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Sometimes the mind wanders; the associations it produces are random and odd, but somehow, they connect. In the book of Genesis, there is reference to the first murder. Cain murdered Abel with a stone making it the original murder weapon. After some questioning from God, who acted as an investigating officer, and following a kind-of admission, God then assumed the role of the judge and jury, sentencing him to wander the earth. This biblical tale is recounted by all three main monotheistic religions, a what to do in the case of murder. The murderer is morally fallen and criminally dealt by with a swift punishment.
There is no reason to explore the accuracy of the tale because that is not the point. Religion, in the absence of science, acted as a moral arbitrator, sentencing council and overall the conscience of society. In a society without science, the lack of reason allows morality to encroach on personal choices, using superstition as an investigative tool. As scientific discovery grew, the relevance of religion in investigation was reduced. The complexity of society required complex institutions that cared for people and their issues.
When the Normans landed in England, they brought with them a new way of dealing with disputes and conflict. Their system of arbitration, using the King as a divine representative, was following Roman tradition and theology but it soon became apparent that a roaming court may not be as efficient. The creation of the magistrates and the statutes on legal representation introduced the idea of bringing professionals into justice. The creation of new institutions fostered the age of the scholar, who uses evidence-based practice.
This new approach removed more religious practices, instead favouring the examination of facts, the investigation of testimony and the study of law. It was a long way away from the system we know now as the witch trials can attest to; a number of whom took place in East Anglia (including Northampton). In the end the only thing that has been left from the early religious trials is the oath witness take when they submit their testimony.*
The more we learn the better we become in understanding the world around us. The conviction that science can resolve our problems and alleviate social issues was growing and by the 19th century was firm. The age of discovery, industrialisation and new scientific reasoning introduced a new criminal justice system and new institutions (including the police). Scientific reasoning proposed changes in the penal code and social systems. Newly trained professionals, impervious to corruption and nepotism, were created to utilise a new know-how to investigate people and their crimes.
Training became part of skilling new mandarins in a system that reflected social stratification and professionalism. The training based on secular principles became focused on processes and procedures. The philosophy on the training was to provide a baseline of the skills required for any of the jobs in the system. Their focus on neutrality and impartiality, seemed to reflect the need for wider social participation, making systems more democratic. At least in principle that was the main idea. Over centuries of public conflict and social unrest the criminal justice system was moving onto what people considered as inclusive.
Since then the training was incorporated into education, with the new curriculum including some BTECs, diplomas, foundation studies and academic degrees that take on a variety of professions from investigative fields to law enforcement and beyond. This academic skilling, for some was evidence that the system was becoming fairer and their professionals more educated. Police officers with knowledge of the system, akin to lawyers to the probation service and so on. So far so good…but then how do we explain the killing of George Floyd? Four officers trained, skilled, educated and two of them experienced in the job.
If this was a one, two three, four, -offs then the “bad apple” defence seems to be the most logical extrapolation on what went wrong. If, however this is not the case, if entire communities are frightened of those who allegedly serve and protect them, then there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark”. Whilst this case is American, it was interesting to read on social media how much it resonated, in communities across the globe of those who felt that this was nothing more than their own everyday experience with law enforcement. For them, police is merely a mechanism of repression.
Since the murder I have read a number of analyses on the matter and maybe it worth going a bit further than them. In one of them the author questioned the validity of education, given than two of the officers in the Floyd case hold a criminal justice and a sociology degree respectively. There is a vein of truth there; educators have some responsibility to forge and promote professional conduct and ethical practice among their alumnus. There are however some other issues that have not been considered and it is time for these to be brought to the surface.
Education or training alone is not adequate to address the complexities of our society. Social awareness, cultural acceptance and the opportunity to reflect on the rules using problem solving and insight are equally important. Foucault has long argued that the justice system is inherently unfair because it preserves privileges and blocks anyone outside from challenging it. Reflecting on that, all major constitutional changes took place after a revolution or a war, indicating the truism in his observation.
If we are to continue to train people on procedures and processes the “bad apples” are likely to strike again. The complexity of social situations requires an education that ought to be more rounded, critical and evaluative. If a doctor takes an oath to do no harm, then so should every other professional who works in their community. If the title of the office is more appealing than the servitude, then the officer is not fulfilling their role. If we do not recognise equality among all people, then no training will allow us to be fair. Suddenly it becomes quite clear; we need more education than less, we need knowledge instead of information and we need more criminology for those who wish to serve the system.
*Even that can now be given as an affirmation
I am a white, middle class some might say (well my students anyway), ageing, male. I wasn’t always middle class, I’m from working class stock. I’m a university lecturer now but wasn’t always. I spent 30 years in the police service in a small, ethnically diverse, county in England. I didn’t consider myself a racist when I was in the police service and I don’t consider myself a racist now. Nobody has called me a racist to my face, so why the title? It’s how I’m constantly labelled. Every time someone says the police are racist or the police are institutionally racist, they are stating that about me. Just because I have left the police organisation doesn’t change who I am, my beliefs or my values. So, if the police are racist, then by default, I must be.
I’m not suggesting that some police officers are not racist, of course some are. Nor am I denying that there has been and probably still is some form of institutional racism within the police service, perhaps as a whole or perhaps at a more localised or departmental level. But bad apples and poorly thought-out, naïve or even reckless policies, strategies and procedures are not enough to explain what is going on in policing and policing of ethnic minority groups in particular. I’m talking about policing in this country, not across the pond where policing is very different in so many ways that it is hard to even suggest a realistic comparison. That of course is the first problem, what happens in the United States of America is immediately translated into what happens here.
As a lecturer, I constantly hear from students and read students’ work about the racist and brutal police, often interchanging commentary from the United States with commentary here in the United Kingdom, whilst also failing to recognise that there is different policing in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Institutional racism, as defined by Macpherson, is now part of the lexicon, but it no longer has the meaning Macpherson gave it, it is now just another way of saying the police are and every police officer is racist. Some students on finding out that I was a police officer show an instant dislike and distrust of me and sometimes it can take the whole three years to gain their trust, if at all. Students have been known to request a different dissertation supervisor, despite the fact that their research subject is in policing. This is not a complaint, just a statement of facts, painful as it is.
As I try to make sense of it all, I have so many unanswered questions. What is exactly going on? What is causing this conflict between the police and ethnic minority groups? Why is there a conflict, why is there distrust? More importantly, how can it be fixed? Some of the answers may lay in what the police are asked to do, or at least think they are asked to do. Reiner suggests that policing is about regulating social conflict, but which conflict and whose conflict is it? Other authors have suggested that the police are simply a means to allow the rich and privileged to maintain power. There may be some merit in the argument, but most policing seems to take place in areas of deprivation where the disadvantaged are committing crimes against the disadvantaged. The rich and powerful of course commit crimes but they are nowhere near as tangible or easy to deal with. One the problems might be that the rich and powerful are not particularly visible to policing but the disadvantaged are.
Maybe some of the answers lay in notions of stereotyping, sometimes even unconsciously. Experience or narratives of experiences cause a wariness, even a different stance to one people might normally assume. Being thumped on the nose by a drunk, does tend to make a person wary of the next drunk they encounter. So, could stereotyping be a problem on both sides of the divide? My dissertation student that didn’t want me as a supervisor was later to reveal experiences of racist abuse aimed at the police officers she went out on patrol with. Policing is dominated by white males and despite recruitment drives to address the ethnicity gap, this really hasn’t been that successful. If it was meant to help solve a problem, it hasn’t.
I get the sense though that the problem is much deeper routed than policing. Policing and the problems of policing is just a sub plot in a much wider issue of a divided society and one that is in constant conflict with itself. If the police are guilty of racism, then it is society that has caused this. Our society’s values, our society’s beliefs. An unequal society where the poorest suffer the most and the rich get richer regardless. A society where we are all equal but only because someone somewhere said so at some time, it is not reality. I think of Merton’s ‘American Dream’, I don’t buy into the whole concept, but there is something about not having opportunities, equally when I think of Lea and Young and the concept of relative deprivation, whilst not explaining all crime, it has some merit in that notion that the disenfranchised have no voice.
As I write this I am conscious that I have commentated on a very emotive subject particularly at this time. As I watch the events unfold in America, I fear the worst, action followed by reaction. Both becoming increasingly violent and I see the possibility of it happening in this country. I fear that the term ‘police racism’ will become another convenient label. Convenient in the sense that the problems are seen solely as that of policing. If we examine it through a different lens though, we might just find that policing is simply part of the whole rotten tree, society. Fix society and you fix policing. If the label racist fits, it fits the society we live in.
The thing I hate most about self-isolation is how quickly I eased into this new pace of life. Is that the privilege of having somewhere to self-isolate to or does it come with having an introverted personality? Before quarantine, many would perceive me as a mild-mannered individual. I ask a lot of questions. I guess that’s where my affinity for journalism comes from. Yet, in a global crisis, not much has changed. For someone that suffers from anxiety, one would think I would have more emotional unrest during the worst public health crisis in a generation. But no. I’m content, staying at home.
Whilst this pandemic has been liberating for me, it has shown how much privilege I still have despite being at three disadvantages in society: the colour of my skin, my invisible disability and being an introvert in a world designed for extroverts. Yet, cabin fever does set in once in a blue moon and sometimes it does feel like Groundhog Day. Despite being at comfort in my own space, my concept of time is being challenged. Like, what is a weekend? Not even Bill Murray can save me from this paradox. Not my books, nor Disney+ subscription, films, or The Doctor, Martha and that fogwatch.
What I hate about being an introvert in the buzz term of today – “unprecedented times” – is how I’m not suffering like my extroverted friends. Perhaps this is what it means to live in society designed to accommodate you. The world outside of a health crisis – is this what it’s like? Imagine if I also happened to be an able-bodied, White, straight man as well? Just imagine. Today, extroverts are suffering. Ambiverts are suffering. When this is over will we see an increase in agoraphobia?
And in a society where extroverts are privileged over introverts, the outgoing outspoken marketing professional is valued more than the introverted, reclusive schoolteacher.
Yet, today, we are seeing the value of nurses, doctors, teachers, lecturers / academics and so forth. Many of whom will be introverts going against the grain of what feels normal to them. The person seen to be outgoing and talking and networking is regarded as a team player, in comparison to the freelance blogger or journalist writing away on their computer at home. Many of my teacher friends that talk for a living also love to recluse in their homes, as drinking your own drinks and eating your own food in your own house is great. Can you hear the silence, the world in mute? Priceless.
In my job, I recall in the training we did the Myers-Briggs test in order to get to know each other better. Safe to say I was 97% introvert, which had increased somewhat since I was a student. Coincidence, I think not. In a job where I also go to meetings for a living, and network and people (if I can make a verb out of people), it can be draining. The meetings, the networking, the small talk, the different hats and masks people wear.
As awful as Coronavirus is, I will go back to my intro in saying that this new pace of life is almost like a dream, with intermittent periods of cabin fever. I can recharge my life batteries when I want. I can be alone when I want. I can read, watch films and television series when I want. I like to engage in activities that require critical thought. Self-isolation has given ample time for that. And good things have come from my introspection. Moreover, many conversations with myself. No, I’m not Bilbo Baggins. However, to talk with oneself is freeing. It’s the first sign of intelligence, don’t ya know?
But self-isolation to me and many of my introvert colleagues, it’s our normal. Social distancing is a farce because we are still being social. “Physical distancing” is a better term. Not in this era of WhatsApp, Instagram and Zoom, we’ve never been more social. Coronavirus has shown us a social solidarity that I thought I would not see in my lifetime. To put it bluntly, Coronavirus has pretty much eliminated the quite British obsession of small talk, and given me opportune moments to think.
Whilst my extrovert colleagues want to have that picnic in the park, I’m quite happy to sit in the garden. There lies another privilege. Simultaneously, I seldom feel the need to go out. Where I miss my cinema trips, I remember Netflix, Amazon Prime, Britbox and Disney+. Sure they’re not IMAX but they’ll do. I miss the pub but there’s the supermarket with all sorts of choices of IPA to choose from. Indeed, I have found solace in having my access stripped right back. The freedom to choose afforded to me because I work and live in a “developed country” (I use this term loosely).
For those of us that live in Britain, Coronavirus has swiftly shown that we live in a first-world country with a third-world healthcare system and levels of poverty – highly-skilled medical professionals in a perilously underfunded NHS systematically cut for the last ten years by the Tories.
Unlike University, I can mute social media for a couple of hours, and do some reading. I hate that I am so comfortable, whilst others are not. I often think about international students shafted by visa issues, and rough sleepers who don’t have the privilege of thinking about self-isolation. What about those having to self-isolate in tower blocks like Grenfell? What if we were to have another tragedy like Grenfell during a public health crisis? I hate how Coronavirus has exposed underlying inequalities, and how after this, these systems of power will likely carry on like it’s business as usual.
I don’t feel defeated or bored but the other inequalities in society do make me worry. Having been a victim of racism ten times over, both by individuals and institutions, I know that racism is its own disease and it won’t simply go on holiday because we’re in a pandemic. I know increasing police powers will disproportionately impact people from Black backgrounds, especially in working-class communities, but as Black people (pre-Coronavirus) at a rate of nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than a White person in Northamptonshire is bad enough, isn’t it?
This solitude has pushed me creatively with my poetry and own blogs. Take Eric Arthur Blair, or George Orwell as he was known; when he was sick with TB, he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. The book we now lord about today is essentially a first draft. Rushed. A last bout before death. In my isolation, I’m excited for the number of dystopian texts that will come out of Coronavirus, particularly political narratives on how Britain and America reacted. I’m looking forward to artistic expression and if the British public will hold the Government to account. One could argue their thoughtlessness, and support of genocide (herd immunity) is a state crime.
Whilst it is easy to blame the Chinese government, our own government have a lot to answer for and metaphorically speaking, someone (or quite a few people) need to hang.
A good friend and confidant has implored me to write a book as a project. Being naturally inward in my personality, I could do it. Though, I have my reservations. Perhaps I could write a work of genius that goes on to define a generation. Nonetheless, I observe that during lockdowns around the world, there will be both introverts and extroverts applying their minds to art and creativity. Writing books. Painting pictures. Discovering theories, like Isaac Newton did when he was “confined” to his estate during the Plague in 1665.
One day the curve will flatten: we will see each other again at the rising of the sun, folks say we must make use of this time; however, this is unprecedented, so it is also perfectly okay to be at peace with your loved ones, cherish those moments, and do absolutely nothing of consequence at all.
In the 1960s, or so I am told, there was a very popular weekly television programme called That Was The Week That Was, informally known as TW3. This satirical programme reflected on events of the week that had just gone, through commentary, comedy and music. Although the programme ended before I was born, it’s always struck me as a nice way to end the week and I plan to (very loosely) follow that idea here.
This week was particularly hectic in Criminology, here are just some of the highlights. On Monday, I was interviewed by a college student for their journalism project, a rather surreal experience, after all, ‘Who cares what I think?’
On Tuesday, @manosdaskalou and I, together with a group of enthusiastic third years, visited the Supreme Court in London. This trip enabled a discussion which sought to unpack the issue of diversity (or rather the lack of) within justice. Students and staff discussed a variety of ideas to work out why so many white men are at the heart of justice decisions. A difficult challenge at the best of times but given a new and urgent impetus when sat in a courtroom. It is difficult, if not impossible, to remain objective and impartial when confronted with the evidence of 12 Supreme Judges, only two of which are women, and all are white. Arguments around the supposed representativeness of justice, falter when the evidence is so very stark. Furthermore, with the educational information provided by our tour guide, it becomes obvious that there are many barriers for those who are neither white nor male to make their way through the legal ranks.
Wednesday saw the culmination of Beyond Justice, a module focused on social justice and taught entirely in prison. As in previous years, we have a small ceremony with certificate presentation for all students. This involves quite a cast, including various dignitaries, as well as all the students and their friends and family. This is always a bittersweet event, part celebration, part goodbye. Over the months, the prison classroom leaves its oppressive carceral environment behind, instead providing an intense and profound tight-knit learning community. No doubt @manosdaskalou and I will return to the prison, but that tight-knit community has now dissipated in time and space.
On Thursday, a similarly bitter-sweet experience was my last focused session this year on CRI3003 Violence: From Domestic to Institutional. Since October, the class has discussed many different topics relating to institutional violence focused on different cases including the deaths of Victoria Climbié, Blair Peach, Jean Charles de Menezes, as well as the horror of Grenfell. We have welcomed guest speakers from social work, policing and the fire service. Discussions have been mature, informed and extremely sensitive and again a real sense of a learning community has ensued. It’s also been my first experience of teaching an all-female cohort which has informed the discussion in a variety of meaningful ways. Although I haven’t abandoned the class, colleagues @manosdaskalou and @jesjames50 will take the reins for a while and focus on exploring interpersonal violence. I’ll be back before the end of the academic year so we can reflect together on our understanding of the complexity of violence.
Finally, Friday saw the second ever #BigCriminologyQuiz and the first of the new decade. At the end of the first one, the participants requested that the next one be based on criminology and music. Challenge completed with help from @manosdaskalou, @treventoursu, @svr2727, @5teveh and @jesjames50. This week’s teams have requested a film/tv theme for the next quiz so we’ll definitely have our work cut out! But it’s amazing to see how much criminological knowledge can be shared, even when you’re eating snacks and laughing. [i]
So, what can I take from my criminological week:
- Some of the best criminological discussions happen when people are relaxed
- Getting out of the classroom enables and empowers different voices to be heard
- Getting out of the classroom allows people to focus on each and share their knowledge, recognising that
- A classroom is not four walls within a university, but can be anywhere (a coach, a courtroom a prison, or even the pub!)
- A new environment and a new experience opens the way for discord and dissent, always a necessity for profound discussion within Criminology
- When you open your eyes and your mind you start to see the world very differently
- It is possible (if you try very hard) to ignore the reality of Friday 31 January 23:00 ☹
- It is possible to be an academic, tour guide, mistress of ceremonies and quiz mistress, all in the same week!
Here’s looking forward to next week….not least Thursday’s Changemaker Awards where I seem to have scored a nomination with my #PartnerinCriminology @manosdaskalou.
[i] The first quiz was won by a team made up of 1st and 2nd years. This week’s quiz was won by a group of third years. The next promises to be a battle royale 😊 These quizzes have exposed, just how competitive criminologists can be….
The ‘other’ BBC worldservice.
If you google “BBC+Mandingo,” please be aware that it is NSFW. Use your imagination. Now, imagine an auction block. Imagine a slave standing there. Breeding slaves underpinned the ‘white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal’ system that placed their bodies upon that auction block. Hyper-sexualisation of Black bodies began right there. It is bell hooks’ Intersectionality lens that’s necessary for a holistic gaze upon consumer commodification.
Now, imagine that one Black boy in class, vying for attention just as any other adolescent, yet he’s got an entire multitude of hyper-sexualised images filling the heads of virtually everyone in the room. By the time they hit the locker-room, everyone is expecting to see this kid’s BBC. I’ve had many (non-Black) adults say that to me explicitly, inexplicably in any given situation where one might not otherwise imagine penis size would surface so casually in conversation. Hence, we can all imagine that with the crudeness of adolescent male vernacular: Your kid is asking my kid why his penis isn’t what all the rappers rap about.
Why are so many commercially successful rappers’ fantasies reduced to “patriarchal f*cking?” Reading Michael Kimmel’s essay “Fuel for Fantasy: The Ideological Construction of Male Lust,” in her seminal book We Real Cool: Black Masculinity, bell hooks clarifies: “In the iconography of black male sexuality, compulsive-obsessive fucking is represented as a form of power when in actuality it is an indication of extreme powerlessness” (hooks: 67-8).
It’s auto-asphyxiation, a kind of nihilistic sadomasochism that says, if the world thinks of me as a beast, then a beast I shall be. Plenty of kids work this out by the time they hit the playground. “Patriarchy, as manifest in hip-hop, is where we can have our version of power within this very oppressive society,” explains writer/activist Kevin Powell (qtd. in hooks: 56). Ironically, Powell came to fame in the 90’s on MTV through the original reality show aptly entitled “The Real World.”
Plantation Politics 101
Since at least 2017, commercial rap has been the most widely sold musical genre; it’s pop. Beyond roughly 700,000 sales, Black people are not the primary purchasers of commercialised rap, as explained in the documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. It takes millions to earn ‘multi-platinum’ status. Yet, while created by and for Black and brown people in ghettoized communities, it has morphed into a transnational commodity having little to do with the realities of its originators, save for the S&M fantasies of wealth beyond imagination. And what do they boast of doing with that power, read as wealth? Liberating the masses from poverty? Intervening on the Prison Industrial Complex? Competing with the “nightmare” racist landlords like Donald Trump’s dad Fred? No! They mimic the very gangsters they pretend to be. Once Italian-Americans held hard that stereotype, but now it’s us. It’s always about power. Truly, ‘it’s bigger than Hip-Hop’.
The more painful question few bother asking is why commercial rap music focuses so keenly on pimps, thugs, b*tches and whores? Like other commodities, commercial rap is tailored to the primary consumer base, which isn’t (fellow) Black people, but white youth. What is it about contemporary white youth that craves images of salacious, monstrous, licentious and violent Black people boasting about killing and maiming one another? Describing this mass commercial “Misogynistic rap music,” hooks states: “It is the plantation economy, where black males labor in the field of gender and come out ready to defend their patriarchal manhood by all manner of violence against women and men whom they perceive to be weak and like women” (hooks: 57-8). Plainly, the root of commercial rap’s global prominence is the reenactment of “sadomasochistic rituals of domination, of power and play” (hooks: 65).
Hyper-sexualisation is a form of projection onto Black people a mass white anxiety about our shared “history of their brutal torture, rape, and enslavement of black bodies” (hooks: 63). She goes on to explain: “If white men had an unusual obsession with black male genitalia it was because they had to understand the sexual primitive, the demonic beast in their midst. And if during lynchings they touched burnt flesh, exposed private parts, and cut off bits and pieces of black male bodies, white folks saw this ritualistic sacrifice as in no way a commentary on their obsession with black bodies, naked flesh, sexuality” (ibid). Hence the BBC obsession finds a consumer home safely in pop music!
“I am ashamed of my small penis,” a stranger recently mentioned to me in a grilled wing joint I happened upon here in Hanoi. The confession came from nowhere, having nothing to do with anything happening between us at the time. Is this the locker-room banter I always hear about? Are straight men really so obsessed with their penises? Given his broken English and my non-existent Vietnamese, I tried comforting him by explaining in the simplest terms the saying: “It’s not the size of the wave but the motion of the ocean.” Colloquialisms never translate easily, but I did at least deflect the subject away from ethno-sexual myths spread worldwide through contemporary consumer culture.
We’ve got to talk about ethno-sexual myths with openness, honesty and integrity. Silence is the master’s tool; silence = death! Further, echoing ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ Audre Lorde, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. I am Black in Asia, and there are perhaps no two groups of men at polar opposites of ethno-sexual myths. Like the hyper-sexualisation of women of colour, these myths reveal that neither Blackness nor Asianess is at the centre of these globally circulated myths. Hyper-sexual in comparison to who or what? Hegemonic heteronormative whiteness. Say it with me: Duh!
To get In-formation:
hooks, b. (2004) We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. New York: Routledge.
Lorde, A. (1984) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley: Crossing Press.
I am annoyed that our apartment-building manager told my husband that a two-bedroom had recently become available, and that we should move in because we would be “more comfortable.” My husband always takes such statements at face value, then performs his own cost/benefits analysis. Did the manager offer a discount, I asked? I mean, if he’s genuinely concerned about our comfort, shouldn’t he put his money where his mouth is? That’s probably just the American in me talking: He was either upselling the property or probing us to see what the deal was – not at all concerned about our comfort. I speak code, too.
The most homophobic thing that anyone has ever said to me is not any slur, but that gay people should not “flaunt it.” As if concealing our identities would magically erase homophobia. This reveals that the speaker either doesn’t know – or doesn’t care to know – how readily people everywhere speak about our personal lives. There are random people I have met in every single part of the world, that ask my marital status. It comes shortly after asking my name and where I’m from. The words used are revealing – just ask any divorced person who has engaged with any society’s traditions. Is it deceptive to say that they are “single,” instead? What’s more, regardless of language, preferred terms like “unmarried” reveal the value conferred upon this status. You’re not a whole person until you’re married, and a parent. It is only then that one is genuinely conferred what we sociologists call ‘personhood’. Also, are married lesbians called two Mrs.?
In many parts of the world, being ‘out’ carries the death penalty, including parts of my father’s homeland, Nigeria. I’ve literally avoided visiting Nigeria because of the media-fueled fear of coming out. I hate the distance it’s wedged between my people, our culture and I. There was a time when coming out was literally the hardest thing I ever had to do. Now, l must come out daily.
Back in the UK, many educators would like to believe that they don’t discuss their personal lives with students. But who hasn’t been casually asked how one spent the weekend? Do I not say “My husband and I…” just as anyone else might? Abroad, do I correct co-workers when they refer to us as ‘friends’? Yesterday, I attended an academic conference. All the usual small talk. I came out a dozen times by lunch.
In teaching English here in Asia, isn’t it unfair for me to conceal from my students the gender of my “life-partner,” which is actually our formal legal status? Am I politicising my classroom by simply teaching gender-neutral terms like ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’? Or, do I simply use the term ‘husband’ and skim over their baffled faces as they try to figure out if they have understood me properly? Am I denying them the opportunity to prepare for the sought-after life in the west? Further, what about the inevitability of that one ‘questioning’ student in my classroom searching for signs of their existence!
I was recently cornered in the hallway by the choreographer hired by our department to support our contribution to the university’s staff talent competition (see picture below*). She spoke with me in German, explaining that she’d lived several years in the former GDR. There are many Vietnamese who’d been ‘repatriated’ from the GDR upon reunification. So, given the historical ties to Communism, it’s commonplace to meet German (and Russian) speakers here. Naturally, folks ask how/why I speak (basic) German. My spouse of seventeen years is German, so it’d be weird if I hadn’t picked up any of the language. It’s really deceptive to conceal gender in German, which has three. I speak German almost every day here in Hanoi.
In Delhi, we lived in the same 2-bedroom flat for over 7 years. It became clear to our landlady very early on that we slept in one bedroom. Neighbours, we’re told, also noticed that we only ever had one vehicle between us and went most places together. Neither the landlady nor any neighbour ever confronted us, so we never had to formally come out. Yet, the chatter always got back to us.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Mali in the late 90’s, I learned to speak Bambara. Bambara greetings are quite intimate: One normally asks about spouses, parents and/or children, just as Black-Americans traditionally would say “How yo’ momma doin?’” In Mali, village people make it their business to get single folks hitched. Between the Americans, then, it became commonplace to fake a spouse, just so one would be left in peace. Some women wore wedding bands for added protection, as a single woman living alone was unconscionable. The official advice for gays was to stay closeted L. While I pretended to be the husband of several volunteers, I could never really get the gist of it in my village. Besides, at 23 years old, being a single man wasn’t as damning as it is for women. I only needed excuses to reject the young women villagers presented to me. Anyhow, as soon as city migrants poured back to the village for Ramadan, I quickly discovered that there are plenty of LGBTQ+ folks in Mali! This was decades before Grindr.
Here in Hanoi, guys regularly, casually make gestures serving up females, as if to say: ‘Look, she’s available, have her’. I’ve never bothered to learn the expected response, nor paid enough attention to how straight men handle such scenarios. Recently, as we left a local beer hall with another (gay) couple, one waiter rather cheekily made such gestures at a hostess. In response, I made the same gestures towards him; he then served himself up as if to say ‘OK’. That’s what’s different about NOW as opposed to any earlier period: Millennials everywhere are aware of gay people.
A group of lads I sat with recently at a local tea stall made the same gestures to the one girl in their group. After coming out, the main instigator seamlessly gestured towards the most handsome in his clique. When I press Nigerian youth about the issue, the response is often the same: We don’t have a problem with gay people, we know gay people, it’s the old folk’s problem. Our building manager may be such a relic.
Last night over dinner and drinks, I spoke about race in the classroom with two white, upper-middle-class gay educators. Neither seemed (able) to make any discernable effort to understand any perspective outside their own. I had to do 100% of the emotional labour, and got 0% of the emotional reward. It was very sad how they went on the attack, using both passive and active aggression, yet had the nerve to dismiss my words as ‘victimhood discourse’. This is exactly why folks write books, articles, and blogs like ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’.
Worse, they both had experienced homophobia in the classroom, at the hands of both students and parents. Nonetheless, they had no ability to contribute to the emotional labour taking place as we spoke about race. Even worse, the one in charge of other educators had only 24 hours earlier performed the classic micro-aggression against me: The brown blur. He walked right past me at our initial meeting as I extended my hand introducing myself while mentioning the mutual friend who’d connected us because, as he said, he was “expecting” to see a white face. He was the one to raise that incident, yet literally threw his hands in the air, nodding his head dismissively as he refused any responsibility for the potential harm caused.
“I’m an adult,” I pled, explaining the difference between me facing those sorts of aggressions, versus the young people we all educate. This all fell on deaf ears. Even worse still, he’d only moments earlier asked me to help him understand why the only Black kid in one of his classes called himself a “real nigger.” Before that, he had asked me to comment on removing the N-word from historical texts used in the classroom, similar to the 2011 debate about erasing the N-word and “injun” from Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884. According to the Guardian, nigger is “surely the most inflammatory word in the English language,” and “appears 219 times in Twain’s book.”
Again, he rejected my explanations as “victimhood.” He even kept boasting about his own colorblindness – a true red flag! Why ask if you cannot be bothered to listen to the answer, I thought bafflingly? Even worse, rather than simply stay silent – which would have been bad enough – the other educator literally said to him “This is why I don’t get involved in such discussions with him.” They accused me of making race an issue with my students, insisting that their own learning environments were free of racism, sexism and homophobia.
They effectively closed ranks. They asserted the privilege of NOT doing any of the emotional labour of deep listening. Neither seemed capable of demonstrating understanding for the (potential) harm done when they dismiss the experiences of others, particularly given our differing corporealities. I thought of the “Get Out” scene in the eponymously named film.
“Do you have any Black teachers on your staff,” I asked knowing the answer. OK, I might have said that sarcastically. Yet, it was clear that there were no Black adults in his life with whom he could pose such questions; he was essentially calling upon me to answer his litany of ‘race’ questions.
Armed with mindfulness, I was able to get them both to express how their own corporeality impacts their classroom work. For example, one of the educators had come out to his middle-school students when confronted by their snickers when discussing a gay character in a textbook. “You have to come out,” I said, whereas I walk in the classroom Black.” Further still, they both fell silent when I pointed out that unlike either of them, my hips swing like a pendulum when I walk into the classroom. Many LGBTQ+ people are not ‘straight-acting’ i.e. appear heteronormative, as did these two. They lacked self-awareness of their own privilege and didn’t have any tools to comprehend intersectionality; this discussion clearly placed them on the defense.
I say, 100% of the emotional labour and none of the emotional reward, yet this is actually untrue. I bear the fruits of my own mindfulness readings. I see that I suffer less in those instances than previously. I rest in the comfort that though understanding didn’t come in that moment, future dialogue is still possible. As bell hooks says on the first page in the first chapter of her groundbreaking book Killing Rage: Ending Racism: “…the vast majority of black folks who are subjected daily to forms of racial harassment have accepted this as one of the social conditions of our life in white supremacist patriarchy that we cannot change. This acceptance is a form of complicity.” I accept that it was my decision to talk to these white people about race.
I reminded myself that I had foreseen the micro-aggression that he had committed the previous day when we first met. A mutual friend had hooked us up online upon his visit to this city in which we now live. I doubted that she’d mentioned my blackness. Nonetheless, I had taken the chance of being the first to greet our guest, realizing that I am in a much safer space both in terms of my own mindfulness, as well as the privilege I had asserted in coming to live here in Hanoi; I came here precisely because I face such aggression so irregularly in Vietnam that these incidents genuinely stand out.
Eddo-Lodge, R. (2018). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Hanh, T. (2013). The Art of Communicating. New York: HarperOne.
hooks, b. (1995). Killing rage: Ending racism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
Over the years, in my line of work, there was a conviction, that logic as the prevailing force allows us to see social situations around (im)passionately, impartially and fairly. Principles most important especially for anyone who dwells in social sciences. We were “raised” on the ideologies that promote inclusivity, justice and solidarity. As a kid, I remember when we marched as a family against nuclear proliferation, and later as an adult I marched and protested for civil rights on the basis of sexuality, nationality and class. I took part in anti-war marches and protested and took part in strikes when fees were introduced in higher education.
All of these were based on one very strongly, deeply ingrained, view that whilst the world may be unfair, we can change it, rebel against injustices and make it better. A romantic view/vision of the world that rests on a very basic principle “we are all human” and our humanity is the home of our unity and strength. Take the environment for example, it is becoming obvious to most of us that this is a global issue that requires all of us to get involved. The opt-out option may not be feasible if the environment becomes too hostile and decreases the habitable parts of the planet to an ever-growing population.
As constant learners, according to Solon (Γηράσκω αεί διδασκόμενος) it is important to introspect views such as those presented earlier and consider how successfully they are represented. Recently I was fortunate to meet one of my former students (@wadzanain7) who came to visit and talk about their current job. It is always welcome to see former students coming back, even more so when they come in a reflective mood at the same time as Black history month. Every year, this is becoming a staple in my professional diary, as it is an opportunity to be educated in the history that was not spoken or taught at school.
This year’s discussions and the former student’s reflections made it very clear to me that my idealism, however well intended, is part of an experience that is deeply steeped in white men’s privilege. It made me question what an appropriate response to a continuous injustice is. I was aware of the quote “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” growing up, part of my family’s narrative of getting involved in the resistance, but am I true to its spirit? To understand there is a problem but do nothing about it, means that ultimately you become part of the same problem you identify. Perhaps in some regards a considered person is even worse because they see the problem, read the situation and can offer words of solace, but not discernible actions. A light touch liberalism, that is nice and inclusive, but sits quietly observing history written in the way as before, follow the same social discourses, but does nothing to change the problems. Suddenly it became clear how wrong I am. A great need to offer a profound apology for my inaction and implicit collaboration to the harm caused.
I was recently challenged in a discussion about whether people who do not have direct experience are entitled to a view. Do those who experience racism voice it? Of course, the answer is no; we can read it, stand against it, but if we have not experienced it, maybe, just maybe, we need to shut up and let other voices be heard and tell their stories. Black history month is the time to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.
 A very rough translation: I learn, whilst I grow, life-long learning.