Black people can do all sorts of things, I thought — until I heard these words …

‘Dear, have you considered the heavy lifting jobs in the warehouse? That is what black people do, you know!’.

The startling words came from my supervisor at the e-commerce section of DHL Mondelez in Bicester, where I had barely worked an hour. And they stayed with me throughout my three-day stint on the job, becoming my Achilles’ heel.

How it all started …

As a new Law student at the University of Buckingham, who was just finishing his first term, I was eager to find a part-time job; not only to earn extra cash, but also to interact with the people in my new environment. My first day on the job was in the fourth week of March, when the corona virus pandemic gripped the UK. I bought the weekly ticket for the X5 bus, which runs between Cambridge and Oxford, only to learn that I needed a new ticket to move within the Bicester Township. Prior to this day, I had shopped for the appropriate work apparel and got the right safety boots at Sports Direct.

Since it was my first day I wanted to arrive early to get accustomed to my new environment, but I was told my access card will only be ready at 10 p.m. so I needed a place to hang around until it was time. A very kind white, male driver of the Bicester-Oxford bus was my star of the evening. He had been very patient with me despite my plethora of questions about the journey from Central Bicester to the actual location of the factory. Disregarding the fact that I moved from being the only black person on the bus to being the only person on board, he agreed to be my ‘tour guide’ for free by taking me on a jolly ride to Oxford and back to Bicester — basically showing me around until it was time for me to report to work. I must say, I was impressed with his kind-hearted nature and said to myself that I could not believe how some accuse white people of being racist.

Finally, I arrived at the Charbridge Way premise of DHL, poised with vigour and panache. The e-commerce department I was directed to was nothing fancy. The grind basically required one to wear a scanner and pick a trolley, then fill that trolley with the products people had ordered, pack them into a box and get everything ready for the delivery trucks.

I was first handed over to a general supervisor for the section who then called one of her colleagues. My direct supervisor was to take me through my actual responsibilities for the day.

The direct supervisor, without even exchanging pleasantries, muttered to me these shocking words:

‘Dear, have you considered the heavy lifting jobs in the warehouse? That is what black people do, you know!’

Other borderline racist remarks followed, interspersed with the rules of engagement and the things my supervisor could and couldn’t stand — which included my being told that she was not there to be my mother, and so would not clean-up after me.

What I understood by her first comment was that, my kind — Black people — were suited for jobs that required more brawns than brains; the kind of labour black slaves were forced to do when they were unconscionably taken from their land to this part of the world. When she uttered those words with her calm but firm little voice, my usually vociferous self was rather lost in thought. During the first break, I unconsciously isolated myself and for the first time in my entire life, I felt insecure. Not because (with two university degrees and a third one on its way, and with over a decade of experience in journalism under my belt) I agreed with her that I was not suited for a glorified menial job. No, it was because for some reason I just could not wrap my mind around whether this was racist hokum or a simple truism that has always existed and will continue to exist.

An unpleasant reality check

I quickly moved into my comfort zone by researching the issue. My aim was simple: to find evidence to contradict her claim that Black people are predominantly suited for menial or elementary jobs in the UK. What I found shocked me and worsened my state. 

According to a 2018 survey on the UK Government’s website, which compared ethnicity and employment types; ‘the percentage of workers in elementary jobs — the lowest skilled type of occupation — was highest (16%) in the Black ethnic group’. The same survey also revealed that; ‘the Black ethnic group had the lowest percentage of workers (5%)’ in ‘manager, director or senior official jobs’.

So in effect she was right.

I found it hard to believe but then it dawned on me — the enormous pressure I was under to prove myself. In the next two days I had sore feet, joint aches, and hardly slept at all. I pushed and pulled the trolley with a ferociousness I didn’t even think I had in me. The objective was clear; to prove my immediate supervisor wrong and somewhat defend my race. The burden became enormous, to the extent that in the throes of one of my vigorous pulling, I slipped and fell, dropping the entire trolley with all the baskets landing on me.

It was as if my entire world was crumbling. I felt no pain. Just shame. Embarrassed that I had let down an entire race and proven my critics right. The ‘I told you so’ look on the face of the woman who had indirectly started this crisis within me added further insults to my injury. For once, I subconsciously accepted that I was not fit for a picking and packing job.

After getting back on my feet and getting things in order, I wrote an email to the recruitment agency that got me the job to inform them that I was no longer interested — adding that I felt it was not ‘intellectually stimulating enough’. Later when the guilt and anger had waned, I wrote another email to explain myself but unfortunately there was an order from above to shut down due to Covid-19 restrictions.

To this day, I have never summoned the courage to return to Bicester where I had my first jolly ride, my first job in the UK, but more importantly; my baptism of fire when it comes to racism.

As a man in my early thirties, who has lived most of his life in Ghana amongst my own, this experience helped me understand the nature of prejudice some people of my skin colour have to endure in this country and others.

Now, whenever I watch videos of racial abuse anywhere in the world, contrary to my previous cold and dismissive attitude, my eyes fill with tears and I am reminded that being born black is enough to count against you. 

Raymond Acquah is a Ghanaian journalist, fact-checker and documentary filmmaker who is currently studying at the University of Buckingham.

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