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When It Comes to Racism, There’s a Spectrum

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

I was invited to speak at a Women in Tech Africa event 2 years ago. That's where I met this wonderful woman Dr. Helen Zidon. Her presentation was before mine. Listening to Helen, I was absolutely amazed by her personal story as well as her career transition from medicine to biomedical sector. Honestly, I started sweating at the same time, as she set a very high standard with her talk for the audience and I wasn't sure if my talk would be as interesting as hers. Finally, I finished my talk, and was still feeling very nervous. While trying to find my way back to my seat, Helen turned to me with a big smile, raised her thumbs up and said "You will be my best friend from now!" I am not sure, if she remembers this, but I do very clearly ! Helen has been one of my dearest friends since then!

Dr. Helen Zidon speaking at a global conference in Portugal

[FK] Helen, could you tell us please in your own words who Dr. Helen Zidon is ? What do you currently do? 

[HZ] Oh wow! That intro is so lovely to read, but mostly because Furkan is one of the most impressive people that I have ever met. She is someone who puts words into action, and does so with kindness and grace. And that is who I am striving to be.

I was brought up by a very strong woman to be highly motivated, hardworking and ambitious, while being compassionate towards others. 

My passion is in Global & Public Health, and Health Education. I feel like my purpose is in simplifying complex medical jargon into simple terms and concepts, in order to bridge the gap between medical/scientific research, the knowledge and management pathways chosen by a healthcare professional, and the information that is assimilated by an individual patient.

I currently work as the Deputy Head of Medical Information at Aspen Pharma. I was previously the Senior Medical Content Manager at 3D4Medical, an Irish Medical Technology Company that specialises in creating apps for medical and patient education. At Aspen, as the Deputy Head of Medical Information at Aspen Pharma Group, a leading global, multinational pharmaceutical company in both emerging and developed markets, I oversee the medical information functions of Aspen territories globally for multiple widely used pharmaceutical products. My team provides scientifically evaluated and balanced information on clinical aspects of Aspen’s to healthcare professionals (e.g. physicians, pharmacists, nurses and NHS managers) and to patients across Europe and globally.  

[FK]To inform our readers; black, brown, people of colour, African Irish. Which one of these is more appropriate to use? 

It depends on who you are speaking to. My suggestion would be to ask people who they are, where they are from, and if you are confused, ask them what they’d like to be referred to as. This is because globalisation has completely transformed the world, so you cannot expect people to fit into a specific stereotype or demographic, based on old standards or what you have seen on TV. We have to be dynamic in the way we approach people. For example, I am a black, Nigerian woman; however, someone who looks exactly like me, could be black African American or black Irish or black Arab, etc. The reason why this is essential is because of history, culture, migration, psychosocial factors, etc, and how these affect individuality. Being dismissive of an individual’s perception of who they are and their experiences is unkind and unfair. For example, not all black people are from Africa; not all brown people are from India; and not all Asian people are from China.

The key is to believe people when they tell who they are and to respect that, especially when you do not know their history. 

[FK]You have been living in Ireland for a long time, coming from originally Nigeria.  What are the biggest career challenges (maybe 2-3) of a black woman in the workplaces in Ireland? Could you share a story with us from you or someone you know?

Oh there are so many instances that I could refer to that I have experienced or witnessed. Because ...

When it comes to racism, there’s a spectrum.

You can go from the very overt and aggressive form of racism to a more covert, subtle but equally damaging form of unconscious bias or microaggression. So while the necks of black people aren’t being pressed on physically like George Floyd, they are covertly being choked when it comes to opportunities and interpersonal relationships. 

Overtly I had a very unpleasant experience on a packed luas in broad daylight where a man who was slightly inebriated, yelled at me for a few minutes- saying that I was a monkey and the N word, and I had come to Ireland to steal all the jobs. He spat at me, so I got off the luas and waited for the next one, but the worst thing about that situation wasn’t that it was the longest few minutes ever, or that it was embarrassing, but that NO ONE around me said a word to help me. Everyone just looked away. 

[FK] So sorry to hear this happened to you Helen! Couldn't agree more on the silence.

This reminds me this famous quote from Martin Luther King Jr.

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." Once, I was bullied at work in front of my whole team and the silence of my manager to this situation broke my heart the most.

[HZ] In a previous job, my boss refused to learn my name or my role for the first year and a half. He would skip me when he was taking visitors on a tour of the office; and I wouldn’t be selected to represent the company. Now you might listen to that and think it had something to do with my abilities, but no.  My boss actually let it slip that he preferred pretty girls. I was the most qualified individual on a team of people who pretty much started at the same time as I did; and then to add salt to the injury, I discovered that I was the least paid, by five to ten thousand euros. I had to work extra hours to prove myself, then write a letter to my boss outlining my contributions, and then requested a meeting to discuss it. ONLY THEN was my pay brought up to meet the least paid of the team members. I had to lobby my way into being able to attend conferences and had to work twice as hard to make my voice heard. I also had to ensure that my work was so good that no one could ignore it. NONE of my teammates had the same battles to fight.

There are so many people in Ireland who suffer worse ordeals. Imagine migrating to a country that supposedly welcomes you with open arms, but then the system is built so you cannot progress. I have witnessed racial abuse on cleaning ladies, bus drivers, security men etc. I have heard of blatant racism towards individuals with African sounding names in the job market; little kids in preschool being ostracised by their playmates because of the colour of their skin, with no intervention whatsoever from their teachers; attacks by police on black teenagers for no good reason… The list goes on and on. 

The thing is one can heal from some physical scars but I think the most harmful effects come from situations where you are made to feel inferior, and then being helpless to take yourself out of that situation. The detrimental mental effects of this are second to none. 

Dr. Helen Zidon speaking at TechFoundHer launch event.

[FK] In the last weeks, #BlackLivesMatter protests and campaigns elevated, what are your thoughts in this? Does this help you to feel more empowered or do you think some are playing for a PR?  

[HZ] RACISM IS REAL and BLACK LIVES MATTER. To question this is to deliberately ignore global history and current events. One would be ignoring the history of slavery and colonialism; or ignoring the very visual and real killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, etc in the US. What may seem like a PR attack is a long overdue uprising and revolution for equal rights and equal opportunities. This isn’t just an abstract concept, it is a reality of discrimination against people based on the colour of their skin; it is an image that the world has been programmed to believe is an automatic marker of inferiority. 

This isn’t just an American problem, it is a global one.

According to a report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental rights, the rate of workplace racism in Ireland is 33%, while the European average is 22%. Ireland places second in Europe for general racist attacks. So while this revolution might seem like another media frenzy, we should all be aware that it is at our doorsteps. It is in the daily experiences of black people when people would rather stand than sit next to you on the bus; or getting a longer jail sentence than a white person who committed the same crime; or being bullied at work or not getting paid what you deserve, etc. 

Do you know that in Hollywood, caucasian women are paid 50% of what men are getting paid; while black women do not even get paid a quarter of what white women are getting paid. Now imagine how that translates to other less paying jobs. 

What you are seeing in the media is not new; black people have been treated this way for millenia. Just google King Leopold II of Belgium. He mass murdered up to 10 million people in Congo; that is approximately 4 million more than in the holocaust. I am guessing that not many people learn of this in history classes, because our educational systems still ignore black history. The only difference now is that these events can be recorded on mobile phones and shared quickly on social media. The effects of this have led to black people around the world feeling brave enough to call out individuals and systems that are suppressing them; this has led to the arrest of culprits and to the generation of relevant policies and laws. A few complaints of discrimination here and there can be dismissed; but a collective, global uprising cannot and should not be ignored. 

So yes, WE feel very empowered to speak up for ourselves, and I love seeing how loud and effective our voices are. 

Dr. Helen Zidon speaking in a panel.

[FK] Your final message, what should we do to be an ally and support equality for black people in the workplace ? 

[HZ] First of all, an ally cannot be silent. To be silent is to be complicit. You refer to yourself as supportive without speaking up for the injustice faced by black people in all walks of life. From legislation and policies to everyday situations. This is the time to stop and think, what have I been doing to contribute to this? What are my unconscious biases towards people of colour? Do I cross the road when I see them walking in my direction? Do I automatically assume that because someone has an accent, that they are less intelligent or less capable? Would I hire a person of colour based on merit, or would I automatically assume that a white person would be/do better? Do I make racist comments and mask them as jokes? Etc. 

Knowledge is also power. Learn about black history and black people. It is no longer okay to assume that all of Africa can be clumped into one; it is a continent that is made up of millions of people, 54 countries, approximately 2000 languages etc. If I know about King Henry the eighth, then you should know about Queen Amina of Zaria.

It is one thing to focus on our individual biases and to speak out, but it is another to push for policies and legislative change that could even out the very imbalanced scales of opportunities between people of different races. Equal rights for all should run from schools to workplaces to society. True allies would push for this and see it implemented in their interactions with people of colour, and everywhere they go.

Racism isn’t a black people’s problem; it is caused by people of other races. 

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