Over the last several weeks I’ve been quiet on here because I’ve been doing a lot of listening, reading, and thinking as we’ve seen problems that have been around for centuries come to the fore in ways that they haven’t in my lifetime.
I’m not going to respond to particular people or incidents, but in recent weeks, we’ve seen people with power over life and death choose death. And we’ve seen people with the social and/or political power to shape public opinion choose to stir up hate.
I’ve seen individuals get defensive and defend their privilege when they’ve felt threatened by others simply asking for life and equality. I’ve also seen individuals recognise their privilege and lack of understanding as a problem that they need to address – these are the people who give me hope.
Some of the issues I’m responding to here have had more press coverage than others, but they are interrelated. We can’t talk about race to the exclusion of gender or sexuality, or vice versa; and we can’t talk about any of these things without class, education, nationality, health, neurodiversity … Human beings are complex, and we don’t fit comfortably into the boxes we’re asked to tick on monitoring forms.
This post will focus more on race than other issues because race is putting more people’s lives at risk than anything else right now. Or in the terms of Chris Straub’s cartoon, race is the house that’s being gutted by fire, while the other issues I’ll touch on have burning embers on the rooftops that are threatening to engulf the whole structure.
Why am I addressing this here?
I grew up in the States, and when I was a child, on the rare occasion that race came up, the adults around me were very uncomfortable. The attitude seemed to be that if we didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t be a problem. Gender and sexuality just weren’t discussed when I was a kid – I was in a cisgender, heteronormative bubble. Attitudes and awareness have changed dramatically among those I grew up with, but that’s not enough. If you’ve paid any attention to the news at all lately, you’ll have seen the tragic consequences of societies that haven’t, as a whole, learned to embrace difference.
In recent weeks, I’ve watched the various business communities I’m part of struggle to decide whether they should ‘just focus on business and carry on as usual’ or ‘address the issues of the day’. You’ve no doubt guessed which side I’ve taken in this debate.
As a business owner, I feel I owe it to my current and potential clients to let them know where I stand. I’ve seen other business owners worry that taking a stand will cause them to lose clients. I understand their concern, but I know that the people who will refuse to work with me (and some will) because of this post or the Black Lives Matter banner that’s currently on my website are not my ideal clients. I also know that by taking a stand some of those who have felt marginalised, threatened, or dismissed by others may be more likely to feel safe working with me. Finally, I know that neither this post nor the BLM banner will change a damn thing globally, but I still think they’re important for those who need to know where I stand.
My education, like that of many educated in the US, was whitewashed. A few teachers and professors did what they could to redress the balance by assigning books like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Charles R. Johnson’s Middle Passage, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, or Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But there was only so much they could do to overcome the structural and institutional racism in which they lived and worked.
I was born in Tulsa and educated through degree level in Oklahoma, yet I knew nothing of the Tulsa Race Massacre (1921) until after I finished my PhD. We studied Oklahoma history every year in school, yet there was no meaningful discussion of what happened to the native peoples who had been force marched to the Oklahoma Territory when the US government decided to open it up to white settlers.
These are just two of the massive holes in my understanding of the specific place where I grew up, and they’re minute in comparison to the gaping holes in my understanding of what it’s like to actually navigate this world as a black or brown person.
I read a lot – it’s relatively easy to fill my gaps in historical knowledge. Filling the gaps in my understanding of how other people experience the world is much, much harder. As I’ve watched other white people reach similar conclusions to mine, I’ve been interested to see their reactions. I’ve also seen a lot of black and brown people being asked to explain their experience of the world.
On some occasions, these conversations have been productive because the white people involved recognised that they were asking someone to spend time, energy, and emotional labour on educating them. These were presented as the beginning of an ongoing discussion, while also putting in place clear boundaries around the educators’ time and energy.
Less fruitful have been the white people who fail to see their privilege in asking a black person to 1) speak for all black people and to 2) condense the ‘black experience’ into a soundbite.
To the white people reading this: we must find a way to educate ourselves without putting black and brown people in these untenable positions – black lives are not soundbites. We don’t get to wallow in guilt or make it the responsibility of those who have been harmed by our privilege to make us feel better. If you’ve been sharing ‘all lives matter’ posts, stop. If you’ve been posting that you don’t see colour, stop. When you counter a BLM post with an ‘all lives matter’ post, you are denying the fact that racism is a problem that urgently needs to be addressed. When you claim you don’t see colour, you are announcing you don’t (or choose not to) see the ways in which racism threatens the lives of black and brown people.
What do my current and future clients need to know about race and me?
You need to know that though I would never promise to get it right every time, I’m trying to learn. I’m learning to recognise and challenge structural and institutional racism. I’m learning the real race history of both of my countries (I’ve lived in the UK since 2007). I’m filling the gaps in my understanding.
My education has served me better on these issues, and a lot of my scholarly work made use of gender theory, queer theory, feminist studies, and masculinities studies. That said, there’s always more to learn.
You’ve likely encountered the acronym LGBTQ before now (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer [or sometimes Questioning]). So why have I added a +? The plus is to include other nonnormative identities including, but not limited to, intersex (a person whose body isn’t clearly male or female), asexual (someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction), and pansexual (someone whose sexuality is fluid and not tied to gender).
I’m discussing LGBTQ+ rights here because sexuality and gender have been used to marginalise and discriminate against people.
First, we need to be clear that though the acronym encompasses both sexualities and genders, sexuality and gender are not the same. Broadly speaking, sexuality refers to how you experience romantic and/or sexual attraction, while gender refers to whether you identify as masculine, feminine, or nonbinary.
Western culture has tended to treat cisgender heterosexual (cishet) as the norm. What does this mean in ‘plain’ English? Cisgender = your gender matches the one assigned at birth based on your genitals; heterosexual = straight.
Many, many cishet people never question their own lived experience of either sexuality or gender, nor do they realise that other people experience life very differently to them. These people tend to assume that their cishet experience is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ and any other experience is an aberrant choice. I understand it can be uncomfortable for them to realise that just as they never chose to be cishet, being gay isn’t a choice. Neither is being bi or trans or asexual … Despite their discomfort, I think people need to be challenged to understand that the world is more varied than their cishet bubble, and all those other ways of being in the world are legitimate.
We won’t have a peaceful, inclusive society until people embrace diversity. This is made painfully clear by the cishet people – all too often those with physical and/or poltical power – who react with violence (physical, institutional, and/or structural) when faced with people from the LGBTQ+ community. Discrimination against this group is wide ranging: from facing lethal force at the hands of law enforcement or individuals feeling excluded by a data collection form that assumes binary gender (i.e. that everyone is either male or female).
Both of my countries are making moves towards being more inclusive (legalising same sex marriage, for example), but we have a long, long way to go.
What do my current and future clients need to know about LGBTQ+ rights and me?
They need to know that as with race, I won’t promise to always get it right, but I’m trying. I’m learning to recognise and challenge structural and institutional discrimination. I’m also learning to recognise and challenge my own assumptions about gender and sexuality and how they influence people’s experiences of the world and others’ encounters with me.