After experiencing racism in school and during her career as a city broker, fashion entrepreneur Heidy Rehman explains why Trump and Brexit should encourage us all to #calloutracism
‘When I was growing up, my father told me; “You will face two challenges every day for the rest of your life – you’re not white and you’re not male – and you will overcome both.” Never has that been truer than today.
Reading recent news headlines such as “immigrants swarm in on our jobs” takes me straight back to my school days in the ‘80s. For a long time we were the only British Asian family in the tiny northwest town of Hebburn. And during times of economic hardship (back then: miners’ strikes and the collapse of the ship yards; now: ongoing economic and political uncertainty) people need somebody to blame. When the economy falters, racism rises. And minorities are an easy target.
When I was a child, my father had his car vandalised, we had ‘gifts’ posted through our letterbox and I would often take off my school blazer at the end of the day to find I’d been spat on. Listening to the race-hate language surrounding both the US presidential election and the EU referendum, brought that flooding back. The only difference now is that we no longer have to suffer in silence. Social media has given us all a new power to challenge racist behaviour and #calloutracism – as happened when journalist Rachel Johnson reportedly referred to Prince Harry’s girlfriend Meghan Markle as ‘exotic’ on account of her mixed race and was widely criticised for it. Now, with Donald Trump in the White House and an ever more fractious divide across the U.K., it’s never been more important for us all to stick our heads above the parapet and say when something is wrong.
My father died when I was 16 so we learned about independence from an early age. But he instilled in me, and my five sisters (we lost another sister) and one brother that education is important, and that even if you feel like an outsider, you must fight it desperately. I’ve been doing that ever since. I was 14 when I had a teacher who constantly bullied me and humiliated me in front of my classmates so one day I put my hand up in class and said to him, “I know what you’re doing, and I know why you’re doing it.” The taunts stopped after that.
Later, during my years as a broker, I knew my background made me different and I experienced some unpleasant times. But I believe that if you’ve been made to feel as though your voice matters less than others, the only way to respond is to speak up. That’s why I applaud the women who were brave enough to come forward with allegations of sexual assault in the run up to the election. There’s a power in solidarity and right now, we need it more than ever.
When I launched my fashion business Rose & Willard, which literally means Feminine & Bold, I had no fashion credentials – just a great idea and a drive to succeed (thanks, Dad). But it was around that time that I started to see my ‘otherness’ as a blessing rather than a curse. I can be more opinionated and not feel the need to conform in the same way as someone from a traditional fashion background might. I now use that to my advantage. To my knowledge, we are the only fashion company with an Asian founder, black designer and a certified ‘made in Britain’ ethos. We have made clothes for Jennifer Aniston, Pippa Middleton, Gemma Arterton, Naomie Harris and Elisabeth Moss amongst others. Most recently we made a bespoke trouser suit for Dame Judi Dench – you can’t get more feminine and bold than Dame Judi.
Never more than today have minorities felt so threatened. At a train station bathroom recently I saw a cleaner I believe to be of African heritage being prodded and screamed at by a woman making an untrue claim that the bathroom was filthy. I know racism when I see it and I’m sure the cleaner’s colour was the reason behind the woman’s tirade. The bathroom was full of people but only I and one other lady came to the cleaner’s defence to #calloutracism. It was actually an empowering moment and made me realise that I wouldn’t hesitate if I witnessed something similar again.
Social media has given us power. When our politicians and world leaders are given licence to be overtly racist, we now have the tools and the collective voice to challenge them. We are all outsiders in some way, and when somebody does wrong – especially when it comes to racism – we need to call it out, each and every one of us.
As the former First Lady Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high” And it’s time we all went high.’
Heidy Rehman is the founder of fashion brand Rose & Willard