Call it

A man I used to know talked about his experience of a catastrophic break down. He described it as like the experience of having  a child stand on your toes. At first you don’t feel anything, then it starts to hurt through repetition. As it goes on and on the pain starts to exaggerate so that even the weight of a child’s foot causes an indescribable crushing pain. He was by far the smartest amongst us, he just gets by now. Not working. 

Last week I started to understand it when people say it’s not our job to educate the people standing in our  way.

There has been a significant and welcome explosion of inequalities literature over the last five years. This is not just academic, it has filtered into our ordinary lives in a way that would have been hard to imagine a decade ago. Just as well really because we’re about to see the real extent of inequalities as the economic crisis pans out. 

I recently read a cracking piece about the resistance to gender equality in the Labour Party (published in Work Employment & Society (WES) here) arguing where the social norm for gender equality cannot explicitly be challenged a quiet attack still takes place. Questioning the equal rights of women is just a very bad look. Oblique resistance, on the other hand, in all its unrecorded and unchallenged glory explains why micro-aggressions matter. Because it is on this ordinary level of quiet passive aggression that the equality wars are often actually lived out. 

Last week I had a hard time maintaining my professional cool.

An experienced woman I know challenged the decision of an institution on the basis that it involved an abuse of power. Additionally that to not address the abuse potentially placed that institution in the position of an abuser. Because she raised a concern she was subjected to a ‘discussion’ with people-of-priviledge unselfconsciously raking through the intricacies of the abuse with cool observer status.  I watched her suck up the insult of smart people wasting time on nuance and completely missing the point. That where any of us are implied in a conscious or unconscious abuse of power don’t duck it or cover it up, and always always say sorry.  

I am often surprised at the fragility of privileged egos who can’t learn from the lived experience of others.  Or recognise that to deny an abuse is a re-abuse, however mundane and socially acceptable it might seem at the time. By 5pm last Friday I was left yet again to carry the emotional consequences of other people’s deficiencies. A psychological dump and run in those Friday afternoon emails where I hurry to process the hurt so I don’t leak it or take it out on my beloveds. Something toxic for the weekend.

The trouble with lived experience is that the vigilance never leaves you. It means we tend to see things way off on the horizon before those people who don’t need such good eye sight are conscious of what lies ahead. You’re then faced with an appalling choice – to say nothing or to embark on the painful learning curves of other people, many of whom do not welcome consciousness of the underbelly of life that they, for whatever reason, have not had to acknowledge.    

Being on the receiving end of being asked faux-innocent questions or presented repeatedly with the same under-researched positions that I remember people debating in the 1970s is a surprisingly visceral attack. It means breathing through the triggering, the psychobiological flashbacks, composing yourself and then explaining it in plain simple language. All the while knowing that no matter how calmly you say it, you’re still going to struggle to be taken seriously. Brushed off as ‘over-sensitive’ the problem again gets pushed back into the victim. 

I approached a woman I admire last week to think about applying for a senior position. She said she wasn’t interested because she knew her value. That she knew she could do the job, and had been paid highly in the past to do it but her motivations for moving to academia and taking the pay-cut hit were to allow her mind to wander, to develop her intellect in her own time. It wasn’t her job to persuade a group of privileged people to take her seriously because of her lived experience. The job will probably go to someone much less capable as a result.

Something that is always underestimated is the cost to people with lived experience of discriminatory exchanges.

An exceptional woman I care about got passed over for a white man who was evidently and significantly less qualified and fabulous than her. He talked about his love for his kids in the interview and got the job. I wish I didn’t know this but the pronouncement of family care has the effect of making men more promotable and payable than women (another great WES article by Fuller & Cooke here). She was devastated. And then something unexpected happened. The organisation realised they’d made a mistake, and made her an offer. They just took it on the chin that they’d made the wrong call. Said sorry, moved on and now they have a number of us thinking very highly of them.

So, if you can manage an (un)conscious passive aggressive attack of whad-abouts and whad-da-ya-means then I salute you.  And if you’re lucky enough to be offered an education by a fully qualified survivor, strap in your ego so that you are ready to hear it.  

There’s always a small window of opportunity for any of us to call it.

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