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Comments on Identity and Success in a Fractured World

At some point if you are a member of a minority you will bump up against some elements which serve to make the biased structure of the world visible to you. A woman might see the glass ceiling or casual sexism, a black man may be stopped and searched repeatedly with no real cause, a blind person may continue to find the internet intensely difficult to navigate with their screen reader. Sometimes these moments make one compassionate to other struggles. Sometimes people are convinced that only their specific problems exist and all others are the result of paranoia.

If you are lucky then you will be asked to believe there is something there which you will never experience. Something that cannot be seen, that is often hard to objectively prove, and that if true means that your position is not entirely due to your hard work or ‘natural’ talents but also the result of a system which keeps others outside and tells them they deserve very little.

I think it is clear this is why there is a group who see bigotry as only the obvious – racism is a man yelling a slur, homophobia is banning marriage rights. It is harder for them to see how it can be generation after generation creating a situation where the unconcious idea of a worthy person has the mannerism, tastes, accents – and so on – of a narrow selection of people. They can’t see that if this supposed meritocracy¹ just so happens to predominately favour the group of people who have always been in charge then maybe they are the group who rigged the game.

When you grow up in an environment where it is hard to fail completely, and where when you do that failure is often a result of some catostrophic mistake or horrific piece of bad luck then it becomes easier for your sense of self to project that it is the same for others. That every success is the result of their hard work and that if others just stopped complaining and tried more we’d be past “all this”. The more overlapping a persons identities are with those which aren’t upheld by the system, the more it seems that they “play the victim”.

We all have this thinking to a greater or lesser extent if we don’t catch ourselves – the more privileged we are the more we must take it on faith when someone tells us their experiences. That gathering to protest injustice is a legitimate pro-community reason to break social distancing while gathering for a party is not.

Back in the pre-2013 Snowden relevation world I remember being on the other side of this. Having numerous white British people view my knowledge that there was a global surviellance programme in collaboration with the Five Eyes powers – a knowledge shared by so many around me growing up that it was backround noise – as conspiracy thinking and the results of some racial and cultural paranoia. It surprises people I tell this to now, who are all on board with the idea that the CIA read emails how hostile people were to this idea back then. I was told that Western powers would naturally only do this on occasions where they would get warrants, that there would be no increased targetting of people from specific (particularly Muslim) backgrounds because the UK government was obviously restrained by the rule of law.

My nationality data dashboard project² highlighted a small fraction of that gulf – some people were surprised by how frequent people challenge my identity, whilst others commiserated with me on the basis of similar experience.

Clearly I don’t have all the answers – I am a researcher by trade. However the older I get the more I think it is pertinent that I have more open public conversations about these issues drawing from my areas of expertise. It means more data projects, more blogs, and continuing to work on some other items I have put off for a while, unsure of the need for them. And perhaps most importantly it means that if you would like a chat, then I am here.

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Notes

  1. Meritocracy is a faulty concept in the first place. One of the main ones I have issue with it is that, aside from the fact that you can’t divorce so-called aptitude from the ways in which we can pass down benefits to our children via our status in society, in a lot of ways it ties your value as a human being to your capitalist productivity. Nobody is talking about a setting up a meritocracy based on advancing joy and it seems to be a backdoor way of justifying social inequality.
  2. The nationality dashboard project was borne out of the frustration of constantly battling the question “but where are you really from?”. It’s a question that many people, particularly BAME people know too well. And underneath it is the sinister implication that you are not really part of “us”.

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