I know that there is a game going on and I know the rules: how you’re supposed to behave, how you’re supposed to dress, how you’re supposed to talk. I don’t want to play.

Photography by Leonora Saunders

Nelly

I was born in Rwanda. In 1994, there was a war and almost a million people died in just three months. We left there when I was eleven and we went to a refugee camp in Congo, where we stayed for three months. We then moved on to Kenya where we were illegal immigrants, dodging the police and just trying to survive, because when you don’t have any papers – you can’t work, you can’t go to school, you can’t do anything. The UNHCR resettled us in Norway when I was fifteen.

I first encountered the concept of being black when I moved to Europe because it was irrelevant in Rwanda and Kenya. I learned that there were all these things associated with being black that I didn’t know about. I understood that people reacted to me based on my skin colour, but I didn’t understand what they expected. Until now, it’s not something I was able to connect to.
My first experience with racism was at school in Norway. In one instance, they made me take a maths exam twice – because how could I be that good at it? Why was I this good at maths when I came from Africa? “Do you even have schools?!”

I experienced being rejected for jobs in very dodgy ways. When I was at university, I was the only black person and then there was a Vietnamese girl and an Afghan guy. My classmates once applied for the same internship programme at the same company. We even helped each other with our CVs and cover letters. Everyone else in my class except the three of us got through to the second round. I was the first to receive my rejection, then the Vietnamese girl and then the Afghan guy. My Norwegian classmates had to also admit that there was something off.

I am an IT solution architect at Shell. I’ve always been interested in technology, maths and solving puzzles – I liked playing with Lego and building things when I was a kid, so it just seemed like the right fit.

My boss doesn’t care that I’m a woman or black or young. He is all about merit. He’s interested in your brain, your personality; he wants to know you’ll deliver things. It’s really the ideal in any situation, whether it’s a friendship or work – you just want people to see you as an individual.

Working in the tech world, I’ve experienced being dismissed or overlooked. I once went to an IT conference in Austria with my colleague, and we were both wearing a badge for the conference. This guy, who was actually one of the speakers, came over to hello to us and he asked me if I was my colleague’s wife.


I’m in the ‘B’ section of LGBT, but the necessity for labels annoys me. It’s just that I have to explain myself so many times. Even to my friends, to the world in general: “So you say you’re bisexual but the last three people you dated were women, are you becoming gay?” Yeah that’s how it works, I just switch. “Wouldn’t it be easier if you just dated men?” Yeah, probably! I think it would just be easier if I said I’m gay, it’s more understandable for people.


There is this assumption that as a long as we get enough women on an executive board, everything is fine. What kind of women? White women? Straight women? Is that good enough?

I absolutely hate quotas – but we need them. Usually the people who complain the loudest about them are the people who are not affected. I’ve had a lot of discussions with women who don’t want to rock the boat. They want to be accepted into the club. I don’t want to be accepted into the club. I want to create a new club. This club sucks.

I know that there is a game going on and I know the rules: how you’re supposed to behave, how you’re supposed to dress, how you’re supposed to talk, all of this stuff. I don’t want to play. When I was younger I tried to fit in wherever I was, but then I realised that I kept having to change. Because I moved around a lot – I’ve lived in seven countries, I’ve gone to school in four countries – each time the attempt to fit never quite worked. There are always different expectations of what I should be because I’m a woman or I’m black.

I actually do feel I can be myself at work, for better or for worse. Some people may not like it, and there is a price to pay – I don’t think you’re going to get on the executive board if you don’t play by the rules, they think of you as unpredictable, as a risk. My biggest issue with workplaces is that we don’t have enough fun. We spend so much time there and yet they aren’t places we expect to enjoy.


The thing that is most on my mind right now is the refugee issue. Refugees, like everyone else, are resourceful and have skills and knowledge. Companies could help by recruiting in asylum centres and refugee camps because there are brilliant people there too. They may not have papers to prove their skills, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have them.

People often put up walls out of fear. It’s not to keep people out, it’s to protect yourself. Just be yourself, be open, relax, it’s not a big deal. Often minorities are afraid of expressing our true selves for fear of being rejected. You try to fit in, but you’re never going to fit. Just give it up already! Be yourself and see what happens – and don’t be afraid to tell people who you are.

Employers and colleagues and friends should seek to understand, and minorities should help them understand who they are.
I don’t like when people focus on one aspect of me. I am much more than whatever they see. But it’s not easy to change that; we are human and we have these preconceptions, and in everyday life we are all prone to biases, conscious or unconscious. I think the important thing is being aware of them – or even being aware that you have them. You don’t even have to know which ones exactly.