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What is the value of your ‘yes’ when you never say ‘no’?

A good few years ago a senior colleague asked me that very question.  It was more of a statement, than a question and it was designed to make me think about how I approached work and perhaps more importantly how others saw me in the workplace. It fits very nicely with another saying, ‘if you want the job done, give it to a busy person’.  It seems there are those in the workplace that get the job done and those that don’t.  There are those that always say ‘yes’ and others that often say ‘no’. There are those that solve problems and those that don’t. Another saying from a senior manager, ‘don’t bring me problems, just bring me solutions’ sums up the majority of relationships in organisations. 

My experience of managers (both middle and upper) has been varied, but unfortunately most have fallen into the category of poor, bordering on awful. Perhaps that colours my judgement, but I do know that I’ve also had some very good managers.  The good managers always made me feel like I was working in partnership with them and, yet I knew who was the boss. I always tried to find a solution to a problem but if I couldn’t then the boss knew that it was a problem he or she needed to deal with, they trusted my judgement. Often what appears to be the most trivial of problems can be a show stopper, a good boss knows this.  If I said ‘no’ to a piece of work, then the boss negotiated which other piece of work would be set to one side for now.  Sometimes everything is a priority, and everything is important, it is for those at the most senior level to make the decisions about what will or will not get done.  Making no choice is an abrogation of responsibility, suggesting it is another person’s problem is just as bad if not worse.

Good managers understand how much work people are doing and trust their workers to get on with the job in hand. A good manager knows that even the most menial of tasks takes more time than might be imagined and that things rarely go exactly to plan.  There is always an element of redundancy.  When someone says ‘no’ to a piece of work they understand that there is a reason for that ‘no’ and rather than simply seeing that person as being difficult or lazy, they listen and seek solutions.  More importantly, they take responsibility for the problem, ‘bring me the problem and I’ll help you find the solution’.

As we move into a summer of uncertainty where the ‘new normal’ is an anxious time for most, where the ‘yes’ people are needed more than ever, and the managers need to lead from the front, if you are a manager, what will you response be when your undervalued ‘yes’ person says ‘no’?

For the Trayvons, Since Blackface is a weapon #BlackenAsiaWithLove

2 April 2012 Hanoi

 

The real Blackface that’s the weapon is the minstrel show,
The Blackface that labeled me out,

Showing people a side of me never seen

But projected onto me,

Such that when so many see my own Blackface,

They see that other

They see that other one.

The one told to them over their kitchen tables.

The one sold to them at the movie show –

Hoop dreams

Baller creams

Holla dolla-dolla bill, y’all.

‘Cause we also know that there are real Black faces

That see those minstrel black faces

Staring them back in the face,

So blinded by the light that they cannot see their own.

 

That’s one side of Trayvon’s story-

Then we all know how precious of a story this really is

That a mother lost her darling son

That a grandmother lost the one who used to babysit for the other gran’kids

That the little cousins are still unclear about where that dear boy is.

 

Blackface means that as soon as your voice starts to drop

As soon as that fuzzy hair starts to sprout all over

As soon as your knock knees start to look bold

You’re no longer a kid

Your childhood is lost

And you must learn to act in ways that would make most sane adults stumble

You learn how not to offend white people

How to speak in a soft voice

Or perish

How to walk slowly, with an unassuming gate

Lest you appear as a threat

With the knowledge that any of these threatened folks can annihilate you

Wipe you from this earth

Where only a generation or two ago

Men hanged like tree-ripened fruit

Aged on a rope in an instant

From kid prankster

To adult menace in a matter of moments

We’ve all seen that photo of one of America’s last lynchings

Not nearly the first

Not nearly the haste, carnage and human waste that made people cease.

 

In 1930, not in anywhere near the deep south

Not from one of our southern willows that sway

But in the mid-west

In Indiana, less than a 150 miles from where Michael Jackson was born

And less than 30 years before he came to be,

So that years later when he sings about hate in our multicultural hearts

Or smashes a window in the video

Enraged with anger

Mad from hypocrisy

The sort that we all know all too well

The gap between the promise and dream.

The reality versus the verses etched all around the capital,

Versus the slave hands that laid those very stones.

The women folk whose very gender made them slaves

And the Black women whose faces made them chattel –

But exploitation of a sexual kind

Yes, we all know too well

What a Blackface can do

How a Blackface can scare you

Even when it’s yours.

So, we now the rage Michael felt,

The hate he seemed to have fought though lost,

Internalized but never giving up.

Yet he was born into a world that hated Blackfaces

Where his was a real threat,

Lest he learn to sing and dance.

The hate is real life minstrelsy.

 

It’s that same song and dance that we as boys learn to perform

And I am tired of dancing

Trying to make nice when people approach me as cold as ice

Smiling and trying to behave

While all their body language tells me that they are scared to death of me

And that they see my Blackface as chilling.

We all know that all the Trayvons in this place

Learn from an age too early to have to teach kids such harsh cruelties of life

That by 13, he could be nearly 6 feet tall and that factor alone endangers his life

Were he to play sports and his body develop.

He would stand no chance of being treated like anything other than a gladiator.

So it’s even more ironic that Trayvon was a scrawny boy they called “Slim”

Seems there’s no real way to win

Though I think that if we as a people can get through this

If we as a nation can have this conversation

The one mothers like Trayvon’s have with their sons

For we all know how people react to Black

 

We are Spartacus: the publishing industry and race

As one of only a handful of non-white authors on the British crime fiction map, I thought it might be worthwhile spending a moment reflecting on the worldwide rebalancing touched off by the George Floyd killing in America. Fear not. There’s no need to put on your tin hats and dive for the trenches. My purpose isn’t to haul anyone over the coals. But there’s little doubt that some of what I say might make for uncomfortable reading. More importantly, I will ask you to reflect, at a personal level, on what we mean by systemic inequality, particularly as it applies to the publishing industry.

Screenshot 2020-06-30 16.14.40

First, some background. My parents are from the subcontinent. They came to the UK in the early seventies, lured by the immigrant dream. The streets of London may not have been paved with gold, but they were paved with opportunity. My father, who was not literate, spent his life in honest labour, in an industrial bakery, while my mother raised children, demonstrating the much-lauded immigrant work ethic by slaving away at her sewing machine every hour she wasn’t feeding us or stopping us from poking each other’s eyes out with eraser-tipped pencils. She instilled in us the need, above all else, to study, to educate ourselves, to progress.

So far, so good.

But what if I were to tell you that my parents were, in a broad sense, xenophobes, too? Not overtly. They didn’t oppress anyone; or traffic slaves across the oceans; or pillage defenceless communities for profit. But their attitude towards black people – cultivated by the insular world they had grown up in – was, at best, indifferent, or, at worst, mistrustful.

Here’s a simple, unpalatable truth. Racism, in its most basic form, is a feature of most societies. It shouldn’t be. But it is. A simple example illustrates my point.

The outpouring of angst and handwringing currently gripping the world has seen celebrities across the globe express their views on racism (rightly so), only for some to discover that a seat on this particular bandwagon can be an uncomfortable one. In India, numerous Bollywood stars were called out for the disparity between their #blacklivesmatter tweets and the fact that they had fronted campaigns for skin-lightening creams. Across the subcontinent, lighter skin has traditionally been valued (usually alluded to in matrimonial ads by the rainbow-bending adjective “wheatish”), so much so that white foreigners, especially Brits, are treated with overt deference, while black people are routinely afforded a lesser welcome. An odd perversity, given that it was the whites that pillaged the subcontinent for three centuries while, with those of Afro-Caribbean descent, one might assume Indians would evince a colonial-era solidarity.

Let me be clear: this idea of a sort of universal xenophobic instinct does not in any way excuse or mitigate the horrors of the slave trade, or the enormous, long-term damage done to black people because of that terrible practice. Nor does it justify the entrenched, systemic prejudice that continues to colour western societies, prejudice that culminates in overt racism of the kind that permits white American policemen to routinely kill black men with little fear of reprisal, and prejudice of the less obvious kind that serves to keep black people ‘in their place’. My point was merely to demonstrate that, in the wider, global race equality agenda now under discussion, we all have a part to play.

Part of the issue is that many well-meaning efforts to redress the balance are hampered by a profound lack of insight into how unconscious bias can affect the lives of people of colour, in a million different, small, but, ultimately, debilitating ways. The problem is further hampered by an education system that often fails to properly tackle the ‘race issue’.

Yet, the problem must be addressed. Because the world has become a smaller place. The goldfish bowl has shrunk and we are now all swimming in the same seas. It behoves us to make the effort, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is also the most effective means of progressing humanity towards a more equitable, more meritocratic, global society. If the Covid-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is how interdependent we are.

Coming, now, to the publishing industry. Cards on the table. Since my first book was published six years ago, I have received tremendous support from my agent, publisher, critics, bloggers, readers, event organisers, and crime writers. My experience is not typical. A simple look at the statistics tells us what we already know. Any way you slice it and dice it – diversity of publishing staff, published writers of colour, books featuring characters of colour – the industry is dominated by white thought and enterprise. Some of this can be ascribed to the fact that, in terms of population, BAME communities, by definition, are a minority. You wouldn’t expect there to be a 50:50 split along these dimensions. That isn’t the issue. The problem is the entrenched attitudes that make it so damned difficult for writers of colour to break into the industry and then to enjoy the same rewards and freedom of expression that is accorded to their white counterparts.

The world’s most successful crime writer, James Patterson, became famous with a series about a streetwise black detective, Alex Cross. James Patterson is not black. Nothing wrong with that scenario, in my opinion. Authors should not be constrained by artificial constructions of propriety. But, if the industry is being honest with itself, it will acknowledge that a writer of colour attempting to do something similar – trying, as it were, to write outside of their cultural straightjacket – is rarely accorded the same privilege. Questions of ‘authenticity’, ‘voice’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ suddenly come racing to the fore, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters questioning our right to go to the ball. Asian writers, for instance, are often expected to pen literary tomes about colonialism or exposes of the immigrant experience. Again, nothing wrong with that, and, indeed, brilliant writing is regularly published exploring those themes. But there are so many other stories that we would like to tell. White writers can be published writing about matters far outside their experience – wizards, serial killers, aliens. But for non-white writers, the same consideration is much harder to find. A lot of this is not the result of overt racism, but rather the mindset that accepts as perceived wisdom the idea that profitability comes almost entirely from white authors writing white stories, or writers of colour writing stories suited to their ethnic background. This thought is so prevalent in the industry that it may as well be an eleventh commandment.

A terrific article by Laura B. McGrath, associate director of the Stanford University Literary Lab, in a Jan 2019 issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, entitled “Comping White” identifies the true nature of the problem. Paraphrasing her research, it goes like this: publishers buy new books by comparing them to books that have been successful. Is this the new Harry Potter? Is this the next Gone Girl? Given that the majority of books are white, the process becomes a closed loop, a vicious cycle. The industry buys and promotes white books because they sell. White books sell because they’re the only books the industry buys and promotes. Do you see the problem?

Making the gatekeepers more diverse, McGrath argues, will have only a marginal impact. It’s the system that’s at fault. The same applies to practically any walk of life that you might care to name – hence the reason so few people of colour in boardrooms, or lecturing at top universities, or opening Michelin-starred restaurants. White people have done all those things successfully before, so why take a chance on the unproven?

Until we change this structural, often unconscious, bias, all the current furore around race will do little to improve the prospects of the average BAME person.

Can readers help? Of course! By voting with their feet. By buying books written by authors of colour, readers signal to publishers that they won’t be put off by a ‘funny-sounding’ name on the cover, or a protagonist who doesn’t share their own cultural background. The only bar should be quality.

In an ideal world, a good story, well told, should stand on its own merits.

What else can we do? In my opinion, people shape people. If we want better, more thoughtful attitudes in the industry, we must all stand up and be counted. Solidarity is the name of the game. A solidarity of thought that acknowledges that a genuine change of perspective is needed. From agent to reader, all along the chain. What we need, in other words, is for all of us to stand up and say: ‘We are Spartacus.’

Vaseem Khan, author, Midnight at Malabar House and Baby Ganesh series

London, June 2020

Misogynoir: What’s a Black man to say?

Two months ago, London-born author-journalist and activist Reni Eddo-Lodge was the first Black British author to top the UK book charts. In addition to her being well-known for her book Why I’m No Longer Talking White People About Race, it was this text among others that inspired my dissertation on race-identity politics. I have reread the chapter ‘Histories’ countless times and come to the idea that current discourse on race and Black history is not as intersectional as it could be. Historically, I have seen Black History Month celebrations where women that do not fit into the cisgender, neurotypical, able-bodied, and / or heterosexual norms of society get side-lined.

Additionally, how we as a society oversimplify the Black Lives Matter movement as just a race issue baffles me.  

In 2010, Black queer feminist Moya Bailey coined the term misogynoir – phrase denoting discrimination against Black-racialised women where both race and gender play roles of bias. Reni Eddo-Lodge becoming the first Black British author to top the UK book charts is an indictment in two ways:

  1. It took this long for a Black British author to reach the top
  2. It took this long for a Black British woman to reach the top

Even ahead of Malorie Blackman, Bernadine Evaristo, Zadie Smith, and the late Small Island writer-author Andrea Levy.

Are not enough people buying books by Black British (female) authors or are they simply being denied access to publishing houses? Systemic discrimination in publishing is a criticism blessed by history, where English literature in the 18th, 19th and the 20th centuries was dominated by white men. At this time, many women wrote under pseudonyms, as the system would not take their authentic voices and selves seriously, as women.  

The Bronte sisters wrote under pseudonyms in the 19th century,

Whilst I am a man, my mother is a woman and so are my grandmothers. My godmother is a Black female academic with stories of her own about misogynoir in higher education and the British school system. My late aunt was an actor-singer. I have female cousins who also have stories about misogynoir in arts, corporate, healthcare and other parts of society. I know, having been raised by Black women that this discrimination is endemic and I know Black men are complicit in as well – from hearing Black men labelling Black women as “high maintenace” to perpetuating colourism.

Does Black History Month and how Black history is taught play a role? Is the way we study Black history inclusive, or, despite ticking the race box, does it follow cisgender, neurotypical, able-bodied, heterosexual (very always male) norms? Are we doing everything we can in the narrative of Black historical scholarship to implement intersectionality?  

In her essay (1989: 140), Kimberlé Crenshaw coins that buzzterm of today intersectionality. She writes “any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.” Today, we can read this to the experiences of Black women on the autism spectrum; Black women who are transgender; Black women who are working class with disabilities.

How we view Black women’s history is troubling, as diversities of their experiences are being excluded from the story for “a more comfortable” cisgender, straight, male and / or able-bodied norm. Whilst we criticise white institutions for not doing diversity work, we must be careful as to not look like hypocrites, embodying our very own Prof. Coupland. One example is the slave narrative. In the teaching of the Slave Trade (when it’s actually taught), are we pushing for the inclusion of Black women experiences?

Despite learning of the Underground Railroad, I would also have liked to have learned about slavery’s darker side, including rape on the plantations and the histories of enslaved mothers as wet nurses for white children, often at the expense of their own. Moreover, slavery as an economics system, and “Black women’s reproductive systems were industrialised. Children born into slavery were the default property of slaveowners, and this meant limitless labour at no extra cost” (Eddo-Lodge, 2017: 4). A system where they were exploited on the basis of their race and sex.  

Whilst, I would caution educators about relegating Black women’s histories during the years of slavery into narratives of sexual violence with no counter balance (i.e female empowerment), these are also stories pertinent to the lives of women today, not just Black women. In light of #MeToo, would it be so wrong to investigate human history of sexual violence? If we did that, we would then be forced to interrogate women’s history at war, for example. What about sex workers during the World War One? Today, intersectionality may bend to age’s links with race, sex and “the adultification of Black girls” (Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2017).  

Using Reni Eddo-Lodge’s achievement as a conduit, I would argue there is no way we can achieve lasting change without the inclusion and amplification of Black women voices, who are themselves constantly hitting glass ceilings across all of society. This must include intersectional approaches to the Black past and anti-racist work. Whilst as a Black man I hit the glass ceiling, I can see through it. However, I know for my Black female colleagues this is a bleak look into the opaque.  

The spine of the Black Lives Matter movement is unarguably kept together by Black, female leadership, as is the bulk of equalities work in academia with Black and brown academics. In revealing how Black women were agents in key moments of British history, including immeasurable contributions to civil rights movements and politics, we will understand

the history Black women are making now, truly embodying Black Britain and reimagining Black liberation. And it is in this train of thought, I believe when Black women matter, everyone will matter; when they win, everyone wins.  


Referencing  

Center on Poverty and Inequality (2017). Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girl’s Childhood. Washington D.C: Georgetown Law. 

Crenshaw, K (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 1(8), pp. 139-167.  

Eddo-Lodge, R (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury. Print.  

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