what would David Bowie do?
Today at work I’m faced with the prospect of introducing an electronic register into my teaching because of new anti-terrorist laws. First port of call 150 business school students studying international employment relations and political economy in a non-white university with a growing Muslim population. A true learning experience for all of us.
For many working people a summer of fear and loathing leaves us wobbling on a diversity tightrope. Stranded without the language or skills to think about the very real possibility of racial or religious conflict coming to a workplace near you. Views and vocabularies that have not been aired since Sunday lunch in the 1970s.
Living in a diverse place in times of pressure returns us back to an earlier paranoid schizoid state of mind where the world is black and white. This is not massively helpful anywhere in the world, least not if you work in London where new immigrants are predominantly not black and bring with them their own complex cultural sets of prejudices. A philosophical job of work to remain human and avoid the primal drive to scapegoat. Boy kicks dog, dog kicks cat, cat scratches up anything in the vicinity.
One of the good things about being a complex mess of identifications and projections is that I find it very hard to choose sides which gives me an inroad into intersectionality. This is a horrible word for something rather beautiful called being a human being. Intersectionality says that the real me exists at the crossroads of the things that are important to me. A childish sense of fairness, a brassy feminism dressed in heals, a chippy working class ancestry in the Midlands, an inherited love for animals above all others and a spiritual need for the quiet rolling hills of the South East. Yes, ladies and gents, we are not our Facebook profile.
Still, there are times when we all like to slink into the safety of the group so a few weeks ago I headed off to see Caitlin Moran speak to the sisters in Limehouse, the unreconstructed East End of London and home to a still large South East Asian population. I wanted to know what this working class woman from the Midlands had to say about the impossibly beautiful Harvard graduate on the front page of the Guardian talking about sex abuse of girls in Moslem families. Not asking much then.
I go with a remarkable treacle haired creature, working woman with 3 small boys under the age of 8. I marvel at the fact she turns up in a coordinated outfit and trot off to get her a bottle of wine plus straw. Making the most of being in the warm bath of the sisterhood, I guiltlessly return from the bar only to find myself sitting next to a very angry, blonde, tanned anorexic. Throughout the entire event she pokes me with her boney elbow. Being of the padded variety I was able to look upon her with benign flabby love but in her fury at not getting a rise out of me she musters up what remains of her vital organs to literally push me off my seat. Lady apparently wanted my seat.
Uncharacteristically, something stopped me smothering her in my batwings. It was a complete lack of concern brought on by the realisation that although on the face of it we are of the same tribe in another sense we had nothing whatsoever in common. At all. And to ignore that is politically incorrect.
To distract us from this grubby moment, a brave man in the audience asked Caitlin Moran what advice she had about his 9 year old daughter being obsessed by make up. The family-ethical-dilemma-oldies are the goodies and her answer was pure Freud, “I would ask myself, what would David Bowie do?”.
Let me explain. Psychoanalytic thinking is helpful in all kinds of ways when it comes to tricky political situations like race, religion and sexuality because it brings a 3rd party into the proceedings. A third person into the relationship like a therapist, or a new idea that breaks up black and white thinking where you have to choose sides. Psychoanalytic ideas break down an economy where there are only 2 options to every question. Boy/girl, black/white, muslim or not, we are all according to Freud, psychically bisexual. This way of seeing the world accepts that when we are confronted by people that are not like us (potentially everyone) we can have an allergic reaction and spit or sneeze them out. When we cannot accept our own internal diversity, our allergy to the intersectionality in others gets worse. And no amount of parental guidance on underage make-up is going to change that part of human experience.
Swiftly back to David Bowie. I have loved David Bowie since the age of 12, I just didn’t know until much later that it was because he’s an intersectional. Lets Dance album cover, the White Duke wearing a chiffon shirt and coral lip gloss blowing a country girl’s mind. These additional possibilities opening me up to a huge dynamic world beyond farmhouse norms and the biological necessities of rural life. I was transfixed by the beauty of a man who walks an identity tightrope and the vulnerable place that it puts him in. And the power of not then choosing to skulk in a dark corner but bung on some glitter and go out into the world as neither one thing or the other.
When we are dealing with the tough stuff of race, religion and sex, what matters is the position we take on our own and other people’s intersectionality. For those of us caught up in the cut and thrust of conflict at work walking the human line means taking the third way. And to find this route, this week at work I will be using David Bowie as my psychic compass and at each junction asking myself the question, what would David Bowie do?
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