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General Politics Personal Writing Political Debate

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”.
Categories
Personal Writing

Learning to be Uncomfortable with Silence

The luxury of choosing your level of visibility is a privilege. Groups not in power are forced into hypervisibility and hyperinvisibility. You are one of a teeming mass of people who are all viewed in the same two-dimensional way. Someone to be skipped over in terms of representation within prominent and powerful groups whilst focused on when the news reports look at the latest threats. Someone to be spoken about but never with.

It’s why more of us have started caring about fights that have been around for ages, looking fondly back on the past few decades with a romantic view when for a lot of people this is just more of the same. This is the crux, that now other people are being made permanently visible, not as individuals with complex histories but as targets. It’s not that ethnonationalism has come to Europe or the USA, but that more of the population are declaring their sentiments out loud instead of just with their actions. And that when you say it out loud you finally see they are after you as well.

I think that scares people. That we who have generally been fortunate enough to avoid many types of prejudice are now being made very aware of our complicity and our vulnerability as well. And a lot of people want to approach this as if only removing certain people or parties would cure the problem and then we can all pretend once again that nothing is really that bad.

It’s the same moment of realisation that I began to have after 9/11 and I was suddenly aware that the shape of my life in the West would be greatly influenced by my surname, regardless of who I was as a human being. I was visible in a way I didn’t want to be.

In my day-to-day life on the street I am still fortunate enough to be able to have the option of flitting between being seen and unseen as who I actually am (and not just limited to ethnic background). Yet I know it’s still there, underneath everything, waiting for the moment when I am revealed and waiting to see how that will then change things. That’s what scares me about some people – that they will never choose to see this truth that lies at the roots of our society, and instead bigotry is explained away as just a veneer for other frustrations that are supposedly actually economic or class-based in nature.

The past few decades weren’t perfect. They contain moments where we saw divisions, insecurities with identities, and just moved on as if life is static. Now we are in a position where we have to be grateful we still have the ability to be fighting fires.

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I am always slow to speak. I try to measure my words and uncomplicate everything before I make a move and that in itself is a bad habit that has left me behind the starting gate well after a race is over too many times. Sometimes it is the fear of making a mistake, of misreading a look, or of claiming something that turns out to be only half-remembered. Hesitation in these cases is a false relief – in the moment I can pretend to be perfect in my argument or desires, but always at the expense of never being passionate enough.

I am working on teasing out these complexities, and over the past year I’ve spoken things I would have resisted before. As a reward I’ve had some pain but also the clarity that comes with pain. You forget that, staying out of the fray, about how pain can be positive, that it can be a sign that you’ve identified a problem and are now an inch closer to healing.

It is Audre Lorde herself who condenses this realisation that silence is the greater regret. That is the truth, that I have “betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words.” That I have been hoping to one day produce something perfect and unquestionable and speak truth to power in a way that no-one will shame me for it.

What I am truly scared of is not the AfD gains, or the slow drift of Brexit, but that I still won’t quite have figured out how best to speak – both personally and in activist terms – without having that betrayal of a moment where I linger too long to collect my thoughts, where I smooth the terms so they are somehow “more acceptable” because it is always “more acceptable” to disguise what you really feel. That I will not be able to overcome the training I have had since childhood to be respectful and quiet and not jeopardise a simpler path to success as defined by a capitalist world.

My identity in many ways has been why I’ve stayed quiet for so long, even though I have many insightful and intelligent points to make. It’s made me vulnerable and through speaking I fear I unveil too much of it and my principles, and that they can be used in turn to attack me. I want to write honestly but each time I begin I find myself weighing up the impact on others and what cost their disappointment or shame might bring me.

Yet as Lorde says; “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

The M.A. thesis I wrote, for which I got 80%, looked at the complexities of identity for queer British Muslims after 9/11 and its shaping by the political-social context of Islamophobia. It was rewarding to explore and to help expand a new area of research. Years ago I would have resisted taking this up, torn about what others would say, but also torn about whether this was a safe option in terms of advancing my professional career. When you have the luxury of choosing your visibility you can become seduced by the ease of being indistinguishable from others.

What I’ve realised with this sweep of ethnonationalist visibility is that fundamentally identity can no longer be denied the importance that it has in the mainstream. The idea that niche communities are not worthy of proper study is a side effect of these insidiously oppressive systems that we’ve normalised. Rather they are essential to understand; to see how identity is shaped on every level is to actually see society for what it is. And to remove those silences and push those areas forcibly kept in the dark into the mainstream is to improve society through confronting the ugly side of it.

It is hard to pull away from the privilege of getting to stay hidden. Of having the ability to keep the peace by being quiet. And even when the issue is just a personal one, and the cost only my own personal regret I still know I will not improve overnight. Yet I can grow more, forgive myself when I falter, and strive to do what I can to pull other voices up too. Shame and fear don’t have to be guiding directions in my life more than whatever power I give to them.

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Personal Writing Writing Hosted Elsewhere

The Other Sudanese! 500 Words! Identity!

Who I am has always been a tricky question for me. I think that in some ways a secure identity comes easier when you aren’t placed in situations where people feel the need to ask “Where are you from?” (the other day a woman wanted to know “what” I was as it was obvious I wasn’t a “thoroughbred”). As it stands I feel like I fluctuate between being Sudanese and being British, and it’s still something I’m figuring out.

Recently I started a fortnightly column over at 500 Words Magazine looking at this very question – who is Sudanese? Every week I’ll focus on different groups that don’t quite fit the mainstream idea of Sudaneseness; the next one up on Sunday 5th June is of particular interest as I’ll be looking at the Jewish Sudanese community which people are always surprised exists.

Read it here (with a bonus baby photo of me) and follow new additions here!

I’m also helping edit over at 500 Words so if you have any articles or pitches about either of the Sudans’ send me an email or message me on twitter!

Edit: You can now read the Jewish Sudanese article here

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Personal Writing Writing Hosted Elsewhere

Vitiligo! Buzzfeed! Photodermatology!

So today a piece I’d been working on for a while finally showed its face online. I have had vitiligo, which is an auto-immune disease that results in large white patches developing on your skin. I have the kind where it keeps things fairly symmetrical and it is all over (yes, ALL OVER) my body. When you have such an obvious change to your skin you become a curiosity to people, even when you have the benefit of not being particularly dark in the first place like me. It’s rather personal, but I also think it’s rather good:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/rulo/vitiligo-and-me-how-i-found-peace-after-my-skin-betrayed-me#.oonlPMxQ1

As a side note, for some reason everyone’s first response to “I have a piece about vitiligo on Buzzfeed” is them turning to me and saying “like, with cat gifs?”. Sorry, unfortunately I must disappoint you – there are no cat gifs (or any other kind of gifs) in the piece, and I have no idea why you would think they would be there. If however you like looking at pretty things there are some fantastic illustrations accompanying the piece so you could just consider them as an alternative.