What I am: Identity, privilege & listening

This is something I wrote late last year, something that took me by surprise, a need to write, while I was knee deep in another project.  On thursday I went to SICK! festival’s on the couch day at contact Manchester, where there was a focus of conversations on Identity & Trauma (more about that here). Among the notes, and snacks and things I thought, I returned to this. A re-post from www.storiestotellinthemiddleofthenight.com 

I am white. I am from a middle class background. I can’t change that. But I do apologise for it or try to hide it under associations that accredit working class roots, covering my shame up at not being more interesting. Culturally, you know? I’d take any of it. Slightly northern, a bit Irish, Italian maybe…somewhere. That in itself stems from a warped acknowledgment where I have very rarely been the only person of my skin colour, culture or language in a room. But that would be sooo interesting, yeah?

 I hold on to being a woman, my only inequality. But did I say I was a white middle class woman? I  am eager to tell you I have double barrelled name because my mother was a feminist and would not take my Dad’s name (which worked out as they later got divorced). She got married in a boiler suit not a white dress (because in her first marriage the white dress symbolised a want to sacrifice who she was in order to start a life away from her own mother). She stormed into my junior school to terrify the head teacher into letting me play football with the boys, where girls had previously not been allowed (this ended with me in royal Blue PE Knickers surrounded by boys in knee length shorts. I can still feel the nylon). I was bought up never to apologise for being a woman, and I haven’t. Not to the teacher that told me to ‘Come back here, woman’ when I walked out of a detention. Not to the man that grabbed my vagina in a nightclub. I was bought up that women and men are equal in social standing, intelligence and capability and I believe that. I also believe that men and women are different. Like all people are. 7 times out of 10 I have questioned a man when I believe he is questioning, mocking or exploiting me because of my gender. Not every single time because there were incidents where I was too naive, intimidated or afraid. Sometimes, you pick your fights and  you get out safe. Sometimes, it’s already a loosing battle. I have dismissed sexism by being loud, flippant and ignoring what was said, as I realised that provocation was often intended as a way to demonstrate the hysteria of woman. And sometimes ignoring it, winds the prevaricator up more. But I have also been ignored, my comments not valid, a creeping retrospective realisation of everyday sexism that I sometimes still find hard to validate myself. I did not jump on the new wave of feminism because I have had always had the security of privilege, support from my family to stand up, talk,  unafraid of my views. Freedom to respond to ‘Debate as a figure of history’ for an senior school english project by dressing up in a sheet (toga style, strangely) and jelly shoes with a sign proclaiming ‘God Is A Woman’. Which was to wind up both the boys in my class and my Jimmy Nail look a like English teacher. Because I would not apologise for being a women and a mouthy one at that. I am guilty of sexism. I am guilty of using my gender.

 And all of this is individualist. From my perspective. Female white perspective, whose parents were part of the hippy generation that ended the soft focus seventies by wanting security. Money. Support for me to go to university. A stone Buddah in the garden, darling. That are old school labour supporters who now shop in Waitrose and M&S with no blink of an eye. That live in million pound houses in London and still want for more. That told me that I could be anything I wanted to be. And I haven’t listened properly to other stories because I don’t understand them. I can only empathise. A trusty slow nod, tool of the middle classes, that and self deprecation. Because if I take the piss out of myself, I’m undermining what I’m doing, while still actually doing it. Like ironic racism. No, hang on really, why don’t they stock taramasalata at the Tesco express?

 With that empathy for stories other than mine, comes guilt. Which is why I have been known to avoid them. Or been awkward. Stories that I cannot possibly understand having grown up in a cul de sac in Watford. Stories that are not mine to tell, so I do not tell them. And sometimes I do not listen because the empathy that ensues feels patronising, over whelming, over taking. Disingenuous. It is still an apology for being born white, middle class. ‘God, that sounds awful, I’m so sorry for my race. I’m so sorry that I’m white‘. And I have apologised to a black man on behalf of a group of white girls I did not know after they shouted a racist slur at him. Shocked as he was, he didn’t need me to apologise to him. It didn’t make it better. Just emphasised a grouping together of people by their colour. Which in itself has the ring of an archaic colonial bell. Let me apologise for my people.

 So how do I stop putting myself first, my race first, and listen? As human stories? When do we start telling them as stories that happen to people instead of pre-faced as ‘other’? Or is it important that we highlight and acknowledge ‘other’? Other than ourselves. Acknowledge that discomfort. Honesty in that discomfort. I can’t live your life. You can’t live mine. If I stop being sorry, I might be able to hear you over my apologies. Maybe I can listen. We are made by our differences.

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