Black History Month - David's story

  • 13 October 2020

David Johnston pic.jpeg

David Johnston is Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion within the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Human Resource Department.

He is married to Deborah and they have three children.

David was born in London to a Jamaican father, a builder’s labourer of the Windrush generation, and a Northern Irish stay at home mother. His first home was a bedsit in South West London before he and his mother moved back to Northern Ireland when he was two years old. 

Looking back on his childhood, David said: “Early childhood was relatively uneventful, other than growing up in a predominantly white world; and quite clearly feeling like the ‘odd one out’. Not only because of my skin colouring (which, at the time, was something of a scarcity in the County Down town where I grew up), but also because I was born with a disability which made me stand out even more (for what felt at the time like all the wrong reasons). 

“Like most kids, I would have much preferred to have blended in with my friends and peers and often thought that it must be nice to, on occasions, be inconspicuous.

“Racism (well, certainly the overt kind) did not trouble me too much. There were undoubtedly times when I was called names, including the ‘n’ word, but what child isn’t called names? 

“There were, however, a few particularly memorable incidents.  One was when (at the age of around9 or 10) I got into an argument / scuffle with a kid in the neighbourhood (as kids often do). However,next thing I remember was the boy’s father coming towards me using expletives and suggesting that, if I ever laid hands on his boy again, he would kick me ‘back to the jungle, where I belonged…’

“That was a humiliating experience, not least because it took place in front of my peers. Whilst no physical contact took place, the psychological impact stayed with me for quite some time.”

“But, you know, life wasn’t all bad for a kid who grew up in a working class one-parent family. My lucky break came when I applied for and got a Casual Administrative Assistant position with the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Being exposed to and surrounded by a diverse range of welcoming people (I felt a sense of inclusion and belonging) gave me a flavour of what was possible. It motivated me to go to night class and take a BTEC Higher National Certificate course in Business and Finance. 

“This gave me a taste for academia and, whilst working full time in a range of different public service organisations and progressing through a number of positions and grades, I went on to complete a degree in Business Studies, followed by a master’s degree in Human Resource Management.”

“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Malcolm X

David continues: “I hold this quote very dear because I truly believe that, with the right motivation and mind-set, education can create social mobility and can change lives and futures. I now teach Level Five and Level Seven courses in Human Resource Management and Leadership at a local college, in addition to my work in the Police Service, and I often recite the above quote to my students.

“Being black (or half black in his case) in a predominantly white society undoubtedly presents challenges, but the true measure is how the challenges are embraced.

“Who would ever have thought that the young, black disabled kid, from the broken home (who left secondary education with minimal qualifications) would now be sitting where he is, and doing what he does? 

“Nothing to be angry about and everything to be thankful for.”