For Black History Month, civil engineer Ayo Sokale talks about how becoming a BBC Bitesize presenter is more than simply being a STEM role model for young, Black people.
As a teenager, I recall writing to the teen beauty magazine Bliss about why there was no one that looked like me on its covers or in its pages.
Growing up in Sussex, as the first Black girl in my school, I can say honestly, I had no role models that looked like me growing up, other than my family - hard-working people who help others, do charity work, and professionals who make a difference to the world.
Outside of that, I often felt unrepresented and like I was holding all the responsibility to be a positive first introduction to my classmates and their parents on blackness.
As a result, I always hoped to be a positive role model and hoped for a day where diversity was so common that I would be viewed as an individual and not hold the weight of responsibility for representing a whole demographic, a weight I was aware that my non-BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) classmates didn’t have to bear.
However, until then, I was determined to create a positive representation for BAME people in the spheres that I’m involved in.
Creating necessary representation
Recently, I had the opportunity to present science for BBC Bitesize. This was incredibly good fun, but also a very important step.
BBC Bitesize is a free, online learning resource used by learners across the UK, and to see a Black woman in a positive role, demonstrating and teaching science, will help create necessary representation for so many people.
It isn’t just about seeing Black people in media. It’s important to see Black people in a range of roles and in a positive light. This goes some way towards breaking down stereotypes and the division they create in our communities. It helps to challenge negative tropes, stereotypes, limiting beliefs and the resulting negative behaviours they generate towards BAME people.
Hopefully, my presenting for BBC Bitesize plays a positive part in inspiring young, BAME people to see themselves in science and STEM roles, because the impact of positive representation and diverse (‘more than single stories’, in the words of novelist Chimamanda Adichie) is important to creating true inclusion in the world.
'My race can make me invisible'
We are in Black History Month, a time where people pause and reflect on Black people throughout history and today. It’s important to recognise Black people have always been a part of this society and have made many achievements and contributions in the past, and that they continue to do so today in many spheres.
However, I realise that in some ways, my race can also make me invisible. People are sometimes too ready to project their ideas and biases onto me and never see me as an individual.
For example, I’ve had colleagues assume my musical preferences and that I love clubbing and twerking. Which is fine if I did, but I have showed no such interest, and people have made that assumption on meeting me.
Such assumptions often force me to work hard to overcorrect this image by displaying one that is the complete opposite, just so that I can achieve a middle ground in how I’m perceived.
The hidden cost of overworking in the Black community
I would like for Black people to be seen, and really seen for who they are, and not have to do all this additional work. I’m doing the work today by adding a more nuanced and positive representation to help achieve this.
But the push of being the hardest working person in the room, facing up to the negative assumptions and being trapped in fear of advocating for yourself will cause its own damage.
When reading When The Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress by Dr Gabor Maté, I could start to see the next issue for Black people – the consequence of overworking, generational trauma and a lack of psychological support, on the Black community.
Historic, negative stereotypes have forced Black people and many in the wider BAME community to have to overwork to prove themselves, to distance themselves from stereotypical ‘blackness’ (which I define as the systemic attack and limited perspective of what Black people are like).
To help counter this, there’s a fantastic campaign, The Nap Ministry, which conveys the need for Black rest. An organisation that examines the liberating power of naps, it believes that rest is a form of resistance and names sleep deprivation as a racial and social justice issue.
All humans are valuable and worthy, so why do Black people have to overwork to fight negative representation so that they can be in the same room as their peers? Dr Maté talks about the environmental factor for illness, and I can’t help but see the link to a long-term health inequality in the community.
In short, representation isn’t just nice to have. It’s life or death.