Get up, stand up

Thirty years ago, a violent clash with racists marked the beginning of a political and artistic aw

In April 1979, against a background of high unemployment and anti-immigrant sentiment, the National Front staged a rally in Southall, a suburb of west London where many Asians had settled. These immigrants, mainly Punjabis, worked at Heathrow Airport, keeping London connected with the world. They were making efforts to assimilate, listening to BBC radio programmes such as Apna hi Ghar Samajhiye (“Think of it as your home”) and watching Nayi Zindagi, Naya Jeevan (“New way, new life”).

Under the banner of the Anti-Nazi League, Londoners of all ethnicities turned out to challenge the NF and its racist message. The demonstration – or uprising, as many Asians prefer to call it – turned violent when police attacked protesters and a schoolteacher named Blair Peach was killed. That event spurred British Asians to find a political and artistic voice in the wider culture, creating a legacy that’s now being celebrated in the Southall Story, a series of concerts, exhibitions and talks taking place around London.

The artist and film-maker Shakila Taranum Maan, who grew up in Northolt, Middlesex, near Southall, recalls the late 1970s vividly. She remembers the terrifying experience of seeing her mother encircled by hate-filled white teenagers. “Our days were spent dodging Paki-bashers. The [Southall] riot came as no surprise, as people were very angry, and keen to shed their passive skins. I wanted to be in Southall the next day, but my dad didn’t want me to go. I had a huge argument with him, and I welcomed the uprising, and saw the strength in a group of people which had for too long been reduced to mere shadows.”

The Southall Monitoring Group emerged in the aftermath of 1979, initially to monitor racial abuse of Asians, but soon expanding its remit. (The group was at the forefront in supporting the families of the Chinese cockle-pickers swept away by the tide at Morecambe Bay in 2004.) Another organisation to emerge was Southall Black Sisters, campaigning against gender- and race-based discrimination. Its campaigns against religious fundamentalism in the Asian community, where patriarchs have a disproportionate role in determining how their sisters, daughters and wives should dress or behave, and its unstinting care for the victims of domestic violence, have helped build British opinion against forced marriages and honour killings. These women brought family secrets into the open and refused to let “multicultural” politics become an excuse to tolerate discrimination and violence.

Pragna Patel, a founding member of Southall Black Sisters, describes the Southall Story as a timely reminder of the need for a secular approach to fighting racism and oppression. “The state assumes that racism is no longer an issue, and that the real problem is the lack of cohesion brought about [by] the failure of migrant communities to integrate. Within our communities, anti-racist struggles have been reinvented as struggles for recognition of religious identity.”

In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks and the 7 July 2005 bombings, there has been a backlash against multiculturalism. Yet paradoxically, as Pragna Patel notes, the state, in the name of cohesion, has actually encouraged a “faith-based” approach to social relations. “We are fragmenting as a society into separate religious enclaves in which powerful and religious bodies hold sway. This is deeply anti-democratic, misogynistic and homophobic.”

Indeed, the thinking has become so warped that last year Southall Black Sisters almost ceased to exist when the local council, Ealing, decided to withdraw its funding. Ignoring language barriers and other cultural inhibitions that might prevent women of minority origin from seeking assistance from groups other than their own, Ealing claimed the group was discriminatory, in that it offered its services to black and Asian women only. A high court order kept SBS alive.

The political awakening of Southall was accompanied by an artistic outpouring, one that ultimately contributed to an environment in which everything from the films of the Bend It Like Beckham director, Gurinder Chadha, to the novels of Hanif Kureishi, to the hit sketch show Goodness Gracious Me could flourish. It mirrored the flowering of black culture in 1950s South Africa, recalled by Mike Nicol in his lively 1991 account A Good-Looking Corpse: the World of Drum – Jazz and Gangsters, Hope and Defiance in the Townships of South Africa. The Southall renaissance was different, yet equally sharp, according to the musician Kuljit Bhamra. “After those uprisings, there was a spirit of a bigger family; we felt we had arrived,” he says. “Old divisions reduced, some even dispersed. We felt we had conquered something.”

While groups such as the Progressive Writers Association explored expression in the Punjabi language, Bhamra himself experimented with music, expressing the community’s confidence through the folk beat of bhangra, blending this with rock, reggae and other forms to create a uniquely British hybrid. Other bands – Heera, Premi and Alaap – emerged; Indian Record House and ABC Music established their own labels, distributing home-grown rhythms that prefigured the work of 1990s pop acts such as Nitin Sawhney and Apache Indian.

In the art world, Shakila Taranum Maan’s performance piece The Bride attacked the way in which Asian women were often left at the mercy of husbands and in-laws. “The aim was to provoke,” she says. The piece brings a bloodied and bruised bride on stage, and many in the audience were appalled. Maan’s other projects have included stories about sex workers and interracial relationships. Over the years, she has perceived a softening of attitudes in the community, but, like Pragna Patel, Maan believes that splintering into religious groups has strengthened conservative elements. Indeed, since the violent protest by Sikhs in Birmingham that disrupted the opening night of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti (“Shame”) in 2004, Maan admits she has shied away from overtly political work.

Yet politics still matters. The Southall Story celebrates a community’s struggle and search for identity, asserting its complexities and challenging the idea that minorities must remain a city-within-the-city: what Salman Rushdie described in The Satanic Verses as “the city visible but unseen”. As Maan says, “Our aim was to transcend race – but on our own terms.”

“The Southall Story” is being launched on 24 April at the Dominion Centre, Southall, Middlesex. For more details about the season, log on to: www.thesouthallstory.com

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek