A Small Brown Elephant - My take on Diversity in Wildlife and how I got here.
By Dawood Qureshi
Perhaps I should begin this article with a candid look at my world.
An in-depth description of the rain pattering against the window, myself on the sofa cuddled up to an arbitrary pet, the hot buttery flames of a roaring fire lapping against the hearth.
I sit up and laugh *insert joke here*, my feet descending into the cushioned warmth of slippers.
But that's all quite a bit of fluff to get to a completely different point. And it wasn't even raining when The Thing happened.
I don't have a fire.
And I rather hate the look of slippers.
I'm not a psychopath. They're just ugly.
I was in fact scratching my head. Metaphorically. Since my hands were tied up, again metaphorically, but quite literally unable to reach my head, as I was attempting an essay, the title of which escapes me. Quite similar to when it escaped me as I was writing it I'll be honest.
The slight buzz of a notification vibrates through my phone, waking me from my stupor, I gladly but slowly drag my attention from the page in front of me to my phone.
I have received a message from a Lucy McRobert.
I'd spoken to Lucy a few times before this, many years back when I was but a small brown naturalist (which makes me sound like I've changed colour since then but the only change that occurred was the age don't you worry) with dreams of conservation greatness, and I'd definitely seen her work pop up now and then as I'd scrolled through the Twittersphere, or jump out at me on Facebook, etc.
But this was all rather out of the blue, I really had no clue what was going on. And now I mean in terms of my situation and not just my essay.
She asked if I was available at any point to chat to a friend of hers, a comedian and widely appraised nerd (I added the last title but really it should be official) named Ryan Dalton, on his podcast, about the topic of Diversity in Wildlife.
We pause for a few notes; the only podcasts I'd listened to before this point was BBC Wildlife, which is basically the bible, Tweet of the day, which actually is more of a very short radio show/soundscape if we're being pedantic, and the odd one detailing the thoughts of some writer I abashedly adore. I was very pleasantly surprised that first of all, she'd remembered my name, since I'd been sort of drifting a bit away from the whole wildlife communications scheme for a few years now, and that second of all, I'd been linked to this topic.
You see, it may come as a surprise, but I'd never really given this topic any great level of thought before this point. It wasn't something I'd written any notes on, or thought to bring up before, or even really questioned. And whilst that might seem a little strange, it isn't uncommon.
The fact is when you're the subject of the matter, or the title of the story, you tend to simply live the story, and not question the plotline, or break the 4th wall, unless of course, you're Deadpool.
Diversity in Wildlife is a title that immediately focuses people's attention on a topic I'd really never seen singled out as its own deity: Diversity.
What a vast, superbly underrated, grossly under-researched topic. And yet one that I happen to be directly connected to. And it settles into another subject matter I don't see it resting within every day. This is not just diversity in general, this is specifically diversity in areas relating to STEM, Wildlife, and Conservation. In nominating me to this post, I had not only been given a voice on a controversial and often misunderstood area, but I was being asked what my experiences were.
At that moment I think it's safe to say I was plagued by uncertainties, and that's using my inside words; did I have any experiences worth talking about? Did I have a voice worth being heard? Here I was, feverishly running through scenarios in my head, simply because this topic is so extraordinarily important. The questions I was sent dealt with issues relating to white privilege and what that meant to us as people of colour (I should mention I was part of a panel of 3 people giving our individual and combined views on the subject, which is entirely the way forward with this topic, because like it or not, racism affects far too many people to receive just one perspective), and how could we phrase it in a manner that would clearly pick out the dirt of past lies and mistakes, how could we make it accessible and put together, so the audience wouldn't give us just a moment of their weary attention before turning to their partner and requesting they please switch the channel. We didn't just want to talk, we wanted people to listen.
I wandered through my thoughts, unpicking all loose strings and upending these covers I'd placed over memories and experiences, and pouring their contents out to look at. I had to dig deep. We hide so much of ourselves trying to placate our environments. We want so desperately to fit in, to get the job done, and hold our heads down, unnoticeable and unreachable as individuals, serving the machine because that's how we've been taught to get ahead. The odd comment about skin tone here and there, the scattered laughs at "funny clothes" in school don't outwardly bother you any longer, you grow armor because without this armor everything ever said to you would affect you, and then how on earth would you ever get anywhere in life, you'd be trapped in a clouded, angry, steaming bubble of your own righteous emotions.
I'm not salty I promise...and the fun poked at a job title your parent doesn't have but is thought to have had because...they're Asian? They're Muslim? Beats me, it did seem terribly funny to that kid however so he's probably an expert.
To achieve what you want, sometimes you ignore what you hate. Because this allows you to move into areas of work that would have otherwise paralyzed you, like working in STEM or working in wildlife centered and related jobs, where perhaps the comments or talk about how you present yourself would be too distressing otherwise.
But the direct effect of this conformation, this "correction", whether it be clothing, tradition, religion, political affiliation, language, etc. Is entire generations of people losing their own way, people with interests and cultures, incredible perspectives of life that are never shared, never making it to the outside world because they immediately quash them, closing away ideas that would most definitely change the course of the vehicle they are trying so hard to get into for the better, ironically in order to actually get into the vehicle. For those up in arms about my tedious use of metaphors, I shall not back down, but vehicle here refers to the job offered.
We start to forget that we even wanted to be different, because it's just easier that way, and of course I'm not at all shunning people who are as happy as could be in the place they are in life. But I wanted something more.
I had never seen someone who looked like me advertised in jobs relating to wildlife or conservation. This was my dream, gleaming amongst other throwaway wills of travel and glamour, it shone but even now was starting to dull.
It seemed as if conformation had once again reared its ugly head, biting away at that most useful appendage of societal progress: Representation.
For the most part, those of us who have any sort of dreams, or any idea of what we want, tend to make a plan of action, this plan needn't be complex or multi-tiered, but it gives us something of a safety net. And as a kid, this means people to look up to, heroes of the field, people you look to that show you that you can carry out that dream, they are your safety net. These people usually have something in common with you; it's easier to see a dream job as being yours if the person you see succeeding at it is someone you can relate to. You are able to immediately place yourself in their shoes, you imagine yourself saying the things they say, or perhaps you're just content with watching them knowing you'll be there someday.
So I did just that.
I made a plan of action.
In the simplest terms at least; I had grown up infused with a sense of longing to experience the natural world, the shrieks of wildlife and breathy delights of wind and moving bug life made me squeal with happiness. I belonged here, in this world of soft smells and undergrowth, or in hot fields of wildflowers and shifting grass, lying on my back staring at that ever so clear, blue sky.
I would stay here I thought, this world is mine for the taking and sharing, I can't live without its wonders. I would become...David Attenborough, Nigel Marvin, Steve Irwin, Chris Packham, Nick Baker...hang on a second.
You see. They were my heroes. The inspiration for my dreams were right there. And I didn't look like even one of them.
I mean I kind of fancied myself looking a bit like Nick Baker around the forehead region.
But I digress. The point is, my plan of action had holes all the way through it, not only had I never seen anyone who looked like me in this future dream of mine but all around me, in relatives, parents, friends, anyone who shared my upbringing (of which there weren't many I can tell you, try finding Asian/mixed home-schooled nature lovers with a love of hats and I'll give you a medal), was headed far from where I was.
You just don't see many people who look like me in this field. Why? Well to answer that would probably require a larger can of worms to be opened; it's related to issues such as systemic racism, which then affects where BAME people grow up perhaps and their con-currant financial status, not to mention religion and cultural identity play a part, all affecting job options and opinions on careers and dreams by carers, etc., and so forth, maybe I'll have to write another article on the subject someday.
I did persevere, however. I could not give up on that dream. But up till this podcast it had slowed since I was a young 'un. I'd decided to ignore my differences as a kid, instead surging forward and throwing myself into my writing, my photography, wildlife observation, and pinning bugs to sheets of paper. It was fun, and it was quite literally my life. However, it became clearer to me that I was the odd one out as I grew older, travels to nature reserves for voluntary work, and the odd bird watching trip yielded results of brown people=zero.
By asking myself these questions, by rooting around up there for experiences I'd tucked away, I remembered why I slowed down; I'd felt a sense of discomfort, this discomfort became tethered to the natural world and I only now realised why. I found no one to show me it could be done. A small sense of loneliness had descended upon me but I was far too young and naive to understand it. I began to move away from the idea that this was a job I could have. It was a "dream job", like a vampire hunter, or a dragon rider, it's not something you can actually have (I have friends who would contend this but I assure you they are wrong).
I felt strange in places I'd once upon a time enjoyed so much, nature reserves I'd felt at home in were now alien to me, as if I was intruding in a world I should not have been party to. I felt that I was drifting, trying to find a foothold but always slipping.
But I wanted it so badly. I wanted to study these animals in the wild. To write about them and breathe life into my stories. I had limited myself, but I was never defeated, I kept the dream alive as I chose my university course (Marine Biology if you're asking), even this providing its own set of obstacles; I didn't see a lot of representation in the marine biology sector either, but dream on I did. I found pockets of time here and there to watch birds or study my room walls for moths up close, or excitedly converse about cetacean clicks to an amused tutor (you know who you are).
These questions. The answers I had to come up with. They lit something in me. Something I hadn't felt in a long time. But also something new in a way. I suddenly wanted to remember all my experiences, I wanted to think about how I overcame them, I wanted to talk about them and talk about representation, about how the lack of it had stalled me and my dream, about how diversity in careers shows security in that career for some people and how that influences your perspective of that career, what companies should be doing to attract BAME people, how they should be doing a lot more. What had once been conformity and a head-down attitude was now a lot simpler.
I wanted to make some noise.
Everything else I'd experienced rushed through me. At university, at school, at home, I thought back to that rather timid soul lying on their back in a field, staring up at the sky, to becoming this person, sitting in rather an uncomfortable position answering questions on a phone.
This strange, wonderful person.
This brown, mixed race, British, dolphin, and butterfly obsessed conservationist answering questions because I know who I want to be now.
I want to be that inspiration that I never had. I've found others like me and I know where I stand and I can now use that difference to my advantage, I thrive on being different now, I can't get enough of it.
I am the elephant in the room.
My experiences are the elephant in the room.
The small, brown, elephant in the room.
Let's talk about that elephant.
I'm ready now.