*ck off home. I do. Not to Finchley, where I was born, but back to my temporary council house, as quickly as I can. I’m scared. Not just for myself, but for my wife, pregnant with our second child, and for my two-year-old son, who will be at home, unprotected, when I go to work the next day.

18 months later, I am sitting in a council committee when the director of housing introduces an item on the Commission for Racial Equality's Code of Practice for Rented Housing: ‘I'm presenting this for information only. We have very few black tenants, so it's not a problem we have.’ Like we are the problem.

With the permission of the chair, I relate my earlier experience to the assembled councillors, several of whom thank me for my courage in speaking out. Unfortunately, the chief executive doesn’t see it that way, and (encouraged by the secretary of my trade union) instructs my boss, the director of finance, to discipline me. I am obliged to resign from, you won't believe it, the council's newly established equal opportunities group.

22 April 1993 After two years of being ostracised by my colleagues, I finally win an industrial tribunal case for victimisation under the Race Relations Act. Three months later, I am sacked by Capita, a consequence of pressure by the council's chief executive to discriminate on racial grounds. Despite another “successful” tribunal case, my career never fully recovers and no-one is ever disciplined.

23 April 1993 Two young black men are waiting at a bus stop in London when a group of five white men approach. ‘What, what, nigger!’ they shout. These are possibly the last words heard by Stephen Lawrence before he is fatally stabbed.

1996 I am being interviewed for a job with Hampshire Police, who have run a recruitment campaign along the lines of being open to every Tom, Dick and Haroon. I am met by the head of personnel, who leads me along a corridor for my psychometric testing. ‘Remind me how to pronounce your name,’ she asks. ‘Yacob Cajee.’ ‘It would be so much easier if you were called John Smith, wouldn't it?’ Needless to say, despite being in the 95th percentile for numerical reasoning and the 99th for verbal, I don’t get the job.

6 years after the death of Stephen Lawrence, the Macpherson Inquiry identifies serious deficiencies in the police investigation – caused by institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police. These failings include treating Duwayne Brooks, Stephen's friend and witness to the attack, as the principal suspect.

2004 My boss, the director of resources, who as well as having responsibility for my profession of finance is also in charge of personnel, declares: ‘I'm not sure that the majority of staff would know that the word “nigger” was offensive.’ So, in my capacity as the UNISON equalities officer, I produce a guide to appropriate language in respect of race. This subsequently develops into Diversity in Diction, Equality in Action, the TUC's guide to appropriate language, which is adopted by organisations as diverse as the Law Society, Age Concern and Show Racism the Red Card (and is even mentioned on Have I Got News For You).

By the way, if you hear the word “nigger”, don't refer to “the N-word” when you report it. Don't be afraid of the word “nigger”; be afraid of the person who's used it.

15 years on and in these post-EU referendum days, the calls for people like me to go back home not only continue, but are more prevalent. And echoed across the Atlantic by the President of the United States in relation to members of his own legislature.

1,000 members across 30 countries. Hoxby is a multi-lingual collective that crosses national, racial and religious boundaries. I want to be part of Hoxby's #cause_race_equality as soon as I see it listed on Slack, because I believe, with my history and experience, I can add value to the discussion and help move the cause forward.

My first conference call is with fellow Hoxbies from across the UK and Europe whose stories resonate with mine. I am confident that together we can change not only how work, but also difference, is perceived. And that we can help make the world a better place.


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