How I’m using my experiences of racism to make the workplace better

Mehvish Shaffi-Ajibola
Mehvish Shaffi-Ajibola

HR professional and founder of Socially Inspired

We know racism can have a serious impact on your mental wellbeing. In this guest blog, Mehvish Shaffi-Ajibola shares stories of racism she has encountered, how it impacted her wellbeing, and how she is now using these experiences to make the workplace a more inclusive place.


I was in the back of a taxi cab in the USA on July 7th 2005 – the day of the London tube suicide bombings. I was on my way to the airport, ready to fly back to my home in the UK. I’d just sat the New York bar exam, and I was excited about my future.

But as the news came on the radio, the taxi driver turned to me. And suddenly, out of nowhere, he started expressing his anger, his hatred, and his racism towards Muslims.

I was frozen in shock. I am a Pakistani Muslim. Did the taxi driver know this? At the time, my surname was Hussain. I was scared he’d seen my name written on my luggage tags. Was I going to get to the airport safely?

I felt like I was under suspicion

When we finally arrived, I found things were little better at the airport. I was taken aside and asked additional security questions, and I felt like I was under suspicion – not because I’d done anything wrong, but just because of who I am!

This hadn’t been the first time I’d experienced racism. Growing up in the UK, I encountered a lot of people with bigoted views about Muslims​Things not to say series – racism Playlist or series The "Things not to say" series from BBC Three features people discussing their own experiences of everyday prejudices, but in a funny, accessible way. This playlist brings together videos focused on racism.Free By: BBC Three View resource, assuming we are terrorists, or making assumptions about me because of the colour of my skin. Even my mother wanted my skin to be lighter, and she would regularly use a pumice stone to scrape my skin because it was too dark for a south Asian.

But this was the first time I had felt really scared and I wanted to take back control of how I wanted to show up, and how I was perceived by others. This caused me many challenges and strong emotions but I had to protect myself. And so, I changed my surname.

A woman poses with a rainbow light

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 brought racism into the global spotlight. And in 2021, the UK government released a report suggesting there is no institutional racism in this country.

By this time, I was the head of organisational development and EDI at my organisation, and I knew I had to speak out​A complete guide to how to talk about racism at work right now Web page Racism comes in many different forms, and has a far-reaching impact. This article explains how racism might come about in your workplace, explores ways in which you can start conversations about it and begin to plan solutions.Free By: Ladders View resource. I wanted to support the other non-white colleagues who were being affected by the racism on the news​Top tips on coping with news anxiety Web page We are bombarded with news about the pandemic and other worries. This article from Medical News Today offers advice on coping when the bad news is affecting your mood or wellbeing.Free By: Medical News Today View resource and in their lives, who might not have felt confident speaking up about their experiences.

White colleagues and managers were coming to me and asking for tips on how to respond

I worked with our staff networks​St Mungo’s Diversity Networks PDF Networks are a great way of connecting staff who have similar experiences and backgrounds. At St Mungo's, there are several different groups offering support and advice.Free By: St Mungo’s View resource to create safe spaces for staff to talk and provide support for each other, and to be an instrumental influence in improving the organisational culture and work environment. But with every new news story about racism and the disproportionate impact of Covid on black, Asian and ethic minority staff and community, more of more of my white colleagues and managers were coming to me and asking for tips on how to respond. I started to feel like I was being pushed into a corner​Why forming ‘diversity’​ committees with Black staff, who have no expertise in D&I or anti-racism, is tokenising Web page This LinkedIn article by anti-racism activist Nova Reid explains the problems created when organisations assume their Black staff are experts on racism.Free By: Nova Reid View resource, having to support the whole organisation alone, including those who were senior to me.

I decided first to talk to my senior manager. Kate Wilson, the deputy director of Workforce, is a white woman who always made me feel comfortable​How to have difficult conversations about race at work Web page This web page and PDF guide from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) offers a detailed step-by-step process that you can use as a template for starting conversations about race in your workplace.Free By: CIPD View resource when talking about problems I was facing at work.

As I told her about my decision to change my name, to protect myself from the negative associations it could cause, I realised she had tears in her eyes.

“You had to change your identity,” she told me. Those words stuck with me. That was when I realised how deep the impact of the racism I had experienced all of my life had been.

Three women in a work meeting

My partner is an African Black man, and we have two black children. As a result, I see the racism they experience too within society, and see how it is different, but still just as painful. Cultural differences also exists in the way beauty is viewed too. Even though my mother tried to lighten my skin tone, I’m considered much more attractive within the black culture because of my lighter skin colour. Its these experiences that really helped me to shift how I think about race and colourism, and see how it isn’t one set of rules that affects everyone in the same way. Not conforming to society and cultural expectations because of my skin colour has impacted on my mental health resulting in how I show up in my personal and professional life.

I can do my best to support thorough kindness

In fact, the way my mental health impacts my daily life and has done for so long means I suffer daily with anxiety. But I’ve tried to use my lived experience as a way of positively improving the world around me and being of service to others. I feel I can better relate to people with disabilities or long-term conditions​Employing disabled people and people with health conditions Web page Encouraging applications from disabled people, including those with mental health conditions, is good for business. This guidance has a summary of issues to consider and a wide range of advice and tips.Free By: Department for Work and Pensions / Department of Health and Social Care View resource, because I know what that can feel like. And while I’m not from the LGBTQIA+ community​Supporting someone who is LGBTIQ+ Web page Sadly, people who are not straight or cisgender are more likely to experience mental health problems than the general population. This web page from Mind explores what you can do to help if an LGBTQI+ person tells you they are experiencing poor mental health.Free By: Mind View resource myself, I can empathise with their struggles, about how they can feel isolated or left out – and I can do my best to support thorough kindness, not just thorough my words but kindness to others thorough actions and interactions.

Embracing our differences, through extending words of curiosity and understanding we are able to learn from our everyday conversations. In practicing kindness, it can boost our mood, help us feel more capable, and strengthen our relationships with others so we can thrive.

Hands on a table, symbolising diversity

My dream is for employers to realise it’s not an individual’s responsibility to fix all the problems out there. It’s their responsibility to support their staff, to help them bring all their differences and diversity into their work, and feel like they belong.

I have learnt when people feel different and not belonged in a work place they tend to just do enough to survive. In ‘surviving’, there is human need that is not being met, and as a result vulnerability creeps into our psyche. This may give rise to fear, anger and or shame. If we stay in the state of survival we are more likely to be less kind and compassionate to our self and to others. We may then supress our true self, our desires, and aspirations, and as such inhabiting self from thriving and being our best self.

Focusing on the people should be the most important priority

I’ve set up Socially Inspired LTD, providing human relatedness services to help organisations to support a healthy, happy, and productive workplace communities to move beyond surviving to thriving whilst also addressing inequalities. Focusing on the people should be the most important priority and building human relatedness workplace connection!

Once, I felt like my experiences were a burden. But now, I see the journey I have been on as a blessing – one that helps me to have a deeper connection with the people around me.

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