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 compete to 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; the resentment of 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, against our better intentions, against the feeling behind 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 continuation of the gendered norms we claim to want to dismiss?
Every time a BBC reporter asks a female tennis player how she juggles a tournament such as Wimbledon with motherhood, as happened 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 incessantly 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 bestowed.
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 (not ignoring that the issue of gender diversity is even more problematic when taking race into account – 10000 words for another time…) perhaps the truth is that we don’t want to concede that men are just as good at being parents until we scrape together some ground 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 families where men and women want to fulfil traditional gendered norms. They are not precluded from this because it is in our minds that the greatest shift needs to happen. Mothers and fathers have to explain their 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.
But of course this movement towards “someone has to look after the children” has to also happen in practical places – workplaces, businesses and homes.
So far in this country men have been reluctant to ask for flexible working while the newer Shared Parental Leave has also failed to gain much traction. Really this should not surprise us. Men have witnessed (and been complicit in) the treatment of the women who have paved that way before them. The eye-rolls, the questions about commitment, and the assumptions about productivity: men have seen this happen to their female contemporaries countless times, so why wouldn’t they be afraid?
And perhaps women also need to concede a little of their “territory” – the territory that almost automatically places them as primary care-givers when a family breaks down (I acknowledge this is an epic over-simplification – it’s just something we should consider if we’re serious about gender equality); the territory that assumes women will want twelve months maternity leave but does not ring-fence extended paternity leave for men (in Scandinavian countries with almost total uptake of extended paternity leave, this time is not transferable – if the father does not use it, the time is lost); the territory that finds many of my friends not wanting their menfolk to take on their share of the household duties because they don’t do it properly.
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
How are you? I hope this finds you well and you’ve not been caught too unawares by the social media storm your article in today’s Daily Mail has caused. I somehow suspect you haven’t.
I took a moment to google you after reading your piece and spent some times reading some blog posts on your website, and skimming your Twitter feed. All in the name of research, you see (and for the avoidance of doubt that is spelled R E S E A R C H and is defined as the systematic investigation into a study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions, NOT take a couple of sentences completely out of context and use them to support lies and misinformation to further your own agenda).
It appears you enjoy Strictly Come Dancing, dislike Katy Hopkins and think Jeremy Hunt is a bellend – so far so good. But then you had to go and spoil it all.
To be honest I’m struggling to decide what motivated you to write the article – I suppose only you will really ever know but these are my best guesses:
- You really believe what you say and want to extend a comforting arm of support to those who are miserable because they absolutely love motherhood. They can’t figure out how to press unfollow on the social media feeds and blogs of the women you feature so you’ve written your piece as an act of solidarity.
- You made different choices to the women you featured, and feel threatened that they are doing things differently.
- You are jealous because they are more successful writers than you.
- The Daily Mail contacted you and paid you an incomprehensible sum of money to write the article and compromise your own believes – SO much money that you’d have been a mug to turn it down.
- You really need the £50 – £150 The Daily Mail usually pay for articles like this one.
- This is a cynical publicity stunt to market your book – by throwing these women under the wheels of the bus (go round and round) you can (this little) piggy-back (goes to market) on the outrage of their combined hundreds of thousands of social media followers and perhaps pick up a few sales.
As I’ve already said, only you will ever know the truth about why, but one thing I can say for certain is YOU’RE WRONG.
You’re wrong to call them “bordering on neglectful” and accuse them of “dimwit narcissism” . You’re wrong to call them deceitful, arrogant, and suggest that none of them have ever experienced or expressed “a sense of wonder about their baby”. You’re wrong simply when you say their target audience is “mostly new mothers”.
Either you really haven’t done your research, or you don’t care that these accusations are untrue. Neither of these scenarios suggest to me you have the right to any moral high ground.
But beyond the startling hypocrisy of telling women to “pause in their feverish mockery of motherhood” while you single out some brilliant mothers for verbal abuse that borders on slander, there is a more insidious narrative behind your words.
The narrative you suggest where “having a new baby is a gift” that some women never get to have, that is “precious” and “should be cherished” isn’t untrue but to suggest it should be the only narrative is dangerous.
It is irresponsible to suggest that a woman, who is not enjoying the early days, is suffering the psychological and physical impact of a traumatic birth; perhaps her relationship is under strain and she lives many miles away from her family; or maybe her baby has reflux and rarely sleeps longer than an hour at a time and is always crying when he/ she is awake, should put up and shut up, and be grateful for what she has.
Just a few days ago the tiny corner of the world wide web that I inhabit was awash with messages of solidarity and support about Maternal Mental Health. As a woman who suffered enormously with post-natal anxiety, flashbacks, dark thoughts and a general desire to escape my life following the birth of my daughter, your venomous dismissal of women who have done so much to open the closed doors behind which many a mother has sat and cried, is offensive.
And in response to your token defence of mothers who didn’t struggle like I did, the mothers you describe as feeling patronised by the alleged suggestion “that a home cooked meal, laundered baby clothes and clean nappies are beyond the wit of most mums”, consider this – they are not the ones trawling the internet at 3am desperately seeking reassurance that they are normal for wanting to scream FUUUUUCK OOOOOFF everytime their 2 week old baby’s gums clamp solidly round their bleeding, blistered, thrush-infected nipples.
They are happy with their lot. They have everything they “ever dreamed of”, as did you. So why the determination to pit those women against these?
Rule 1 of the sisterhood, Anna, is that you can’t defend one group of women by attacking another – it just doesn’t work like that.
So put your faux-concern aside, let’s lever those judgey pants right out of your crack and kick them off from around your ankles, I’m sure they must be keeping you up at night (and we all know how sleepless nights can make one a little nutty). Just give yourself and other women a break and even you Anna, are welcome to sit with us.
But should just one mother read your article and feel guilty and alone with any negative thoughts and feelings she is having then I sincerely hope your sleep is disrupted and your fanny feels on fire for eternity.
But that’s ok because you’re #grateful, right?
Yours faithfully flipping the middle fish finger,
Thirty-five of the things I’ve cared about in the last 48 hours:
- The refugee crisis
- General Election 2017
- Cuts to education and the NHS
- Benefit cuts which have hit women hardest, and which have been blamed for a 60% increase in prostitution in Doncaster since 2015 as vulnerable women struggle to support their families
- Tory fuckers
- Ethical fashion
- The fur trade
- Palm oil
- Mental health
- Maternal mental health
- Destigmatising mental illness
- Wasting food
- Eating non-organic food
- Feeding my children non-organic food
- Not cooking food from scratch
- Giving into requests for “just one more tiny one” when attempting to not feed my children food that is barely food
- (Not) exercising
- (Not) living in the moment
- (Not) knowing what to wear
- (Not) wearing make-up
- Rampant facial and body hair
- Farmer’s hands
- Flaky winter feet
- What example am I setting my daughter by being a stay-at-home-mum?
- Should I focus only on raising my children well and care less about the world?
- Why aren’t I doing more to help the world?
- Why aren’t I doing more to stimulate and support my children?
- Do we need to take vitamin supplements?
- Am I drinking too much tea?
- Do my teeth look yellow in pictures?
Obviously some things stand at the “oh chuff off” end of the spectrum (looking at you online article on How to be bikini ready this summer), while others exist in an “out of my control” realm that apparently means we shouldn’t worry about them.
But worry we do in a mindless Why did we bring these perfect little beings into such a funked up world type way. Although we necessarily move on there is a little weight added, a slight staining of the day.
The other day though, when my heartfelt response to the meme
was FFS something else to think/care about/ do, it was clear there was a problem.
The self-care message is one I find annoying mainly because I know it’s right and yet find myself unable (unwilling?) to find the room to do it. Whenever I get a few hours away from the demands of the house/ work I rush away desperate to start working on a new piece of writing. I tell myself that I love writing so it is practising self-care to just crack on with it.
But actually, much of the time writing is torture. Sometimes I wonder if I’m purely addicted to the endorphine rush I get when I find the right words, the right sentence construction to make sense of the tangled mess of thoughts in my head. The rest of the time I feel pretty shit about it – I don’t actually love writing it seems, I love having written (thanks Dorothy Parker for the inspo).
But I digress. Because really my point is how did I get to the point where a message about taking on less, made me feel more pressured to do more, to care more, even if only about myself?
Compassion fatigue is something I’m vaguely familiar with. In a previous life my colleagues and I once completed a questionnaire to see how empathetic we were. Turns out we were all raging psychopaths incapable of even looking at someone else’s shoes, nevermind walking in them.
Even for teachers this seemed a little harsh, especially as we worked in an inner-London comprehensive school and felt assured of our moral superiority. After laughing for longer than was appropriate, we assured ourselves that we were “merely” suffering compassion fatigue, so used we were to dealing with good people existing in shitty situations.
But this felt different.
This was not about feeling resistant to helping people who were suffering (including myself in some small way), this was about not wanting to know in the first place.
I was all cared out.
These days we are constantly bombarded with messages telling us the gumpf they contain is THE MOST IMPORTANT INFORMATION IN THE WORLD and YOU MUST ACT NOW!
Many of us use social media to keep track of the main news stories of the day, and the work of charitable organisations, but alongside that undeniably important “stuff” are the brand and lifestyle messages, many from Real People. Traditional advertising is predictable and easy to avoid but the scroll becomes a heady concoction of people and subjects the user genuinely is interested in, alongside things we feel we should care about – other people care, it must be important, what am I missing?
The equal importance given to these messages, the amplification of doing yoga with perfect hair and immaculate makeup, while wearing only ethically-produced organic cotton and drinking something suspiciously green, means the boundary between perceived, and actual, importance is blurred. As demonstrated by my use of the word “important/ce” five times in two paragraphs, the overall effect is we become overwhelmed by ALL OF THE IMPORTANCE (six).
It’s not even as straightforward as being ruthless and unfollowing the things you are not interested in. For me that means coming to terms with the fact that I’m not that bothered about exercising or eating well. I mean, who wants to admit they essentially want to die young?
I know this is BAD, I really should care, and so I carry on following the feeds with an unrealistic idea that one day I will find the room in my life to do something about it.
And so we arrive back at the #selfcare induced rebellion.
I’d lost perspective, my filters had failed, and I’d jumbled together the important and the trivial until my synapses trembled with a dial-up warbling of no-connection. The only thing to do was to turn my back on it all and let my echo chamber ring silent.
I tuned out, ignored the news, retreated from Twitter and immersed myself fully in the latest domestic drama about a popped balloon or a doll’s missing shoe. I shoved my head into the bottom of the washing basket, and spent time digging out errant socks. I lifted up and replaced multiple items of handwash-only clothes that I bought in a previous life before procreation rendered my main function as a tissue. I decided that this was where I was supposed to be. This is where I was needed.
It was nice. For a while.
But being an opinionated person with no opinions is disorientating. It wasn’t long before my mind pushed at the self-imposed boundaries and I started to wonder what was happening in the real world.
So is this the conundrum – live a disconnected life, calm and unfettered by worries about the state of the world/ your wardrobe but be a bit bored, OR take it all on, be interested in everything, look at what other people care about and why and, when you can, use their experiences to improve yours? Taking a middle ground of caring but not too much just feels a little lame – I’m sure it works for some but I’m an all or nothing girl.
So, for now I’m back in the game. I’m drinking it all in and for now I feel confident about my priorities. I’m also pretty certain my filters will get blocked from all the sludge-slinging at some point in the future but this time I’m paying more attention to the off button. Every now and again I’m not going to be afraid to hit it because it will definitely all be there waiting when I return.
Even that fucking meme.