Earlier in the academic year I noticed a poster outside the UWE Glenside campus calling BME students to participate in a survey about their experiences at the University. Normally I would have walked past this without a second glance but a phrase at the bottom caught my eye “White other i.e. Polish, Irish”. At the time I felt annoyed that someone would list Irish in this context. After all I would never place myself in the BME category. Those who read my blog will know I already have enough “labels” and do not need any more added to the list!
In the months after this “incident” I started to speak to the Irish students on the diagnostic imaging and radiotherapy programmes about being listed as BME. Historically Irish students have come to the UK to train as radiographers and most of you reading this blog will know an Irish healthcare professional. There is only one radiography school in the Republic of Ireland, it is fiercely competitive to get into mostly because radiography is a well understood career option across the waters. Hence the steady influx of Irish students onto UK training programmes over the decades. Through speaking to our learners I had the opportunity to revisit my experiences of moving to the UK in the late 1990s and how I had to adapt. From moving from a different educational system with a different pedagogical approach, to moving away from having a potatoe with every meal, to slowing my pace of speech.
Last week the UK made a historic decision to leave the EU and for me as an Irish national living and working in the UK this has been an interesting time. I felt vulnerable after this announcement. Although I do not face the same challenges as someone who is visibly different through skin colour I have had my share of racist remarks over the years. Someone I lived with at university ordered me to go back to Ireland as her Grandad’s friend had been killed in a terriost attack during the “troubles”. A patient I once scanned said I should learn to speak properly if I wanted to stay in this country. In another encounter a patient asked that my colleague scan them as I was not British. Ironic really as I was training the British person how to use the scanner.
Today I attended the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences BME (#HASBME16) student voice conference and I have to say it was emotional. Students spoke openly about how their accent, clothes they wore, their skin colour and even their names made them stand out from the crowd- for the wrong reasons. They shared with those in attendance the academic challenges they faced and how this may affect their attainment compared to their peers. They spoke of how they needed role-models to show them that it is possible to succeed BME or not.
As I sat there I took notes and started to join the dots. When I was younger I wished my parents had given me a beautiful Irish name like Clodagh, Cliona, Siobhan or Aishling. Over the years I have grown to accept my name. Partly because it is a British name and partly because I see how colleagues struggle to pronounce Irish names. When the patient was rude about my voice and tone I considered elocution lessons to further soften my Tipperary accent. I have seen the phrase whereby individuals try to “whiten” their CVs or “whiten” themselves. However how do you whiten yourself when you are already white?
For me the presentation from #HASBME16 that inspired this blog was given by Wendy Irvin, Equality and Diversity Lead at the Royal College of Nursing. Wendy spoke about doing more than just broadcasting the issues- you need to do something. Therefore I write this blog to encourage healthcare professionals to look out for each other and to act as mentors for our BME learners. Taking care of everyone in society is even more important in the current climate. Personally I pledge to work with our Irish learners as they transition to live in the UK. For some they will return to the emerald isle, for others like myself, and two of my sisters, they will study in the UK, fall in love with the country (or in my case my husband) and never leave.
I wanted to use this blog entry to thank the team who organised and delivered #HASBME16 today for offering me the opportunity to visit the idea of BME and the challenges faced by this group. On the 10th.09.2016 I will have lived in the UK longer than I lived in Ireland. Even though this is a significant milestone for me and I have developed a rather good Welsh accent over the years, I was reminded that it is Irish blood that runs through these veins.