Racist abuse led me to a career in anti-oppression activism

True Stories

"I will stop at nothing to see the world changed."

Vanessa Faloye runs her own business as a motivational speaker and workshop facilitator, helping worldwide organisations design and deliver anti-oppression education. Here she tells The Mix about her traumatic experience of racism and how this lead her to where she is today. In her own inspiring words, she aims to “make love the alternative to hate” and will “stop at nothing to see the world changed.

I grew up with racism

As a young black girl growing up, the racism I experienced tended to be very subtle. It was the kind that would leave me feeling uneasy but that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Of course, there were a handful of in-your-face racist encounters but I always felt lucky to have escaped the really horrible racism I heard happened to other people of colour.

Looking back, I realise I’ve experienced deeply problematic racism and sexism my entire life. I just didn’t know that’s what it was. What I did know by my 9th birthday, however, was that I was black and I so desperately wanted to be white because being white was the ‘the beautiful norm’. Despite never feeling normal, accepted, or attractive, I became an expert at hiding my insecurities. I was living in this false sense of security that racism was a thing that mostly happened to other people. But that all changed when I moved to Valencia, Spain in 2014.

I soon learnt what in-your-face-racism looks like

During the next three years, I found out the hard way what in-your-face racism looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Every single day I had people: staring at me, making racist jokes, telling me to go back to my country, screaming at me in the street, threatening to call the police on me for no reason, calling the police on me for no reason, threatening me with physical violence, physically attacking me, and so much more.

During this time, I lived in deep anger, paranoia, depression, and helplessness. I became terrified of doing even the simplest things like asking for directions or going to the supermarket. After some time, I stopped going to social events and crowded places and eventually I stopped going out at all. Even in my own home, the police would come looking for me after the neighbours made up things I hadn’t done – all because they said they “didn’t want a dirty n***** living near them”.

I was a shell of myself

In Spain, I felt the full force of what it means to be absolutely hated simply because of the colour of your skin and these were the most triggering and traumatic years of my life. When I tell this story in detail, people always ask: why did you stay so long? This is often the same question we ask victims in abusive relationships and I think the response is quite similar. It had become normalised in my mind. I had internalised the racist abuse and violence so deeply that I forgot I didn’t deserve it. When I finally left Spain, I was a shell of myself. I had lost everything about me that made me, me. For a long time after, I was always on the verge of tears, always trying to make myself small and invisible, always waiting for someone to tell me why I didn’t belong.

It was time to rebuild myself

So in 2017, I began to wake up from the nightmare and I decided to leave Spain for good. The experience had broken my heart and my spirit into the tiniest, most fragile pieces, but I decided to start actively reclaiming all those lost parts of myself and began to rebuild myself.

Part of rebuilding myself meant working out what my personal and professional strengths and weaknesses were. In doing so I realised I was a naturally skilled educator and this got me thinking – could I use my experience of racism to do something good? Could I change things for other people being discriminated against?

Building a career in anti-oppression activism is the best thing I’ve done

When I thought about the career I wanted for myself, I knew I didn’t want to work in an office (mainly because corporate spaces can be such toxic places for women of colour) and so I started looking into setting up my own business. My idea was to give workshops and motivational speeches in social justice, and in particular, anti-oppression education. After a long journey of blood, sweat, tears and sleep deprivation, I’m exactly where I want to be. I now travel the world designing and delivering workshops and educational programmes for companies, NGOs, universities, and community and youth groups.

The focus of my work is anti-discrimination, whether that be racism, sexism, ableism or any other kind of discrimination. I hope to enable people to identify discrimination of any kind within their organisation – including that subtle kind of discrimination I experienced growing up but which is often trickier to pinpoint.

Nobody has the right to tell your story for you

If you are reading this and are going through something similar where the world makes you feel othered or less than because of your race, religion, sexuality, gender, class, or disability – remember that nobody has the right to tell your story for you. Surround yourself with positive people and positive narratives that are going to lift you up, not tear you down. Read and learn to understand the problem that you are dealing with (which is never you!), and to quote Beyoncé, remember that “your best revenge is your paper”.  

Find Vanessa on Instagram, Twitter or via her website.

Next Steps

  • If you have witnessed or experienced racist or xenophobic harassment, please submit your experience to iStreetWatch who track racist and xenophobic harassment in public spaces.
  • The Self-Esteem Team (SET) run workshops in schools across the UK to help tackle young people's issues with body image, self-worth and mental health.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Holly Turner

Updated on 08-May-2019

Image credit: Amy McHugh