*Trigger warnings: suicidal ideation, hopelessness, discouragement and despair.
As November is drawing to a close and so is the second lockdown of this mad year, Guy Fawkes night and Remembrance day seem like the only recurring familiar markers to get my bearings. Though I’ve never attempted to blow anything up and I’m happy to report that I have no experience in armed combat, this doesn’t mean that I am inexperienced in fighting for my right to be here. In fact, I remember being waist deep in the trenches in November 2019…
I was working several jobs, juggling freelance gigs in a bunch of museums and galleries where I was generally employed to do what is known as ‘interpretation’ for early years and families, i.e. breaking down the art to make it accessible to newcomers to the galleries. My 45th** year loomed large and my body was becoming really tired of carrying equipment all across London and delivering high energy sessions (singing, dancing, etc) to a crowd of families to make them feel at ease. I had done this circuit for quite a few years already and could see that I would not be able to keep it up much longer so I decided to approach each one of my employers and be candid about my situation, asking them for opportunities to progress, either through training, or just being kept in mind if there was any scope to get a more secure position, working on a contract rather than on a zero hour basis. I was satisfied that I had spoken my mind and felt that I would be considered for further positions.
A few weeks later, as I was filling in my timesheet, I noticed that my younger white colleague who had started at exactly the same time as me, doing the same thing I was doing was getting paid slightly more per hour than I was. I brought my concern to managers who were clearly embarrassed but then exclaimed that ‘it [was] just a pound fifty more’!! At that point, I burst in tears, understanding that these Campers wearing middle class women (both white btw) were simply so out of touch with my situation that they thought I was being petty and had turned things around to make it look like I was being weird for even bringing it up. That moment made me realise we didn’t inhabit the same world and that they had absolutely no idea how much I was struggling to make ends meet.
Next thing, they told me a job was coming up and that I would be just right for it. I threw myself wholeheartedly into preparing an excellent application and revising for the interview.
I did my best but struggled at the interview and was subsequently told that out of the 5 shortlisted candidates for the four jobs, I was the one who was not selected.
After they told me this, I plunged into a deep depression, crying all the time, self harming and contemplating suicide. I just fell so low. I felt really hopeless as a soon to be 45 year old disabled woman of colour, I felt that I’d been in the queue long enough and that I’d been a good girl long enough but that it had not worked.
I felt like I was a sort of black mammy character who they were just happy to employ on a zero hour contract until the end of time. I had no will or strength to fight but needed the work and even though I was essentially having a nervous breakdown, I could not take any time off as I worked a zero hours contract and that did not include sick pay. I carried on working alongside the successful candidates, who were now my managers, some of whom had only just recently got employed on the same contract I’d been on for over two years and had already been promoted beyond me.
My managers were completely oblivious to my situation, but I was well aware that there were rumours about me and about how distraught I had been for not getting the job. People stopped talking when I walked in the room. I felt worthless and still had to roll around, smiling through the tears, playing with children and families, rolling around on the floor, pretending I was happy, that everything was okay and that I loved my job.
I made a few desperate calls to my sister in Paris at my lowest point and when I felt there was nothing left for me to do than to buy some rope and hang myself in one of the many nooks and crannies of the immense cavernous mammoth of a building that was home to one of the biggest collections of modern art in the world.
Thank God for my sister who kindly spoke to me and repeatedly assured me not to kill myself for this job, that it wasn’t worth it, to not let their parking me on zero hours be a reflection of who I was and what I was really worth. Her support gave me strength and I started liaising with the PCS union rep who was absolutely fantastic, very supportive, and refreshingly human, with empathy as to how I must have been feeling. We had a few successful meetings showing that the organisation had clearly discriminated but things were far from ‘sorted’.
I took myself for a well needed vacation to the land of my ancestors, land where my late father is buried, to see my beloved 92 year old grandmother who is always so wise and kind to me. This was a welcome break as both body and mind thanked me for it and by the time I got back, I had some perspective on my situation.
What this whole episode showed me is that I need not assume my employers have got my best interest at heart and they may very well think they care but they clearly do not.
I have moved away from seeking justice through these warped old dusty institutions to curating my own content, caring less about them and more about myself, letting my voice out and joining non hierarchical collaborative creative groups .
Last year’s experience has broken my heart and there is part of me that feels it’s pointless applying for jobs I won’t get given regardless of my experience, skills and ability to do the work. My protected characteristics feel like shackles that are just too heavy for me to keep going as a contender.
Meanwhile, museums and galleries are planning new outreach schemes to reach out to people just like myself, as we speak, confirming what I had always suspected: I am welcome to the gallery as a participant and I am encouraged to flaunt my diversity to make them look good and they will also happily have me as a volunteer but no one one wants to give me a real grown up job, a job I am more than capable of doing. And I know that they know that too.
*I don’t generally do ‘trigger warnings’ as it stigamtises the person with the lived experience, making their story too ‘horrific’ to read and also because no one warned me I would be going through all this beforehand. I thought I would just try it. Believe me, I don’t seek to shock or harm anyone. I just want to give myself a voice and reempower myself by telling my story. I am not the one who should feel ashamed of what happened.
** 45 years old is roughly the age when my father was when he lost his job and was never employed again in the late 70’s. I grew up watching his health declining massively as shame and helplessness seemed to erode his pride, as a former breadwinner.