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If we could empathize with all life, we…         [fill in the blank]

In Honour of my two teachers’ passing (seen together here). Rest In Power, bell hooks (d. 15/12/21) and Thich Nhat Hanh (d. 22/01/22).

Image: https://www.lionsroar.com/a-beacon-of-light-bell-hooks-on-thich-nhat-hanh/

If we could empathize with all life, we…        

… wouldn’t treat all animals as either food or fodder.

… wouldn’t develop nuclear technology into bombs.

…would never show an interest in making so many guns and ways of destroying life.

…would more genuinely aim to achieve mutual understanding between individuals.

…wouldn’t have so much intergenerational trauma within families, communities, nations.

…would be more neighborly in all our affairs.

…wouldn’t treat trade like a sport, a winner-takes-all competition over natural resources.

…would harness the power of the sun for it shines on all life collectively.

…would cultivate care, and be kinder as a general rule.

… would teach kindness in school, a required class on every campus.

…would not build entire ideologies, systems of government, religions, arts, and culture around patriarchy.

… would not be reduced to binaries, not just in gender, but ‘black or white’ in our overall thinking, because that’s where it came from: A false yet powerful and enduring dichotomy.

Binary thinking produced gender binaries, not the other way around. Knowing this is key to its undoing. Please know that capitalism produced racism, and greed crafted classism. A2 + B2 = C2, still. Racism is exponentially untamed greed; and patriarchy an inferiority complex run rampant and amok. Such cultures of greed can’t be conquered by competition; greed can’t be beat! We need a new dimension.

If we could empathize with all life, we would aspire to be far more fair.

If we could empathize with all life, we would love more.

Your turn.

Fill in the blank.

My First Foreign Friend #ShortStory #BlackAsiaWithLove

I love school.

In the third grade, we had a foreign student named Graham. His parents had come over to our hometown from England with a job, and his family was to stay in our town for a year or two.

Other than Graham’s accent, at first he didn’t in anyway appear, or feel different.

The only time that Graham’s difference mattered , or that I knew Graham’s difference mattered, was on the spelling test. We had moved far away from three letter words, to larger words and sentences, and by fourth grade we were writing our own books.

But in the third grade, there was Graham on our first spelling test, and our teacher drilling words like color.

The teacher made it fun by using word association to aid in memory. Then, he paused to explain that Graham would be excused if he misspelled certain words because where he’s from, they spelt (spelled) things differently. Spell “color” differently, we all wondered? 

Our teacher explained that there are many words where they add the letter U, that are pronounced in the same way. Anyway we have different accents in our own country. Heck, we had different ways of saying the word “colour” in our own city. Where does the extra-U go? Then of course, the teacher spelled out the word. He could not write it on the chalkboard because we were sitting in a circle on the area rug, on the library side of the classroom. It is then that I also realized that I had a visual memory, even visualizing words audible words, both the letters and images representing the meaning. I wanted to know why people in England spelled things differently than in America. Despite Graham’s interesting accent, and easy nature which got him along fine with everyone, he was going to have to answer some questions.

Though our teacher did not write the letters, in hearing them I could see them in my mind moving around. I started imagining how moving the different letters shifted – or did not shift – differences in sound, across distances, borders, and cultures. I started imagining how the sounds moved with the people. Irish? Scottish? People in our city claimed these origins, and they talk funny on TV. Britain has many accents, our teacher explained. “I’m English,” blurted Graham. 

We didn’t know much, but we knew that except for our Jewish classmates, everyone in that room had a last name from the British Isles, which we took a few moments to discuss. Most our last names were English, like my maternal side. A few kids had heard family tales of Scottish or Irish backgrounds, German, too. One girl had relatives in Ireland. And wherever the McConnell’s are from, please come get Mitch. Hurry up! 

How did we Blacks get our Anglicized names? Ask Kunta Kinte! And how did this shape Black thought/conscience, or the way we talk? I wanted to know MORE. I thought Jewish people were lucky: At least they knew who they were, and they were spoken of with respect. Since my dad is Nigerian, (and my name identifiably African) I had a slight glimpse of this. I knew I had a history, tied to people and places beyond the plantation, and outside of any textbook I’ve ever had (until now where I get to pick the texts and select the books).

My family is full of migrants, both geographically and socially, so homelife was riddled with a variety of accents. Despite migrating north, my grandparents’ generation carried their melodic Alabama accents with them their whole lives. Their kids exceeded them in education, further distancing our kin from cotton farming, both in tone and texture. This meant that my generation was the first raised by city-folk, and all the more distant from our roots since we came of age in the early days of Hip-Hop. At home, there were so many different kinds of sounds, music, talk and accents. Fascinating we can understand done another.

Our teacher also told us that Americans also used some of the same words differently. Now, I’ve lived here in the UK for a decade and I can’t be bothered to call my own car’s trunk a boot. Toilet or loo? Everybody here gets it. Unfortunately, Graham explained that he knew the British term for what we call ‘eraser’, which the teacher couldn’t gloss over because we each had one stashed in our desks, and he knew we’d have the giggles each time the word was mentioned.

I was still struck by the fact that in spite of all these differences and changes, meanings of words could shift or be retained, both in written and spoken forms. I wanted to know more about these words – which words had an extra U – and where had the British got their languages and accents. For me, Graham represented the right to know and experience different people, that this was what was meant by different cultures coming together.

“Here I am just drownin’ in the rain/With a ticket for a runaway train…” – Soul Asylum, 1992, senior year.

In retrospect it’s weird that Graham’s my first foreign friend. Both my father and godmother immigrated to America – initially to attend my hometown university. They’d come from Nigeria and China, respectively, and I’d always assumed that I’d eventually visit both places, which I have. Perhaps this particular friendship sticks with me because Graham’s the first foreign kid I got to know. 

Through knowing Graham, I could for the first time imagine myself, in my own shoes, living in another part of the world, not as a young adult like my folks, but in my 8-year-old body. What interested me more was that I could also see Graham was not invested in the macho culture into which we were slowly being indoctrinated (bludgeoned). For example, Graham had no interest in basketball, which is big as sh*t in Kentucky. Nor did I. “Soccer is more popular over there,” our teacher explained, deflecting from Graham’s oddness. “But they call it football.” Who cares! I’d also seen Graham sit with his legs crossed, which was fully emasculating as far as I knew back then. The teacher defended him, saying that this also was different where Graham came from. I definitely knew I wanted to go there, and sit anyway I wanted to sit.

Kisses from Granny Don’t Count! #BlackenAsiaWithLove #ShortStory

In America, and most certainly in the land of Dixie and cotillions, at the end of junior high school year we have a tradition of getting our senior class rings. By “getting,” I mean individually buying a ring from the same one or two companies in our city who cash in on this ritual annually. We knew that many of us had to foot the bill with our own after-school jobs, while others’ parents could virtually write a blank check! (Hopefully, at least, or perhaps most assuredly, somebody in the school system gets a kickback from all this cash flow.) 

While class rings appeared personalized, the rings – and the ritual – were effectively mass manufactured, complete with standardized shapes and design features: school’s name and mascot – in our case a bear – class year (1993!), and maybe our initials inscribed inside. Oh, and a heteronormative adolescent sexualized ritual to which I shall return shortly. 

Rings are generally presented at a school ceremony. Until graduation, class rings are worn facing the wearer as motivation towards the ultimate achievement, after which it is worn outward as a badge of pride and honor. A graduating class could all agree to the same design – usually the school colors – which I believe the majority of my class did. While I prefer the look of silver against my dark skin, our school colors were royal blue and gold, so classes at our school often got blue sapphire set in the lowest Karat gold available that didn’t look cheap. For such a notoriously liberal school (i.e., gender and racially/geographically* integrated by design), this was one of the few explicit acts of conformity.

‘You Wear it Well’ – DeBarge, 1985

Class Ring: Louisville Central High School, ’66

The next part of the tradition is having 100 different people turn the ring, as sort of an acknowledgement of becoming a senior. The first 99 turn it in one direction, while the final person reverses the order. This clockwise/counter-clockwise turn seals the deal. Yet get this, you’re supposed to kiss the hundredth person who turns the ring. You say the word “kiss” in front of most any group of adolescents and they’ll giggle. We knew what kind of kiss was meant. FRENCH like fries! Somehow becoming a senior in high school had been coopted by this hetero-ritual, a hetero-rite of passage (het-or-no-rites!).

I am troubled that this academic milestone is linked to gender. Worse, the ritual is predictably a performance act that fixes gender to normative sexual roles; yes, heteropatriarchy. Worse still, this binary gender performance is discrete, couched in achieving a basic education.

The ring dealer comes to school and makes a sales pitch to the class, and sets up a booth in the lobby after school. In his pitch, he promises a ‘free’ glossy little form to collect all the signatures. It was a bait and switch. These dealers sold us the rings but gave us the forms, the evidence we needed to prove we’d passed another stage towards adulthood. And what were we supposed to do with the blank glossy forms? Come back to school and boast? 

The first 50 or so signatures were just us. Our own schoolmates turning each other’s rings, filling in each other’s forms on the very day the rings arrived. Family filled in a lot, too. I distinctly remember a teacher or two requesting to be excluded from the tradition, or take part in the ring ritual of becoming a senior, else we whittle their fingers away. 

We all know everybody only wanted to see who signed the final line – a prompt to incite heteronormalizing speech-acts. Well, a few folks weren’t single and already had that 100th spot reserved and filled by sundown. Needless to say, kisses from granny don’t count!  I’m pretty sure this wasn’t written on the dealer’s well-crafted sheet. Our market dominated, heteronormative introduction to adulthood for all to see.

I’d attended the same school since second grade so I’d seen people celebrate this class ring ritual for years, and even attended several graduations. I’d watched the “Senior run” year after year – a day at the end of school, when the graduating class runs through all the halls, cheering, banging on lockers as all the kids in all the classes rush out to line the hallways and egg them on. I loved school, adored our school, adored my classmates, and even looked forward to our turn, though parting so bittersweet. 

At 16, I was only starting to be able to fully disidentify with the barrage of heterosexualized norms that engulfed me. I had to disentangle heterosexuality from virtually every facet of life – even finishing high school, a normal step we’re all expected to take. It’s as if to gain access to what bell hooks calls ‘the good life’ one had to signify alignment with compulsory heterosexuality.

I knew that I could not even turn my ring 100 times without kissing a girl. No way I’d risk putting a guy’s name at the end of that glossy list – someone I’d actually dreamt of French-kissing. Not like I knew any guy who’d be game. Damn. This was a lot of pressure. This junior prom was forcing me to make all kinds of adult decisions.

“The more I get of you, the stranger it feels…”

I was 16, and wasn’t out yet. Unlike at twelve when these feelings first bubbled over, by 16 I was on the cusp of self-acceptance, and preparing to face this possibility that I was gay. Perhaps it was pure timing. By the 11thgrade I knew for sure I’d be leaving home months after graduation, which was suddenly within reach. I could chart my own homo path. But still, at that age, I had doubts. I tried seriously dating a young woman as my last-ditch effort to see if I was straight or (at least) bisexual. 

Kaye wasn’t a classmate, which wouldn’t have worked anyway because in retrospect all my classmates already knew, and had decided to accept me without question. Kaye attended an all-girls’ school, so we’d met through an extracurricular, Black youth empowerment program. Kaye was clearly college bound. She had her own dreams and ambitions, and pursued them – an ideal mate for me. She was the most attractive woman I knew, both inside and out, both to me and others. Yes, THAT sister who is not invulnerable, but has it all together. If she didn’t do, then dammit I was gay!

Fortunately, my girl was smart. And by smart, I mean that she was intelligent, real smart as in NOT clueless at all. We agreed to a kiss on the cheek, and she’d sign the last line on my glossy form. And by ‘agreed to’, I mean that this is what Kaye put on the table as her firm and final offer. She also had the good sense to let me turn her ring, too, but she reserved the 100th signature for someone special. I respected that. This clarified our plutonic status – no Facebook updates needed: I’m gay.

“Gotta find out what I meant to you…You were sweet as cheery pie/ Wild as Friday night”

What about women?

Strong women feel good about each other's success.
https://onedio.co/content/24-empowering-short-poems-from-feminist-poet-rupi-kaur-12146

This month marks Women’s History Month. It’s a time where I reflect on how privileged I am to be surrounded by a group of women who have added so much to my life just by being in it.  

I am also reminded of writers and poets (both past and present) like Woolf, De Beauvoir, Lorde, Walker, Kaur, Attwood and Evaristo whose words have not only added so much to my outlook on life but they also continue to remind me that as a woman I need to continue to listen, provide support and uplift other women. It is incredibly sad but necessary that we need to be reminded of the need to support one another.  

Women’s History Month has coincided with the murder of Sarah Everard, another of the many women who have been murdered by men whilst walking home alone. The policing and arresting of women at Sarah’s vigil, the justifications for such arrests and the events themselves are now being reported as false. Followed by the government’s predictable draconian response to silence and restrict protesting rights is maddening. And more importantly, the solidarity illustrated with women gathering to pay their respects to Sarah has now been spoilt due to these damaging enforcement responses.  

I find it so sad that commentary by some women surrounding the murder of Sarah had taken the stance of defending men. There are so many very good men in this world, and it is true that not all men are bad, but the reality is that men tend to be the perpetrators when other men, women and children are murdered.  

We live in a society which reinforces gender inequality, oppression and stereotypes about women to the point that women internalise misogyny. As a result, some women are quick to defend men to the point that, in some cases, men who are the perpetrators are presented as the victims. And the women who are actual victims are blamed for their own victimisation. 

This attitude towards women comes at the detriment of not allowing the space for people to begin to consider that femicide and gendered violence are the damaging consequences of living in an unequal society. The pain caused to the victims also becomes either diluted or made invisible. This is especially the case with Asian or Black women’s victim experiences, as these are rarely found within the news, and if shown, are rarely believed. 

There are many obstacles faced by women who attempt to flee routine gendered violence. Attempts to seek support can result in many women losing their homes, jobs and contact with their friends and families. As well as this, women who intend to report being victims of gender-based violence may battle to overcome the stigma that is attached to being a victim. For women with visas that state that there is ‘no recourse to public funds’ escaping violence becomes even more difficult, post Brexit, this now also applies to women from the EU. 

Whilst online debates occur surrounding Sarah Everard’s case, the reality is that many women are scared to walk alone. Many are also scared to live within their own homes due to the fear of violence. If we are quick to defend men in light of such tragic events how will we ever be able to support these women? How will they ever feel empowered to report being victims of crime? Yes, not all men are bad, but when a case like Sarah’s is publicised perhaps our first response should be  empathising with other women.  

Drag queens and space occupying scenes

In closing out LGBTQ+ history month, Luke Ward and I spoke at the UoN Psychology Society about our research on Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Given the popularity of the series (especially now it is available on streaming service Netflix), it is likely that even if you are not a part of the LGBT+ community, you may have seen the show (or at least shared a meme or two).

The series Ru Paul’s Drag Race first began on LGBTQ+ network Logo TV, and over the past decade, has made the move from a niche and community oriented market, to a mass market phenomenon. This echoes the roots of drag, from the underground ballroom scene in 1980s New York, to the accessible (but not always affordable) drag shows and conventions that are available today. We have moved away from the underground to taking up more space – cis, straight, previously unavailable space – which has made drag something more lucrative than its initial inception.

It is within this commercialised region of drag that we see a shift in focus within the community. It is not just a symbol of resistance against societal norms of gender and sexuality, but it is also something of a commodity – something that to our (patriarchal) society, has become useful, in being able to sell products (literally – make up, drag queen merch) to a wider (mostly young, white, and straight) audience. Whilst the majority of the Drag Race series have been based on the US, if we bring in the UK to this conversation, the evidence of wider accessibility of drag can be seen through its showing on the BBC, of all television networks.

Whether the commercialisation of drag is a positive for the community remains to be seen. However, what we can say on the back of the success and accessibility of Ru Paul’s Drag Race is the awareness that has been brought to a range of intersectional issues, from racism to religion, and gender identity to social class. Though some of these issues might not be news to the LGBT+ community, we can most certainly agree that it has brought about discussion of such issues to those who perhaps had not even thought about such positions, let alone experienced them. Especially with the perpetuation of social media, community discussion has never been so lively, both online and offline.

Regardless of your opinion of the series, it has opened up conversations in new spaces that brings visibility to the LGBT+ community. We discuss these issues, as well as the comparisons between US and UK drag, in our recent paper that you can find here.

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