Writing | my business and a pleasure

Category: Thinking out loud

This might be stuff I’ve overheard or read or, quite frequently, random ideas that pop into my head without explanation

Facing facts

Toppling statues doesn’t destroy history

On March 7 2020, there were mass gatherings in cities across the UK to demonstrate solidarity with the movement Black Lives Matter. Everyone from our household went to our nearest one: my son and his girlfriend; my daughter with a couple of college friends, and I went with my partner and our youngest daughter. 

It was well organised, peaceful and incredibly moving to listen to various people speak of their own personal experiences of being black in this country – specifically Cambridge, where we live. 

I listened to a young man describe how at the age of six, he was coming back home from the shop with his big brother, when the police stopped his brother and started interrogating him and held him. Even though he was minutes away from his home and was with his little brother casually walking along with shopping for their mum, the police said they stopped him because he matched the description of a robber that had been reported. 

In what way did he match the description? He was black. 

The memory of that incident had stayed with the boy all his life. The boy is now a young man in his early 20s and has had plenty of first-hand experiences of racism since the one he described. He got choked up remembering how confusing and upsetting it was to see his big brother being wrongly accused of criminal activity – purely because of the colour of his skin.

A while later, his older brother took the mic and said how he had found it moving to listen to his little brother’s recollection of that incident, because for him, by the age of 14, it was just one of many similar incidents. He remembered crying all the way home from school one time and trying to hide it from his Mum by going straight to the shower and locking himself in. He told her his eyes were puffy because he’d got shampoo in his eyes. Yes, by the time he was 14 he was obviously used to name-calling and wrongful accusations. 

Those boys grew up learning that whenever they went out anywhere, they could never be sure if they were going to be stopped and questioned or if someone was going to hurl abuse at them. 

I try to imagine how that would feel. 

I think about how it felt earlier in the lockdown – before we all started to acclimatise and get used to the dodge and dance of distancing – how inhumane it felt to have others cross the road when they saw you or to get accusing glances if you seemed to be socialising in a public space. Such behaviours are reasonable under the circumstances; there’s nothing reasonable about racism. 

I think about the fear I have as a woman out on my own, obliged to consider whether a route is safe and choosing carefully where to sit on a bus or a tube train. There’s nothing reasonable about sexism either. 

The mother of these two young men, Letitia, stood up and spoke. She described herself as a middle-class mother. She described moving into a middle-class village on the outskirts of Cambridge, where we imagine people would behave in a civil and neighbourly fashion. But it no matter how good a job she had, or how well she looked after her garden, no matter how politely she brought up her three sons to behave, no matter how hard they worked at school, and how many extra-curricular activities she took them to, she and her family didn’t fit in. Why? 

Over all the years of living here, and bringing up her three boys, she has had to fight for them in every institution they’ve enrolled in: nursery, primary school, scouts, secondary school, football club… she’d even written to FIFA to complain about the treatment her boys had experienced and FIFA responded by saying they were aware of the racist behaviours in football, but they weren’t going to do anything about it.

It’s fair to say that, I’ve experienced prejudice as a woman and I’ve experienced prejudice as a northerner who moved south when I went to university; I’ve also experienced prejudice from northerners when I went back home and my accent had softened slightly… but none of these experiences are as anything compared with the experience of these boys and this woman. Listening to their stories really brought home to me that I do not have a clue what it is like to walk in their shoes in this country.

For me, taking the knee is not only an act of solidarity; it is a small gesture of atonement. Because I’m not black. My parents were not black. My grandparents were not black. And they all lived through times when they could enjoy freedoms that people with black skin could not enjoy. And, while they never intentionally seat out to cause any harm to anyone, they did nothing to change the status quo. I feel, in some measure that I need to atone for the words bandied about in my family when I was six. One memory that stays with me from that age is asking what the word ‘paki’ meant, and my Mum telling me I wasn’t to use that word and that my auntie should not have used it either.

But she had used it. And I had heard it. And I was aware of the awkwardness around it. And that’s how all children start to learn this warped idea that we are different; that there are ‘others’ who ‘don’t belong’ and you can tell they don’t belong because of their skin colour. 

I grew up in Blackpool in the 1970s and there really wasn’t much opportunity to find out about people with different ethnic backgrounds; I think I can count on one hand the number of ethnic minorities at my state secondary school. I dread to think how it felt for that tiny minority whose parents had had the courage to make this place their home. 

But whenever we went to visit my relatives in Bolton, where I was born and where my relatives lived, there was plenty of talk about ethnicity. And the talk was rarely kind.

My father’s childhood home was a terraced house on Higher Swan Lane. His spinster sister still lived there long after their parents had died and she would tell us how she had to walk that bit further to get the cakes she wanted because the local baker had stopped selling custard tarts and Eccles cakes. For her embroidery threads she had to go all the way into the town centre on the bus now, because the local haberdashery had become a sari shop. 

She was living in the middle of a rapidly changing community and obliged to adapt and get on with people who had moved here from Pakistan and Bangladesh, but my father came away from the place he used to call home and he struggled with the radical changes. His confusion and resentment fed the language he used and, as soon as I was old enough to argue back, it was the source of a lot of strife between us. Looking back, it seems as if I was more bothered by it (or maybe just more vocal about it bothering me) than other of my siblings (I have three brothers and three sisters). It troubles me deeply that, even now, after both parents have passed away, the old racist tendencies I argued with my father about, live on in two of my siblings. My eldest brother, for example has quite the repertoire of racist and antisemitic jokes and comments. (And yes, he voted to leave the EU. And yes, he thinks Boris Johnson is doing a great job.) 

When I was ten, my older siblings were my heroes, but recently I stopped even trying to engage with my eldest brother, because more often than not, I end up being upset and the line I get from my other siblings is, “What did you expect?”

I suppose I expected my brother to continue being someone I could feel proud of. Like the brother I looked up to when I was six. But that’s not the case any more. I can expect him to do and say whatever he wants without regard for others. Because that’s what he’s always been allowed to do. Because nobody likes the confrontation.

That’s how bullying works: bullies use everything in their weaponry to wear you down, mock, deride and hurt. Like sexists. Like racists.

That’s why I won’t stop speaking up.

As I was kneeling on Parkers’ Piece for that one minute on Saturday I thought to myself how many times in the course of my life I’ve heard and read similar stories to the one about George Floyd. I thought about the 24-hour vigil outside the South African Embassy for the duration of Nelson Mandela’s captivity. And I thought how many other stories I’ve not heard of terrible, devastating experiences that people have had to live through because of the wilful ignorance of people with the same skin colour as mine. People who have never known – and will probably never know – how much it means to be able to walk down the road to the shop and know you won’t be stopped or looked at or suspected of something you would never dream of doing. That is white privilege for you. 

It is the same white privilege that declares they are appalled to see a statue toppled. A statue of a man that they had never previously heard of in a location they may well never have visited. “By destroying the statue, they are trying to destroy history,” I saw one person claim on Twitter yesterday.

That claim alone speaks volumes for the ignorance that lives among us. Because history is one thing you cannot destroy – no matter which way you want to write it and no matter how many statues of slave-owners we tear down. The facts speak for themselves and it’s time we owned up to them, because one day in the future the facts will expose wilful ignorance for just that.

Links

  • https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/diversecollections/

I have a dream too… of a future without sexism and inequality

Last Monday morning, I watched Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech at the 75th Golden Globes ceremony and tears ran down my face. I’ve followed the #EverydaySexism project for a few years and watched with interest as the #MeToo movement evolved. Like many, I’ve had my own experiences of sexual harassment and assault to wrestle with in my (not yet published) work. As I listened to Oprah’s words and watched the rapturous response in the LA auditorium, the sense of relief that washed over me was overwhelming.

“For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.”

Hope in dark times

It is a powerful rallying cry to end sexist behaviour once and for all. #TimesUp immediately joined #MeToo as the watchwords for equality. Towards the end of her speech, Oprah mentions all the people she’s interviewed who have endured and overcome hard times and their singular ability to maintain hope for a brighter day. When she makes her promise of a new, brighter day is on the horizon, it is redolent of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ and the joyful response in the room as everyone stands reinforces just how important hope is in complicated times.

It brought to mind my feelings at a recent storytelling event, ‘Do Justice: Voices of the Civil Rights Movement’, when the audience members were invited to link arms and sing together the words of the protest song:

Martin Luther King links arms with Rev Theodore Hesburgh at a civil rights rally in Chicago, 1964 – the same year Sidney Poitier was awarded the Cecil B De Mille prize at the Golden Globes

“We shall overcome. We shall overcome.
Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome some day.”

We crossed arms and each others hands with one another in the same way that civil rights marchers linked arms, to demonstrate to each there and the world that their struggle was shared and to show their solidarity. The black dress code at the Golden Globes and the unanimous standing ovation in response to Oprah’s speech did the same for feminism and #MeToo. It all gives me hope that, one day, women might finally be listened to and taken seriously when we say we have not been treated as equals or given the respect or kindness that we deserve.

Wake-up call

I was jolted from my reverie of a warm rosy future by a text from a friend. She was alerting me to some unpleasant exchanges she’d seen in a message group our 10-year-old daughters are in. The dawning of that day that Oprah referred to in her speech suddenly seemed a long way off.

In a single moment, my friend’s text served to remind me that I am nowhere near diligent enough about monitoring my children’s online activity and, simultaneously, that I am so fortunate to have a friend who is. As soon as my girl came home from school, I would have to look at her phone to see what level of unpleasantness I needed to deal with. In the meantime, I had to shelve this dilemma and get on with my work.

Later, over lunch, a colleague told me how her child had come home from school, upset by something her teacher had said during a discussion on the week’s news. He had been responding to Oprah’s speech.

Old-school ideas

‘When I was young,’ he’d pontificated, ‘men went to work to earn money and that worked fine. Then there was feminism in the seventies and afterwards everything seemed to settle down a bit. Now it seems to have flared up again.’

It was the kind of thing – and I doubt I’m alone in this – that, as a teenager, I used to hear from my own Dad. I would argue long and hard with him any time he even hinted at inequality and, even though I didn’t always win, I ultimately dismissed such views as outdated and irrelevant; the boys I was friends with didn’t think like that. With hindsight, I can appreciate that not everyone feels fortunate enough to have those arguments, but I grew up in a home where healthy debate and argument didn’t lead to violent repercussions.

But this 13-year-old girl had been sitting in a classroom and these words had been uttered by her teacher. What were the chances that his remarks could lead to healthy debate? What thirteen-year-old girl would have the strength or confidence to stand up and ask, “Who did it work fine for?” for example. Or to question his use of the term “flare up” in reference to a human rights campaign? I had to wonder if he had passed this remark in the school staffroom, how many of his adult peers would have bothered to call him out on the kind of language he was using.

I’ve had similar disputes in the last year with two of my own siblings*. Disputes where I have had to pick them up on their misogynistic attitudes and where their response has been to dismiss my arguments as ‘political correctness gone mad’. When one of my brothers told me he thought the actresses who went to Harvey Weinstein’s room knew what they were doing and ‘a certain transaction’ would take place, the fury of my reaction coloured the air with shades of blue I don’t know the names of.

Safe place for debate

I feel safe enough to have rows like this with siblings, as I’m confident there’s little they can do to affect my income or my well-being on a day-to-day business. Could I say the same if these opinions came from a figure of authority? If they were uttered by the person who decides whether I have a job tomorrow? Or a home to rent? I call myself a feminist and I’m certainly more outspoken than most, but I’m not sure I can say, hand on heart, that I would.

Later on in the day, when I was doing the usual domestic admin job of checking and responding to emails about my kids’ extracurricular activities and lift-sharing, I read the message from another friend telling me that her 10-year-old daughter was having a rough time at school because a boy in her class was being particularly unkind to her; he’d told her that she had a monobrow and that she ought to wax her legs. The mother wanted to know if my little girl had had any similar experiences.

I pondered on it.

My daughter tells me at length what goes on at school. She tells me that there are a couple of boys at school who frequently do and say things to her and her friends that they find annoying. At the time of telling, I am usually most concerned with how she’s handled the situation and how she feels. I’m relieved to hear that she stands up for herself and others, and walks away from the situation. Nine times out of ten, when I ask her if she wants me to go into school, she’s not bothered and so we leave it.

I stopped pondering and asked my daughter to please show me the group chat on her phone.

What started off as a fairly innocuous chat between boys and girls rapidly deteriorated as a certain individual joined the chat. The further I scrolled, the more gob-smacked I was by what I was reading.

Bad versus toxic

For the record, I have no objection to swearing; I am completely with Stephen Fry on this, and anyone who knows me can bear witness to the fact that I relish using choice swearwords to add impact or humour of a story. But this boy’s rich repertoire of profanity is right up there with a Gangsta rapper for sexism and misogyny. And he’d probably take that as a compliment.

‘She’s a bitch’

‘Her friend’s a sket.’**

The girls call him out, ask him to stop swearing, but he continues.

‘I can call her a cunt if I like.’

A girl removes him from the chat.

A boy adds him back in and the rich language returns.

‘She’s my ho’

The girls try to ignore him and discuss something they’re doing at school, which he ridicules.

‘What you are doing is so gay.’

A girl removes him.

A boy adds him back in.

A girl gives some praise to one of the boys learning the guitar.

‘She gets wet just when she sees him.’

A girl removes him.

Another girl adds him back in much to the astonishment of my daughter and she later finds out that her brother had stolen her phone and adds the offending boy back in.

And then a picture of the Klu Klux Clan is posted to illustrate what he thinks of the girls removing him from the chat.

It’s just toxic.

But, horribly, what I read had a familiar ring to it. It was like a script of scenarios I hear played out in the real world time and again. The only difference being that here the verbal assault is written not spoken. The girls’ discomfort and repeated objections are evident; the silent collaboration of the other boys is visible. But this exchange was between children I know.

It gave me the biggest wake-up call I have had in a long time.

I’m a feminist and I thought I had brought my kids up to recognise prejudice and to do the right thing when they see someone being picked on or excluded. Through books and films, news stories and all the surrounding discussions about why people behave in certain ways and what the consequences might be, I thought I was doing enough.

Until now.

The right language

When Oprah said that #MeToo is not a story confined to the entertainment industry, it was a huge understatement. The broken culture that she describes affects all our politics and all our workplaces and, precisely because it’s in music, film, and entertainment, it’s in our homes and schools; of course it affects our children’s lives as much as our own.

What I’ve heard and read this week has seriously woken me up to the fact that activism means just that. It’s not passively watching others try to solve the problems and hoping. If I’m going to effect any real positive change, it means I really do have to keep my eyes and ears open and give my kids all the tools they need to work on it with me.

A few days ago, my daughter described a boy’s behaviour towards her and her friends as ‘just annoying’. She couldn’t express how or why it was annoying, because nobody had yet given her the language. Now she knows what the word misogyny means; she knows about #MeToo, and she knows to look out for sexist behaviour and language and to call it out for what it is.

 

Notes

* I’ve got six siblings; they don’t all have these views.

** sket was a new one on me, but thanks to the 10-year-old user of this term posting a screenshot of his favourite app (suggested usage: 17+), I now know that it’s a ‘scabby slut’.

Links

Oprah Winfrey’s 2018 Golden Globes speech

Me Too Movement

Time’s Up Movement to fight sexual inequality in the workplace

The Everyday Sexism Project

What parents can do to stop sexual harassment

Government guidelines on sexual harassment in school (December 2017)

Research and statistics on sexism in schools

Adults respond to Oprah’s speech

 

I wrote some handwritten letters this week.

I’m not sure if they’ve arrived at their destination yet. There is no set of grey ticks anywhere to tell me they’ve been delivered. There is no set of blue ticks to subsequently let me know that they’ve been opened and read.

And there’s something quite delicious and mysterious in the not knowing. I don’t know if the recipients will respond in kind. It would be nice if they did, but I won’t mind if they don’t. Because that’s not the point. I didn’t write the letters in the same way that I write emails. If I’m honest, I think I wrote the letters to remind myself that, while I enjoy the many varied interactions I have with people on social media, away from the screen, each interaction I have is as unique and through-provoking as the person I am sharing it with.

That is special.

Away from the screen, I can connect with a person and remind myself (and hopefully them too) that the connection we share is unique to us and that they are not just one of the many.

This week I also received a handwritten note. It was a thank-you note and while I am sure it was written with genuine affection and thought, I later discovered that someone else had received a note from the same person and it was almost identical. There were no extra frilly bits to remind either of us that we were unique. Any potential fizz I had first tasted in receiving that note now felt flat.

The thing is, when people say that letter writing is a lost art, I don’t think it is just the simple pleasure of seeing handwriting on a page that they are pining for;  it is the lost art of communication. Many people think that communicating is simply telling or broadcasting.

It’s not.

It’s the art of remembering that the person you are writing to has their own thoughts and feelings; their own expectations of you and their own interpretation of what you write. It’s not enough to simply tell something and expect your reader or listener to be an empty vessel, ready and waiting to be filled up with whatever words you feel ready to put into them. That is not how communication works. It’s a two-way thing. The person on the receiving end needs to feel involved as well.

(This is a big subject for me, and I’m sure I’ll be writing more about it, but another deadline beckons, so I’ll get back to you later!)

These thoughts were inspired by a piece by Jon McGregor in The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/nov/26/from-me-with-love-lost-art-letter-writing?CMP=share_btn_link

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