Where is the power?

We know we are learning when past experiences bring new meanings to our lives

During our earlier years in the UK, Irma and I were once at the bus station at Nottingham Central waiting to get back home after our weekend shopping. Two drunken-sloshed white women sat by our side and began swearing at the two of us. Stories of Asian men grooming white girls was a big topic in the news and these two women saw in us a way to project their anger. Slowly swearing turned into shouting and yelling at which point I took the space between these women and Irma to protect my pregnant wife from being physical harmed. This abuse lasted for good few minutes as we were helplessly trying to make sense of the situation. Next, an English couple joined the queue, and the man (call him John) was taken aback by this senseless act of violence and dehumanisation. In less than a minute, John jumped out of the queue, looked straight into the eyes of these two women and said, “stick your bloody tongue inside. One more word and I will call the police now.” We boarded the bus and as we were getting off, my eyes locked with John. In those moments, I felt acknowledgement in John’s eyes, and it brought peace and calm in my body.

This experience left us with a mixed bag of emotions – an attack on our dignity, and a sense of fear, insecurity and helplessness in a foreign country. But we also felt that an act of dehumanisation was met with kindness and justice. People ask me, ‘Nippin, what is your experience of living in the UK for nearly two decades?” And for the best part of my life, I have responded with this ‘beauty and the beast’ narrative.

Illustration by Nakeeta Anand

But in the last few days this experience has brought a new meaning to my life as we discovered our eight years old son was being bullied at school by another boy. Like the previous encounter, there is both good and bad in this story. The boy is the son of one of the senior managers at school and speaking with other parents has revealed more serious problems with his behaviour at the school. The most painful part of this experience was an observation from another classmate to his mother that our little boy ‘has stopped laughing.’ We miss cues that seem so obvious when we look back. So much to learn from this observant classmate about the limits of our cognition and sensemaking.

So far, the community and the school have responded with compassion, kindness and understanding. One of the senior members of the staff has assured that leaving bureaucracy aside, our child’s wellbeing will be kept at the centre of their response strategy. I believe we must keep our faith in the institution. What other choices do we have if we decide to send our kids back to the same school?

But there remains the elephant in the room. For this, let’s return to Nottingham bus station. John had the wisdom and ethics to discern in the situation where is powerwhat purpose does it serve, and who is made powerless. These are question few leaders want to address until such time that it cannot be ignored.

But if such basic questions of power and ethics remain untouched, one wonders what purpose do artefacts, slogans and interventions (such as we care policy, safety first, diversity and inclusion rhetorics, training and counselling) really serve?