A personal reflection from Jiten Patel, the OU’s Head of Equality, Diversity and Information Rights, on openness to a cross-cultural heritage.
"My family migrated to England in the early 1960’s. We were British Commonwealth citizens and, following Kenyan Independence, my father decided that it was time to go ‘home’. They arrived on a cold wet March day to a culture that was different, to say the least. I was a toddler and my brother was a babe-in-arms, so my recollection is only from what I have been told by my parents. We were met by my dad’s best friend at the time, who lived in a little town east of Manchester, Ashton-Under-Lyne. It was there that I would be spending the next nearly 10 years of my life. Times were not ideal; we lived in one rented room with no bathing facilities and my mum was not even allowed to wash any clothes in the house. She still talks about how dirty she felt only being able to go for a bath once a week at the local public baths. She had big issues wearing western clothes whilst working in the cotton mills of the North.
Nevertheless, my parents were grateful that they had jobs; they had needed to borrow money to pay for the air fares to get to England and their first priority was to pay back money borrowed from friends. To this day they never signed on for unemployment benefit; it was a source of shame to have to ‘beg’, as they saw it. There was very little by way of familiar vegetables and grains available and then a great blessing! Someone opened a shop importing Indian foods. What a lifesaver!! It all cost so much though, and there were still a number of days in the week when we would be managing on just tea and bread.
It was a number of years before my parents had saved enough money for a deposit on their house. By this time my granny, my aunt and uncle were also living with us. Our cultural heritage ingrained into us the need to support family members. My granny brought us up; she was illiterate and struggled to speak English. Although she had managed Swahili and was conversational, she just could not get the hang of English. Not a problem because she had her family around her to support her – in the way that all Indian families looked after their elders.
My brother and I were brought up using Mother tongue and I still remember how bewildered I felt on my first day at school, Mosley Road Primary School; I could not understand a thing and I felt so isolated. Maybe this was how my granny felt when she went out and could not understand what was being said. The only word I recognised on my first day at school was the word ‘all’. I recognised it because it meant something completely different to me; an ‘awl’ was something I used to scrape and clean my tongue after I had brushed my teeth!
During my early years it felt like my life was quite compartmentalised. I was Indian in the home and I don’t know what I was outside of the home. Walking down the street did not always feel safe and I was often branded as ‘Nig-Nog’ and ‘Paki’. People would walk past our house holding their noses and speaking out loud about how the Paki’s smelled. (Interesting that, today, curry is regarded as a national dish in the UK, alongside fish and chips). In those days, as I reflect on my past, I realize how desperate such incidents made me to ‘fit in’. I still remember feeling proud when (white) people told me, “Don’t you speak good English!”. Today, I see such statements as patronising. At the time the meaning I drew from such comments was that I was one of them…..in my naïve young mind.
At my primary school there were hardly any non-white kids outside of my brother and me. One day, in my final year at primary school, a new Gujarati boy joined; I was mortified when Mrs Burton decided to sit the ‘foreign’ boy next to me. It immediately singled me out from the rest of the class. I was suddenly feeling ashamed to speak in mother tongue to someone who could not understand English. I did not realise that proficiency in Gujarati was a skill that none of my ‘friends’ could claim and I should have been feeling proud that Mrs Burton had chosen me. Looking back I feel ashamed at being ashamed then! If only Mrs Burton had explained to me the honour I was being given because of the special skills I had. Instead it felt more like I was being penalised for not being white.
Today, I make a point of speaking to my 10 month old grand-daughter in Gujarati because I want her to have pride in her heritage and to not have to feel shame about her roots. I want her to be as open to her Indian heritage as she will be to the western culture in which she will grow up, bringing the richness of both to the contribution she will make to the world."
Jiten Patel is the Head of Equality, Diversity and Information Rights at The Open University, Jiten’s background is in Financial Services. He continues to make a significant impact through his passion for D&I. He has designed and delivered impactful strategies, leadership mentoring programmes, and D&I courses and workshops. Specialising in ‘Positive Action’ and mentoring, Jiten designed and delivered the Open University’s pioneering Aspire~ Leadership Mentoring for Minority Communities programme as well as the First ‘Positive Action Pathway’ for Civil Service Learning. Both programmes claimed significant success in support employees achieve career related moves.
Jiten is also active in the Voluntary sector, having held a variety of board roles including Chair of ‘Working Families’, Secretary, DAAP (the Drug and Alcohol Action Programme), Director, BISSE (British Institute of Sacred and Secular Education, previously British Institute of Sathya Sai Education). Currently Jiten is a Board member of MK SNAP (Milton Keynes Special Needs Advancement Project) and sits on the Leadership Board of Citizens:mk a local chapter of Citizens:UK.
With over 20 years’ experience, influencing many organisations and individuals as a diversity strategist/practitioner, in 2015 Jiten won the award for Diversity Champion (Education Sector) and, in June 2016, Jiten published his book, “Demystifying Diversity”, with co-author Gamiel Yafai of Diversity Marketplace, which is now in its second edition.