Rakhi Patel-Nair on being D&I personified

Our first character profile of the new decade is scientist and ‘Despora’ model, Rakhi Patel-Nair. Growing up she grappled with the multi-faceted nature of her identity as a ‘queer brown woman’, only seeing the separate elements of her identity represented in media. She shares how she is learning to overcome feeling self-conscious, by intertwining the different facets of herself together.


Rakhi Patel-Nair (right) photographed with wife, Manju. Shot by Lou Jasmine, for Despora 2019

What's your name and what do you do?

My name is Rakhi Patel-Nair. I am a scientist, and a Shiatsu practitioner.

How does your identity affect your work and your life in general?

I feel that my identity is made up of so many different parts of me, such as: gender queer, androgynous, queer/dyke/gay, British Indian-African, scientist, thinker-doer, introvert, wife, daughter/other son, daughter-in-law, little sister, sister-in-law, aunt, etc. In terms of how my identity affects my work and life in general: My logic based, detail-oriented brain has led me into a career path evolution as a scientist, specialised in tissue diagnostics - a career that I enjoy and thrive in.

In parallel, my curious nature and love of both healing touch and science, has had me develop also as a Shiatsu practitioner. Growing up, I grappled with expectations of me versus my feelings/exploration of who I am, and my identity. Feeling unsure whether it was okay/safe to openly be me, in some respects until very recently, I kept parts of my life sectioned off from each other: my family, different groups of friends, my queerness, work. As I get older all these different parts of me are interacting more and more, and I am feeling more and more whole, and less and less self-conscious, particularly of my gender identity. It’s accessing all areas of my life now, including family, straight social world, work environment, and neighbourhood.

Who have been your role models and why?

My role models include my mum and sister as strong independent women, or ‘powerhouses’ my wife calls them. Then, in addition to them, my brother, aunts and uncles, all free-thinkers who do not allow themselves to be constrained by expectations but are both open and active boundary pushers just by being themselves, without shame or apology, but with gentle strength. Most recently, my wife, who I see as brave and openhearted, who with her nature, opens hearts and changes minds, including mine.

Do you think other people see you differently to how you see yourself?

Very much! I think there’s my belief and expression of myself then also how people receive me. Some things that people have said about their first impression of me: sure of myself, decisive, confident, standoffish/ arrogant at first, friendly, happy-go-lucky... So many different perceptions, that will all be governed by whatever is going on in any particular moment both for them and me.

As for impressions created over time: yes, there's still the element of different people experience different parts of me, and maybe nobody truly sees the whole, for example, my heritage is Indian/Asian, yet I’ve had work colleagues come to me and talk of other Asian colleagues as ‘the other.’ This has left me wondering what it is about me that makes them feel aligned with me, and that I am not aligned with my heritage, perhaps my Asian colleagues have a more physical and verbal expression of their Asian heritage than I do, though I feel I’m not hiding anything. I am just being me.

Do you see yourself in advertising and marketing?

Not particularly. But I do see that I represent parts of social demography, in the different parts of my identity, so yes, I am a walking advertisement/representation of these parts, and sums of those parts.

Are you tired of hearing about diversity and inclusion?

There are so many different layers of diversity and inclusion that I enjoy hearing the different and evolving conversations.

What one thing would you say to your younger self?

Be you. Take the time to express yourself to your loved ones in language that is familiar to them, it’s an ongoing communication. Don't worry, everything will be ok. Love will surprise you.