October marks Black History Month, an opportunity to build understanding and bridge divides

The theme of year’s Black History Month is ‘saluting our sisters’

By Nafisa Nathani

October marks Black History Month. The theme this year is ‘saluting our sisters’ – recognising the important role Black British women have played in modern Britain through building communities and inspiring change.

Throughout this month, we need to amplify the voices of Black British women in the transport sector, acknowledge their lived experiences and develop the maturity and humility to collectively work together to make things better for everyone. Historically the voices of Black British women have been silenced, papered over, forgotten about.

This year’s Black History Month falls on the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the passengers of the Empire Windrush in the UK. The treatment of the Windrush generation is and will remain a shameful stain in British history. Windrush was a direct result of a body of legislation designed to create a Britain hostile to migrants by denying them access to public services by a political establishment which pandered to anti-immigrant sentiment legislating against ethnic minorities by asking them to prove their ‘Britishness.’


This need to prove your British-ness is still felt in modern Britain today. I grew up under the New Labour government. A time when I felt that being British was an inclusive identity – very much defined by our shared values, tolerance, common bonds and mutual respect. This doesn’t however mean that I haven’t had my Britishness questioned. Norman Tebbitt’s ‘cricket test’ was my generation’s Enoch Powell’s River of blood speech. The sinister insinuation that minorities would never truly be loyal to this country led many to feel like they were never or could never be British. It made many minorities feel unwelcome.

Throughout October have a look around our stations in the Southern region, we feature some of our amazing Black female station colleagues, each explaining why Black History Month is important to them

Then Covid laid bare these feelings. The lack of attention and institutional protection for Sabina Nessa and transport worker, Belly Mujinga, who were both murdered during the height of Covid provided proof of this. Minority women who are British – but not claimed as such. This is why the theme this year of celebrating Black British women is so important. Throughout October have a look around our stations in the Southern region, we feature some of our amazing Black female station colleagues, each explaining why Black History Month is important to them.

Black history is British history

Let’s not get confused. Black History is British History. The British empire’s reach was far and vast. This acknowledgment is important. I want my nephews and nieces to grow up in a world in which they are proud of their rich culture and heritage. Where they feel a sense of belonging. Their DNA is very much a reflection of how far the tentacles of the British empire extended. I want them to live in a world where they feel like they belong. I do not want their ‘Britishness’ or loyalty constantly questioned. I don’t want them to ever live in fear that their British citizenship could easily be taken away at any time, with any slight misstep. To get to this place, we need to be honest about our national history, what it truly means to be British, acknowledge each other’s experiences and have an honest conversation about immigrants and the role they play in modern Britain today.

We are social beings, and we need to interact with each other to build mutual respect and understanding. Studies have proven how positive encounters between people of different groups lead to reduced conflict in society. This is one of the reasons why our workplaces need to be representative of the communities we serve. Not only does integration foster creativity, ingenuity and make financial sense, we have a moral imperative to do so to foster social cohesion. I do accept the progress we have made. The Britain I grew up in was very different to that in which my parents did in the 1970s. My parents grew up in a time when racism was vicious and visceral and woven into the fabric of society in a way that is very difficult to imagine now. Now, you can’t turn a street corner without seeing diversity and smelling the aroma of different spices and cuisines.


On the surface today, it may feel like as a society, we have embraced diversity. However there has been a rise in inflammatory language, anti-migrant rhetoric and fear mongering among our political establishment, inciting division, and discord on the ground. I have friends who despite being born in this country still refer to themselves as ‘second generation immigrants’, leaving me wondering when a community ever stops becoming immigrants and can be just British? This failure by some groups to acknowledge themselves as British, is a direct result of a hostile environment that has created an ‘othered’ group so separate and removed from its host that hostility, rather than hospitality has become the default response. We need to acknowledge and understand how and why this is happening through conversation, respect and compassion. With trust in leaders eroding and demographic change inevitable, it is no surprise that some groups have become more insular, in a bid to survive.

If our workplaces do not give us all an opportunity to have diverse, constructive and positive places, to have meaningful encounters with each other, break down stereotypes, create opportunities to progress and collectively work together towards a common goal, I fear we will forever remain divided as a society. There is inherent joy and happiness to be found in working together, building consensus and driving change. If this doesn’t happen, people will then look elsewhere to satisfy their need to belong, and this can be dangerous.

Everyday realities

Feeling safe and secure is fundamental to integration. It is difficult to feel connected to those around you if you are constantly looking over your shoulder, feel othered and are systematically discriminated against.

In an RMT survey of more than 1,000 members who work on either the London Underground, Overground or Transport for London (TfL) rail services … 28% of front-line staff reported being racially harassed

In an RMT survey of more than 1,000 members who work on either the London Underground, Overground or Transport for London (TfL) rail services, 76% of public-facing staff including station staff, drivers and cleaners, reported they had been subjected to workplace violence from passengers. 28% of front-line staff reported being racially harassed and 7% had been sexually assaulted. This is why in the Southern region, we have created a staff abuse campaign to tackle this threat and make people think twice and treat out staff with the respect they deserve. Transport workers are heroes. We helped move goods and key workers throughout the pandemic and without them, Britain would have ground to a halt. No-one deserves to be spat on or treated with disrespect for doing their job.

Let’s come together

This Black History Month let’s come together. We may experience the world in different ways, but we need to listen to each other, understand each other’s realities and perspectives and work collectively to make things better. Covid played a crucial role in bringing to the forefront not only how inequitable modern Britain is but how sinister these inequalities can become when compounded.

We live in an age in which in most societies there is an abhorrence to racism, but bigotry and discrimination still disfigure the day-to-day lives of many. We also live in an age in which our thinking is saturated in celebrating and embracing our differences rather than the common identities we share as human beings. Without effective, inclusive leadership, tribalism, extremism and polarisation can and will happen. We so desperately need to get back to a place of social cohesion and mutual understanding, where being British is seen as an inclusive identity. Where it does not matter about the colour of your skin or what cricket team you support. Where there is no ‘test’ to your loyalty.

Let us not shy away from having these conversations and what it means to be British. It is only by talking about our experiences and our realities that we can bridge the gap and help everyone understand what we need to change and why.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nafisa Nathani is Intersectionality Lead for Multi-Faith Network, Network Rail’s faith and belief network, as well as Southern region lead for Cultural Fusion, Network Rail’s race network. Both networks are available to everyone who works in the transport sector, regardless of race or faith. To join, email multi-faithnetwork@networkrail.co.uk

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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