He sat down behind me and as the room waited for the talk to begin he spoke loudly to the woman he was accompanying. The thing is, I’ve been to a few of these things… More
A few weeks ago I’d forgotten I was pissed off with Grazia for 1. photoshopping Lupita Nyong’o’s hair and 2. pretending it was the fault of an errant photographer who had no input from anyone at the magazine, and I was enticed into buying a copy by a front cover strap-line that read, How to have the pay gap chat.
The article was pretty standard fair for Grazia – a broadbrush presentation of the issue with a little too much emphasis on individual women “standing up for themselves” for my taste, but I was happy to see the issue being explored in such a mainstream magazine.
Pages later I was less happy after reading a column headlined I’ve dumped my mum friends who treat their husbands like an extra child, accompanied by the strapline, Celine Smith is tired of her female friends letting partners shirk parental responsibility…
For a moment I wondered whether I was the one getting it wrong. Strong opinions tend to have this effect on me – other people’s certainty always makes me wonder if there is some truth in what they are saying.
I wondered whether women are being complicit in “letting” their male partners behave like children while they are late for dinner with their friends, don’t leave the house without the kids for FOUR YEARS (Celine’s capitals), and are generally treating their partners “like the teenager down the road you pay a tenner an hour”.
For a moment I wondered whether the responsibility does lie with women to dig their heels in and take no shit, while men can’t really be blamed for taking advantage of a dynamic that benefits them.
For a moment.
Because of course, the over-riding gargantuan factor that Celine seems to have failed to take into account is this: GUILT.
The truth is that even her “forward-thinking friends” have been born and raised in a patriarchal society that feeds us the narrative that women are nurturers, bound to the domestic, while men are “hunters” doing “stuff’ in public. Even when we’re aware these constructed roles are houses built on sand, the pressure to conform often overrides our core beliefs and leave us riddled with guilt.
What Celine fails to recognise in her angry diatribe against the friends that have let her down, is that whichever way a mother has it there is guilt to be found: if she stays at home with the children she “fails” because she is “economically inactive” and does not contribute to society in the way it values: money. If she goes out to work and pursues a career she “fails” because she betrays her “natural” role as a mother. If she works part-time in a position below her pay-grade she is “failing” to capitalise on her potential. If she attempts to pursue a career part-time while raising a family she “fails” because she will do neither “properly”.
Meanwhile men are lauded for picking up their share of the burden. We can all tell a version of the story, husband takes child to school one morning a year and Mum, who takes child to school every day, is greeted at the school gates at the end of that day with comments like, “oh he’s a good egg…”
Basically any man who takes ownership of his share (any share – I mean we might be talking crumbs here) of the domestic burden is treated like a hero, while the woman who hands it to him is treated like a failure, probably including by herself.
And before anyone messages me anything along the lines of “oh you just hate men”, this isn’t an attack on individual men. It’s more that in our efforts to deconstruct gendered roles and create actual freedom of choice for both women and men, the last thing we need is Celine telling us that gender disparity is our fault for letting it happen…
Given the reason why I even bought the magazine in the first place, it is ironic that an extension of Celine’s attitude is often seen in opposition to the idea of the gender pay gap. It’s validity is thrown into question with Well, we’re not comparing like with like, there are more men in higher paying positions, and women choose to pursue careers that pay less, which brazenly fail to understand that THIS IS THE POINT. What needs to be discussed is WHY? What are the structural and cultural barriers standing in the way of women on their way to, and once they’re in, the workplace?
And what dear, misguided Celine needs is the friends she has dumped to sit her down with a glass of something cold or a cup of something hot, and explain that going after the women who “allow” men to take the piss is a self-defeating distraction. The question she should be asking is, “And why is that?”.
Image credit to Rebecca Strickson
Like most of us, I love my kids more than life itself and they were a major driving force in my change of direction two years ago when I ended my career as a teacher. So why do I now find myself pursuing a version of success that is damaging to the life I had in mind when I made that decision?
Since then I have spent six months as a full-time stay at home mum; six months juggling those responsibilities alongside retraining; and the last twelve months juggling part-time flexible work alongside being the primary carer.
These days our childcare arrangements mean I work two days spread across three while the rest of the time I look after our two children. I thought I’d found the solution to pursuing meaningful work while balancing the demands of family life, so why do I find myself worn down by repeatedly working into the evenings and at weekends? Why do I find myself thinking about work when I should be focused on my children? And why do I find myself frustrated by the limitations placed on my success by the demands of being their primary carer?
Well, partly because my maths is bad. I have roughly 17 hours of childcare each week spread over three days but, from the beginning, I’ve taken on enough work to fill three actual full-sized days…
But apparently that is not enough of a stretch and as my fledgling business grows I find myself afraid to turn work down, taking on more clients, making more calls, sending more emails, replying to more messages, working more hours, putting my time under more strain, and yes, earning more money.
Because I want to be successful.
But what if I can’t be. Or at least not in the terms of what we are told success looks like?
What if I have to accept time is finite, and so is my sanity? Being the primary carer means that for the sake of both, I have to make a choice.
It doesn’t feel like much of a choice – be the mother I believe my children need, but limit my own achievements outside the home, vs fulfil my potential but perhaps at the cost of my relationship, mental health and the happiness of my children…
When written like that the choice is obvious, but the perhaps in that sentence is key. Toying with the idea that We would be fine! I would be fine! They would be FINE! my mind is in conflict and the resentments run deep because why does it fall to me alone to make this decision?
This is a choice unconsciously influenced a long time ago and the balance of earning power has always been tipped against me. It seems that becoming a primary caregiver was inevitable, whether I liked it or not.
And it’s a choice made sour by the awareness that men typically do not have to make it. In a thirty-something version of a threenager-rage, I stamp my feet and insist, NOT FAIR!
My less charitable moments question the commitment of men to the cause of gender equality – so few take up Shared Parental Leave, or are even prepared to ask for flexible work in order to take on their share of the caring responsibilities. And while I know it’s not straightforward – there are plenty of barriers in their way too – I also catch myself wondering, How hard are you really trying?
I know that partly to blame for all this (middle-class – there is no getting away from the privilege that underlines this whole ramble) angst is my own internalised definition of what success looks like. Society intrinsically links success with our bank balance – an attitude that prioritises what we earn over everything else, and you don’t need me to point out that mothers earn nothing…
I’m not however, suggesting that if mothers were valued more highly we would all be happy baking, rather than winning, our own bread. In fact I’m suggesting the opposite: if motherhood were valued more highly – if caring and nurturing children was viewed as successful in its own right – then perhaps attitudes to fathering could also change. Perhaps if success were defined differently for us all we would all be freed from the need to build up the bank balance to feel like we are winning.
And then, if we saw men and women in equal number sacrificing (or at least slowing down) their careers in order to raise children, it might leave us feeling less pressure to prove that we can do it too, and less resentment if it wasn’t possible. Perhaps it would feel less prickly if our achievements were not limited by biology, but by practicality.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps – ponderings on a fantasy-land are indulgent and definitely don’t help me now. Awareness of the deep-rooted influence of the accepted definition of success doesn’t mean it is easy to break free of that mindset.
Back in the real world, I’m left with That Choice. It feels oddly familiar – I’ve been here before and after investing years into a career I watched it drift away on the winds of change once the small people arrived.
The only thing that is certain is that I’m not getting any extra hours for work any time soon, and if I’m totally honest, I’m not even sure I want them – I remain committed to my original reasons for starting all over again in my career.
It’s this shadow of “success” hanging over me that I need to shake. It’s the resentment that my life hasn’t turned out the way I expected that I need to discard. Rather than planning my life along the lines of what do I want? maybe I have to think more about what I want more; rather than being weighed down by what feels like an admission of defeat, I need to linger longer on the things I’m winning.
Are you finding Facebook gives you face-ache?!
To point fingers at the parents and ask why they didn’t say no is a distraction. To suggest H&M <enter stage left riding their Scandi-white-horse> were acting as moral guardians, reclaiming the word “monkey” and saving black people from its use as a racial slur (a necessary step in securing a post-racial society donchaknow) is so far-fetched I would laugh. If it was funny.
The more likely explanation is that this is another incident to add weight to the argument that when businesses, brands and organisations are largely homogenous and/or unaware, things go wrong.
At best the offending image is tone deaf: it is a symptom of an organisation so steeped in a single story that no one sounded the alarm, or at the very least no one listened.
At worst it is outright racist.
In another life as a teacher I once had to discipline a teenager in my care for calling another child a “monkey” during a dispute. I also had to explain to his father why his son being called “yellow teeth”, while cruel, was not the same.
In amongst the anger and disbelief at the image, plus the consequent reactions of some people, I always try to remember that father is probably not alone in his lack of awareness.
So here goes:
The word “monkey” was used to dehumanise black people in order to justify their enslavement and the brutality of colonial rule. As “monkeys” black people were less intelligent than white people – we were doing them a favour in taking over their lands and putting their natural resources to work making us money. As “monkeys”, black people did not “feel” the same way white people did, so when we bound them in chains, beat the men, raped the women, and stole the children, we could tell ourselves it was just like working and not paying an animal; whipping a mule to make it move faster; mating a cow and a bull to create more livestock. It was all justifiable because black people were “monkeys”; they were not human.
And to anyone who says the word “monkey” is not used as a racial slur anymore (we’re not in the 1980s wrote one Tweeter) – just Google “monkey chants football” to find the easy answer to that.
But beyond who was to blame, and why it was offensive, one more thing has struck me about our reaction.
A day after the offending image went viral across UK social media, the outrage has spread across seas. The heartfelt response from many has been to produce counter-images of the little boy in question: pictures of crowns, the words “king”, and “regal”, have replaced the offending slogan and been reposted across social media.
But not on all parts of social media.
Perhaps it is my own fault for the timeline I have curated, but even when I searched #shame #handm on Instagram for the images it seems to me that most (all?) were being posted and reposted on accounts owned by POC.
But the original picture was not styled, taken, approved and published because the room was full of black people. This image is the result of many, many rooms full of white people, blinkered by their privilige.
This picture and the issue it exposes is, by its very origins, a white people problem.
So why are POC doing all the work to correct sH&Me’s “mistake”?
Why are white people being so quiet? Why aren’t we paying the same attention to this as we do when Oprah makes a speech? Who are we trying to protect by not speaking out?
And I say this from a place a empathy. I am a white woman. Every time I dip my toes into the quagmire that is race relations my insides clench and I question the validity of my voice. We don’t have lived experience so have to finely balance being vocal about the injustices we see, while being respectful to the people who live those injustices every day. We can empathise without speaking for people.
If you find that difficult to navigate then join the club! But if you truly believe in working towards a more equal society then you have to see this risk for what it is – a tiny speck of insignificance in the face of the onslaught of inequality POC experience every day. White people and our feelings are not the priority here.
Instead, the priority must be to voice our dissatisfaction – not meekly behind closed doors, not in a tut of disgust in response to a social media post, not just a comment on something someone else has written. We have to get our hands dirty.
Raising our voices and saying THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE has never been easier. The keyboard warrior is a figure of scorn in some circles because it’s easy to sit at home, post a picture, signal your virtue to the whole world, and go on with the rest of your life unaffected by the actual issue. And I don’t disagree with this criticism – indeed, activism does not and should not stop at the blue light of a phone screen.
But the power of social media is undeniable – #metoo has proven that.
So if you care, if you no longer want to be complicit, but you’re not sure you have the right words, go and read. Go and learn. Do the work. Google shit. Channel your anger – don’t ignore it because you can and the issue is not “yours”.
In the same way that women’s rights are not a female issue, racial equality is not a “black” issue. They are both human issues.
And in the meantime, know that your voice counts, your dissatisfaction is valuable, your offence is valid. If you’re still not sure what to say, just say this: “This is wrong. I don’t yet have the words to explain why but I know it in my bones. I stand with you.”
Because yes, we must listen to People of Colour to learn; yes, we have to be careful what we say; but this is not the same as saying nothing at all.
Want to know where to begin?
Google these terms: unconscious bias; white privilege; intersectionality; complicity; inclusion; diversity; micro aggression; whitesplaining
Read Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Read anything and everything here http://www.gal-dem.com/politics/
There is a list of books here http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/16-books-about-race-that-every-white-person-should-read_us_565f37e8e4b08e945fedaf49
And that is just to start you off 😉
What you are about to read here is not revolutionary. It’s probably a version of a hundred different opinion pieces, and if I’m honest that sometimes makes me wonder whether I should bother.
Especially when I write about race.
I am white, I am learning, I am no expert, and I definitely make mistakes at times. I obsess over whether my voice is valid; should I leave the discourse to people who are actually living the issues I write about; is my presence patronising; or even worse am I acting like some kind of white saviour – step aside, they’ll listen to me, for I am white?
But while this might not be perfect or original, maybe it will be the first time one of you has read about these ideas. Maybe there is space for this because it might just encourage one more person to start learning (and unlearning) too.
This blog post has been in the thinking for a few weeks because while diversity and inclusion seeming to be very much “on trend” in the advertising world at the moment – hello John Lewis, Debenhams, McCain, Ikea, River Island advertising campaigns just to name a few – it is concerning how often brands are getting it wrong.
I fear that brands are literally treating inclusion and diversity as a trend. Perhaps they want the zeitgeist light that shines on them as a result of engaging with popular opinion, the problem being it will ultimately be replaced by something else?
Or is that unfair?
Are these brands truly investing in inclusion and diversity, not as part of some patronising pity parade, nor as a PR exercise to make themselves look good, but because they believe inclusivity to be right, as well as recognising the importance of it to the long-term health and wealth of their businesses, organisations and industries?
Two days ago Lupita Nyong’o took to social media to criticise Grazia’s treatment of her hair.
In response she was called ungrateful, over-sensitive and rude. In a fairly typical example of white privilege at play the argument was that no cover stars are given approval on their pictures, while all cover stars are subject to editorial decisions. This is the case regardless of race and Lupita shouldn’t expect special treatment.
What they were all missing however, is the implication of editing black hair.
You don’t have to Google too deep to find accounts of many black women who have already explained that their hair is political, and touching it symbolic of a wider hurt. There is a reason #dtmh – don’t touch my hair – exists on social media.
In (extreme) brief, black hair was forcibly cut and covered up during slave times, so to touch a black woman’s hair either physically, or via the impersonal stroke of a Photoshop cursor, is to echo the acts of violence perpetrated against them over the centuries.
But also, many black women today will talk about how they endure invasions of their personal space as white people ask to touch their hair, play with it, pet it, and call it “difficult”; they will tell you how natural hair is considered unprofessional, and how Eurocentric standards of beauty tell them that afro hair is unattractive.
It’s impossible for me to really understand how this feels, but I do know I have no right to tell someone else how they should feel about it. So tell me again why a black woman shouldn’t complain when part of her hair is edited out of a picture, and the natural texture is removed from the rest?
And while you’re at it, perhaps you can tell me why an apology that amounts to nothing more than ducking blame and playground finger-pointing should be treated with anything other than derision?
Having already got it wrong, Grazia’s apology then compounded the insult by failing to demonstrate a willingness to listen and learn. They had an opportunity to embrace what Lupita called out, and to influence the attitudes of thousands of white women more effectively than endless silent covers of voiceless black faces.
And they fucked it.
The statement lacked any acknowledgement of the hurt the cover caused. There was no attempt to engage with the explanation that Lupita provided as to why she found the cover insulting. There was no attempt to learn.
So while the question Whose fault is this? is important, the bigger question becomes How inclusive are you really, Grazia? Who is in charge? Who is on the editorial staff? Whose voices are being listened to behind the scenes when decisions are being made? Who is on the PR team that put together that apology?
94% of journalists in Britain are white, compared to 87% of the general workforce; 3% of the UK population is black, compared to only 0.2% of working journalists; 7% of the general population are Asian, compared to just 2.5% of working journalists*. The more senior the position the worse the imbalance gets, the irony being that publications only suffer as a result of their thudding uniformity.
I’d like to think that most white people do not believe that POC are less able than we are, so why the resistance? Surely we have to be ready to accept there is something underhand at play here?
Because let’s not pretend this is an issue that only faces journalism. On this occasion Grazia got it wrong but we only have to look back at the last few months to know that a lack of representation in The Room, stretches much further: Pepsi created an advert that took a life and death issue and turned it into a commercial opportunity, while delivering the double blow of a white saviour coming to the rescue; Dove recently declared a product was for use on Normal to Dark Skin; Boden designed a skirt for children full of mermaids with only white skin and long European hair, and then posted proudly about it on Instagram; and L’Oreal sacked black, trans model Munroe Bergdorf after it revealed she had previously spoken out against white supremacy.
We all know these examples are only a fraction of what is really going on in businesses, institutions and industries up and down our country, so while increasing the visibility of POC is important, we also have to turn up the volume at which we hear their voices.
It is not good enough for brands to promote themselves using images of POC, while failing to engage with the issues POC face. It is not good enough to apologise after the event when it could have been avoided entirely if your workforce was more diverse. Responsibility has to be owned and actions have to be taken because representation everywhere matters.
It’s important to say from the start that I know this is not a real problem.
It’s a week since I threw my toys out of my pram, had a tantrum and realised I needed to prioritise a few things above Instagram.
I wish I could say it came from a wholistic desire to improve my life with less screen time and more outdoor yogic breathing and green juice. Or something. But the main drivers were actually a need to concentrate on my relationships; work that paid cash money; and a gasping need for some headspace.
First though, came fear. Contrary to the FOMO comparison culture that we’re warned about when on social media, rather selfishly I was not nervous about missing out on what other people were up to, and I wasn’t bothered about being involved (ok, maybe a bit). More alarmingly, I was fearful of giving up my daily dose of validation.
Pre-procreation me got her double-taps from work. It felt important, and I felt good that I was good at it. A new career has meant starting all over again and confidence is at times in short supply. I’m a dictionary definition for Imposter Syndrome: certainty that I know what I’m doing is fleeting, and it doesn’t take much to knock my confidence.
Motherhood meanwhile offers little opportunity for congratulations on a job well done. Parents hope that at some point in the future someone will stand up at a wedding and say, “Thank you for raising such an awesome human”, but 30 years or so is let’s say, a long-term goal.
For the rest of the time the bulk of the work is unseen and unappreciated accompanied by an additional kick in the teeth that if you’re doing your job well, and raising a child who feels confident and loved, the likelihood is that they will at times make their security clear by being an arsehole.
And contrary to the sacrificial mother-figure we’re expected to be, I have realised that I need validation. I crave feedback; I want to feel like my opinions matter; and I want to feel like I am something other than “just” someone’s mum.
You can call it selfish if you want to, I’m sure there are elements of that in there, but I’m also pretty sure I’m not alone.
The social media explosion of insta-mums, mum bloggers, vloggers and floggers can surely be attributed in part to the current climate of talented women being pushed out of the workforce once project procreation kicks off.
We’ve been sold a dud one – we can’t have it all afterall, and as we wrestle with the knock that delivers to our sense of identity and self-esteem, strangers on the internet become a source of the approval that we don’t get anywhere else.
But that first evening, as the time crept towards my “Optimum Posting Time”, I reminded myself that tonight was not the night and I felt… relieved.
Mining my own life for coherent thoughts and feelings that I deemed thoughtful enough, funny enough, informed enough, good enough, for the internet had become a burden.
And that first evening’s relief was not the only moment. So often I thought, “oh I need to write that down… where is my phone… oh no I’m going to forget… that would make a good picture…that would make a good Story… WHERE IS MY PHONE?” and I found freedom in the realisation that there was no need .
I had been existing in a constant low level of anxiety, always on alert in case one of my mind’s mental tabs closed down. My brain constantly scanned and flickered over thoughts, checking they were still there and not lost in the same vortex of knowledge as The Krebs Cycle (A level biology, 1998), and the Corn Law Reform Act (GCSE History, 1996).
This bonkers pressure – which most insanely of all was completely self-imposed – had to be released. And the manic cheerleader in my mind, who for months had been waving her pompoms of gratitude so that my internal tickertape didn’t turn to the darker side of comparison, needed a rest too.
As a result I was smiling more, and thinking less, taking notice of the kids eating their breakfast, and not plotting my next trip to tidy the toys which would invariably lead to me standing still amongst the debris staring down at my device.
In general though, the house has got messier as my mind has got tidier – it seems lower levels of anxiety equal a lesser desire to control my environment. And my desire to create is back. To write properly, not for social media, but because I like words.
But that’s not to say I’m giving it up. No, because like all the best addicts I’m good at justifying my habit: it’s my job; I learn from it; I get to “meet” people I would otherwise not meet’; and it is a source of inspiration and ideas. But with time to reflect on the damage social media demons are inflicting on my mind, I do have to get control.
So my new rules are that I’m not posting every day, and I’m not posting because I feel I should. You won’t find those two statements anywhere in social media best practice, but maybe applying what works to make an online living, might not be the best approach to actual life.
I’m going to post because I want to. Whenever I wonder whether or not to share pieces like this self-indulgent twaffle, I’m also going to remind myself that this is what is happening in my life, so it might be what is happening in yours.
Because while we all accept that the truth often isn’t pretty, the temptation is to make sure it is always emotive and altruistic. In reality, as embarrassing as it might be to admit, the reality is that honesty is sometimes just horribly self-absorbed.
It’s coming up to that time of year. When social media is flooded with pictures of the first day of school and the words “How is this possible?” are worn thin in disbelief at the inevitable passing of time.
And that is said completely without judgement. Photo reels will be scrolled, “Look how tiny she was” will be exclaimed and tears will definitely be shed. Since having children I’ve become a gifted crier and its my default reaction whenever I’m happy, sad, angry, disappointed, worried, frustrated, or just feel like everyone needs to be a bit nicer to each other because THE WORLD IS GOING TO SHIT… So I am definitely going to cry on Monday 4th September when my girl, my baby, my magic, my star, starts to spend most of her time away from me.
I can’t quite get my head around the fact that she is going to spend five days a week, for most weeks of the year, for the next thirteen years, in a room, with people I don’t know, but she soon will.
I’m struggling with the knowledge that when she walks into that classroom she’s also walking slowly away from needing me quite so much. I’m yearned for that, been desperate for it, and now the time has come I can only think what a dick I’ve been.
But putting all the slushy crap to one side, I have some other more practical/ petty concerns that are taking up way too much space in my head:
- School gate politics. Working mums being frowned upon (yes, really), impenetrable cliques, or the mum who once told a friend of mine not to wear her new trainers on Tuesdays and Thursdays because she had the same pair and that was when she was planning on wearing hers #truestory – the tales I have heard and read about the perils of the playground politics concern me. I know I’ll do what I always do, and hover on the periphery until I’ve sussed the terrain, and I’m sure there will be nice mums too, but I’m not relishing the prospect of dealing with people whose emotional maturity seems to have stalled age six (looking at you mum who ostracised another friend of mine because her child got a small piece of cake in a party bag…)
- Arriving on time. Like, how? Two children, fed, dressed, and walked up a hill before 9am? What witchcraft do you use? I used to get the girl to nursery for 8am when I was working in a non-flexi job, but then she would eat breakfast there. It’s breakfast that is the problem for us. I can wriggle sleepy children into clothes before they leave their bedroom, but considering both my kids can down a tube of Smarties like a yard of ale at Freshers Week (just open your throat, OPEN YOUR THROAT… ah shit…!), it never ceases to amaze me how precise their chewing becomes whenever we need to leave the house in a hurry. They watch each other chew.real.ly.slow.ly. and are steely in their determination to break me. There will be shouting.
- Bullying. Of me (see point 1)… just kidding (sort of). I’m actually worried about the first time the girl comes home to tell me someone has been mean to her. And I don’t mean the “she took my toy” kind of way that it has been up until now – I’m talking about the malicious meanness that kids everywhere are capable of. I already know that looking into her hurt, confused eyes will crush my insides and make me wonder how appropriate it would be to counsel revenge. That saying about parenthood is like wearing your heart outside your body? This is why it’s a cliche.
- The PTA. Being blunt, how do I avoid getting sucked in? I want to be involved, I’ll attend events and bake (buy) some cakes, but I’m really not cut out for being reliable. I can barely manage my life, work, keep small people alive and reply to text messages, nevermind organise socials for mums who will tell me when I’m allowed to wear my trainers and how much cake their kid would like to eat. But I also feel bad when the same people get dumped on over and over again. I need to learn how to be more mean. Maybe those cliques have a point…
- Over-expectations of what I can achieve. For the first time ever I will have both of my children in formal childcare/ education for three whole days a week. I am planning to expand my business, write lots more blogs, project manage a (currently fictional) house renovation and move, hoover behind the settee, clean the oven, wash the wheelie bins, have perfectly manicured nails, wear actual make-up, brush my hair and put together outfits in a way I’ve not yet managed in 36 years. I think I’m going to be disappointed.
Other than that though, I’m really looking forwards to her starting school…
Are you a veteran school-gate mum? Please share reassuring tales of cups of tea, gentle conversation, and people whose politics don’t make you want to stab yourself in the eye with a spoon. Or perhaps you’re a newbie too – what are your dreams and fears?
Becoming a mother unleashes an uncertainty onslaught unmatched by any other stage of life. Under such attack the most useful thing anyone can ever say to a new mother is, “You are the mother your children need. You are enough”.
But what if this isn’t always true?
What if the space of unknowing is so great that it creates a vacuum into which your child can be sucked, chewed up and spat out unrecognisable to herself and those around her?
Because white mothers of brown babies don’t know. We haven’t been there. And as we grapple with the certainty of knowing we should lead by example, we are also struck with the certainty that in some ways we are clueless. We realise we are not enough.
I am a white middle-class(ish) woman. Coming to terms with the privilege that affords me has been a sudden awakening in the last few months and for that I am sorry. I’ve expressed this regret to people who reassure me that I have not done anything “wrong” – people can only operate from their place of awareness – but still I would quite like to sit with that discomfort, own it, and notice how my “instincts” have been muddied with the realisation that they too have been the unsuspecting victims of unconcious bias.
White people in Britain are taught to ignore race – we feel uncomfortable talking about it; even typing the words “white”, “black”, and “people of colour” makes me wince. But of course, we have that privilege – we have the option to ignore race, to pretend it doesn’t make a difference, but when a white woman has brown babies she has to finally sit up and take notice.
So I am reading as much as I can; talking and listening to people who know. I know I have 36 years of unlearning to do and so far I’m somewhere around the third sentence.
I’m not expecting, nor do I want, congratulations for this. I just want to talk about how and what I am learning because in a deepening of the wound of the uncertainty-onslaught motherhood inflicts on us all, I have realised that I’m not qualified to guide my children through the challenges they will face, and it’s sometimes a lonely place.
I’m working through those thoughts by writing because this is what I do. I strive to make sense of my thinking by tip-tapping it out and posting it out there for anyone to see. I invite agreement, challenge, even derision, because it helps to clarify my thinking.
So this is where I begin.
I’ve already got it wrong.
Drowning in Disney images of pale-skinned Princesses, many with blonde hair and blue eyes, I worried in her third year when my daughter repeatedly asked when she would grow “lellow hair”. But I downplayed it.
In a perfect example of Are you sure it was meant like that mentality I told myself that the omnipresence of a Eurocentric standard of beauty didn’t matter that much. When I later watched my daughter swell in prideful recognition that she could be Moana (making allowances for a four years old’s awareness of the different origins of brown people), I jolted awake.
My skin crawled in appalled recognition when I was taught that allowing strangers to touch my daughter’s hair out of curiosity was as inappropriate as allowing them to stroke her skin. I had failed to protect and promote the sanctity of my daughter’s body and have had to ask myself some uncomfortable questions about why.
The creeping truth is I have allowed strangers to pet my child like an exotic animal because I didn’t want to embarrass them by saying no. Crucially, I placed their potential embarrassment above my child’s agency over her own body because I didn’t understand the significance of what was being asked.
The assurances of friends who tell me the whiteout of their commuter-town communities would not pose a problem, were we to take the plunge and move out of London, have been met with the same silence. Why? Because I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable either.
The pretence sees me asserting that my only concerns are that I don’t want my children to stand out by default – if they want to claim their individuality they can dye their hair pink or wear outrageous clothes, I say.
I occasionally go further to explain how I don’t want to live somewhere they are so different that the colour of their skin can be used as their identifiying feature – you know A, the mixed race one. I imagine the words “mixed race” being said in a nasal half-whisper that suggests some sort of discomfort with the words, and I assume we live somewhere everyone understands the term “half-caste” is not ok (but then, we all know what assume did…).
But I usually avoid venturing into the territory of explaining how the colour of my childrens’ skin impacts the way the rest of the world sees them. I rarely explain the ways teachers, peers, other parents, the Police, future employers and employees will treat them differently – unconciously perhaps, but still differently (and I’m including in this the creepy fetishising of mixed race children that happens throughout our society). I avoid talking about it because many white people get defensive, challenge it, and I feel uncomfortable insisting.
Finally, I avoid the white-supremicist-elephant in the room that, in a world where images of Saffiyah Khan, Ieshia Evans and Tess Asplund necessarily go viral; in a society where Katy Hopkins’ vile brand of attention-seeking “straight-talking” has an audience, my children will be safer growing up in London. At least here there will be other people who look like them, with whom they can share their experiences.
It’s telling that the friends who tell me my fears are unfounded are unfailingly white. My mostly left-leaning friends nod to the existence of racism – you can’t be a good lefty if you’re in denial of bigotry – but some also perpetuate a myth that it doesn’t happen where they live. And it’s telling that I don’t set them straight.
I fail to challenge their blindness to the institutional, structural and societal racism that surrounds them, and I fail to point out that the reason they don’t see it is because where they live there are no people of colour to fall victim to it, or they don’t see it because they’re not its target.
Like most white people living in majority white spaces I’ve excused people expressing views that too kindly get called “borderline”. It has been safer and more comfortable for me to pretend they “didn’t mean it like that” but I’ve realised that I have to take responsibility.
I have to risk alienating and offending people. I have to risk being told I’m being over-sensitive. And when my gut tells me what we’re all too afraid to say I have to say it anyway.
I have to do what people of colour have been doing all along while I made excuses.
I’m going to be afraid and uncertain. I’m bound to get it wrong at times (I’m aware even this very blog post might be getting it wrong) but I can’t do nothing. I can’t pretend that there are no difficulties in preparing my children to navigate a relationship with the world that will be completely different to the one I understand. There are going to be times in the future when the teenage refrain, “You don’t understand” is going to carry extra weight and I have to accept that.
So this is my way of starting that journey – openly, honestly, imperfectly.
Because my mixed-race children aged just two and four have already taught me that my dearly held life-long left-wing views are worthless when not deepened by action. It’s uncomfortable to admit that only being genetically invested in their future has prompted this reflection, but I have finally learned it’s not enough to just say “I’m not racist”.
We can stop pretending now, right?
It’s been a month so, confession time… who handed over a present for their dad/ father of their children a few weeks ago, that was a bit crap? Who, at the last minute, cajoled the kids into sitting down to scrawl daddy a card? Or perhaps you didn’t bother at all?
Trust me when I say that those scenarios are suggested without judgement as I too have spent the last four years cultivating a tendancy to casually chuck Father’s Day in the bargain bin, alongside the cut price roses and past their best pumpkins left over from those other fictional celebrations, Valentines Day and Halloween.
In the meantime I annually revel in the outpouring of adoration that accompanies Mother’s Day. I point to the fact that Mother’s Day is in the Bible as evidence of its superiority in a world where card and gift manufacturers invent reasons to get us consuming (Black Friday, anyone?).
But what if Dads, as parents, deserve to be celebrated too? And what if our reluctance to do a proper job of celebrating Father’s Day is a symptom of our failure to take dads seriously on every other day of the year?
It was after reading a piece by Steph Douglas about Father’s Day gifts that I started to question my own habit of thinking dads should be happy with whatever they get. She ventures to suggest that perhaps what dads want is actually pretty similar to what mums want – something to read, something to drink, something to eat, some alone time to do all three, and some socks to keep our feet warm while we do it.
So what’s with the resistance? Why is there resentment about them spending a few hours uninterrupted? What’s with the voice in our heads that says fathers don’t deserve this?
Could it be possible that behind the frustrated outbursts that They are HIS children! He is not BABY-SITTING!, and against our wishes for greater equality in the home as well as in the workplace, we are actually complicit in the gendered norms we claim we want to dismiss?
Every time a BBC reporter asks a female tennis player how she juggles a tournament with motherhood (as happened last year to Victoria Azarenka), the assumption seems to be that her husband/ partner, the child’s father, must have something more important to do than look after his own child. The attitude is there is no way that he might be there in a supporting role – that her career might have taken priority. And oh how we bristle.
The spikiness is indicative of a wave of newly impassioned feminism that is sweeping popular thinking. We wonder why it seems such a stretch for a 36 year old woman to have what a 36 year old man doesn’t think twice about – a house, kids, and a kick-ass career – but maybe we are forgetting something.
Maybe the key to true gender equality lies in not only dismantling the entrenched gendered-norms that hold back women, but in challenging the toxic masculinity norms that suffocate men?
In some ways I understand our reluctance to give Father’s Day anything more than a sideways glance. In the jokes about dads being a bit crap, and our expressions of surprise or faux concern that the children are with dad while mum works, perhaps there is an element of us jealously guarding the only territory we have ever been given.
While women occupy just 32% of the seats in Parliament; while it remains that female CEOs of FTSE 100 businesses are outnumbered by white men called John, perhaps the truth is that we don’t want to concede any ground that men are just as good at being parents until we scrabble our way to a point that says we are just as good as them everywhere else.
The irony is that we are protecting society’s habit of elevating the mother to be the “better” parent, when in fact this is exactly the “status” that holds us back. Because all gendered norms are toxic.
The damage done by the societal message given to boys – that to be a man you have to go out to work, provide for your family, never admit to vulnerability, and bury every emotion except anger – is as great as the harm done to women by the narrative around the sanctity of motherhood (amongst others).
And the only way we change this is if we all move towards the middle.
Even in families where men and women want to fulfil traditional gendered norms we have to explain our choices with a simple This is what works for us, rather than buying into a narrative about what women, and men, mothers and fathers, should do.
And while I don’t for a second imagine that thinking ahead to next year’s Father’s Day and planning a thoughtful gift is going to have much impact in the face of a ten thousand years of gender inequality, perhaps giving up that particular piece of turf would be a good place to start.
I’ve always cared, but when hatred landed on my doorstep on Saturday night it dawned on me for the first time (naively indeed) that this is our new normal. We have been living a privileged life and now we are faced with one that felt so far away. And while we grieve for what is lost, this pain exists in tandem with the knowledge that as a society we are experiencing a fraction of the terror that is daily reality for so many around the world.
We are only learning what it feels like to not be able to keep our children safe.
We thank those who serve to protect and save us when the unimaginable happens. Yes, the emergency services did us proud. Yes, a response time of eight minutes is impressive. And yes, we come together in grief and determined defiance, as we’ve always done.
But truthfully, when there is evil amongst us, shouldn’t we be more angry?
Pledging to continue living our lives the way those who would murder us – have murdered us – despise, when not one person on Saturday night thought, “Today is the day”, is a hollow pledge. We continue because we have to but how many of us will change our plans when we’re freed of those obligations?
I won’t be the only mother who has decided against taking her children into the city because while I am able to Run, Hide, Tell, how do I do that with a two and four-year old in tow?
How do we stay strong when evil makes it clear that we are all but random targets?
How do we stand together when hate-filled voices and actions seek to divide us – when it’s not the division between the terrorists and us that threatens our society, it’s the division the terrorists seek to sow in our midst?
And how does talk of hope not hate, love, peace and unity feel anything but trite and futile when people are dying in our streets?
All the words have been said too many times, but none are ever enough and they are tired. We’re all tired of being defiant, resilient and pretending we’re not scared. And there is an alternative rhetoric that at times like this, with our resolve chipped away at, our conciliatory words threadbare through overuse, becomes increasingly seductive.
Take action! the angry voices implore, the implication being that those who could stop this are choosing not to. We look to the Muslim community to take responsibility and we ignore that those who commit these crimes are to Islam what the Ku Klux Klan are to Christianity – when was the last time we heard the Christian community having to answer for those who pervert their faith?
The same voices choose to ignore that Salman Abedi was reported five times to the Police by his community.
And the same voices look for cheap answers and easy blame without pausing to consider what the root causes of radicalisation might be.
Extremists, the mentally ill and psychopaths have always existed but now they have the ability to reach inside the homes, minds and hearts of vulnerable, marginalised people to twist their thoughts and darken their hearts.
Many of their targets are people who already feel the society they live in does not welcome them, does not offer them opportunity or belonging, so when someone comes along and tells them this is where you belong, we value you, then surely the seduction is easy to not condone, but understand.
We only have to look at the rise of UKIP, with its single issue platform of immigration, to understand that when people feel ignored they will change their views and move away from their fundamental values in order to feel represented. People will cut off their nose to spite their face in order to “stick it to the man” and when they do this the rest of us have a duty to ask But why?
Of course UKIP members and representatives are not murdering in the name of their cause (although we must never forget that Thomas Mair murdered Jo Cox motivated by extreme right-wing views – he was a terrorist too), but if we can understand what has driven people into the right-wings of their rhetoric, then surely its no great leap to understand how people can be radicalised and turned into terrorists?
But instead of trying to understand, those who Brendan Cox said “lick their lips when people die and use it as a chance to spread hatred” tell us the extremists are laughing at us. Theresa May tells us that we are too tolerant – we are to blame because we’re not angry enough.
Claiming to have the answers, “arrest, incarcerate, deport, repeat”, says that trumpeting abomination of British values, Katie Hopkins – and when we’ve been hit with bombs and vans and knives, it seems fair to question the validity of vacuous platitudes of love, harmony and togetherness. We wonder how can we justify only arming ourselves with words?
But discomfort with this narrative should never be far away. Of course more needs to be done – no one is suggesting we should condone the actions of the few that terrify the many – but when there are calls to arrest and imprison people we have to ask, “At what point?”
Laws in the UK already ban incitement to hatred and violence, including on the grounds of religion or belief, so how much further do we go? Are we really prepared to take steps towards the chilling precedent of Thought Crime set so far only in fiction? Are we ready to indefinitely incarcerate people without trial?
Defending British values by echoing the policies and behaviours of nations we criticise and claim to be morally superior to – Saudi Arabia for example – is stark in its hypocrisy. Are they the example we really want to follow?
I’m no expert. The questions are huge and many, the solutions so far are few, and as those with the knowledge and power wrangle for the best course of action I am left uncertain and scared about our future, often breathless with incomprehension at the horror that just keeps coming.
But while I accept love and hope are useless in physical combat with bombs and knives, it seems to me that the biggest falsehood exists in the narrative that insists aggression is strong where compassion is weak; love is naive but hate holds the answers.
Deep down we know the truth – history tells us hate has never resulted in anything except more hate; peace is born from peace – and its a truth to which we must keep returning.
To look after each other; to refuse to turn to hatred and be eaten up by anger; to stand together, are actions of power and significance.
Alone they are not enough – the solution, should it ever be found, will be varied and complex. But nothing will work if decency does not exist as its foundation, and it’s a foundation we can all help build.
Image credit Cleo Wade