we are here (even when we’re not)

Last month I spoke at GENOVATE’s international conference on diversity within research and universities. I am not thrilled about the term “diversity” and find a lot of the discourse around it really problematic, but I do think it’s important to talk about the phenomenon it describes. It’s what happens when reading lists are full of dead white men and the images on the slides never show people like you. It’s what happens when you’re never taught by someone who looks a little like you, when your mentors don’t experience the things that you do and cannot advise you on dealing with it, when you look at the entity that is the university and cannot see yourself reflected back. From my own experiences and from what others have discussed with me, there’s a lurch as you realise that you’re less welcome in this space that you thought you were, or that your fears are confirmed and that this place isn’t meant for people like you.

I drew on Nathaniel Adam Tobias C—‘s “Diversity is a dirty word” to trouble and reject easy ideas about diversity. C— argues that there are four key strands to challenge in diversity: the “what”, the “how”, the “who” and the “where”.

  • The “what” is the Syllabus: the choice of topics, resources, examples or case studies
  • The “how” is the Process: the teaching methods and learning activities
  • The “who” are the Participants: the students, the tutors, and the epistemic authorities on the programme
  • The “where” is the Environment: the rooms and buildings, the signs and statues, and the local area, taking into consideration the accessibility of these spaces, both physically and socially

After my talk, someone asked me a question focusing on the “who”: what if you’re teaching, but your students don’t seem to be “diverse” (meaning, I would argue, that they do not appear to deviate from the straight, white, cis, able-bodied student that we might imagine. The word “appear” is important). I said then that I would teach as if such diverse students were in the room: after all, we cannot assume that they’re not. Here is why.

Students are not obliged to out themselves

Not all identities or experiences are immediately visible. I might be able to guess at some of my students’ LGBTQ, disabled, ethnic or religious identities if my students make them visible. Sometimes, these things are made visible to me by and through university systems; namely, information about disability that affects how a student learns and is assessed. Sometimes, my students have revealed things to me: their mental health issues, a physical disability that is not apparent to an onlooker, their gender identity, their sexual assault. I have then tried to be extra careful about how I talk about these things, extra aware of how the class discussion moves and where it goes.

However, I have certainly taught students who didn’t feel the need to tell me. Given that the NUS has identified that 37% of female students have experienced unwanted sexual advances and the gender makeup of the courses I teach, I am confident that I’m teaching a few women who have had such experiences. They shouldn’t have to explicitly tell me so. Their presence in the room, and my sensitivity to these unspoken experiences should not be contingent in knowing that such students are here.

It sounds obvious, but students should never have to out themselves to be taught in a non-hurtful way. I have heard enough horror stories about lecturers making crass jokes about mental health, disability, sexual assault, gender and sexuality that have had to be confronted by a student saying “look, I’m ____ and that’s really inappropriate” – an especially fraught interaction. I’ve had to challenge a colleague who would always joke before IELTS tests: “fill in the box for male or female – it’s the easiest question you’ll face today!”; for some people (including me), that’s not an easy question.

However, the onus shouldn’t be on students to reveal something that they may consider personal and private in order to challenge us. The onus should be on us to make sure that we aren’t excluding some of our students.

Students are not isolated

Students have families, friends, colleagues, communities. I cannot know whether one of my students’ parents uses a wheelchair, whether one of my students’ brother is gay and their parents have been unsupportive, whether one of my students’ housemates recently came out as transgender, whether one of my students’ step-family is Black, whether one of my students’ friends has autism.

Our students do not shed their relationships at the lecture hall’s door. We never, ever teach people as isolated individuals, plucked out of their community. Our students bring with them their loyalty and their friendships, their sometimes desperate concern and their love with them. I think it’s important to recognise that. For example, teaching that is aware of LGBTQ issues and acknowledges heteronormativity in teaching materials can signal to the student with a queer or trans sibling that this space is an expansive, welcoming one. I would rather create spaces that create room than spaces that exclude.

Students have emerging identities

Inclusive teaching means that there’s space for students to change. I wasn’t even a baby gay when I went to university; I was tentatively working out what “bisexual” meant and whether I was one but I was a very uncertain young queer. Turns out that Catholic schools really don’t give you a lot of help if you aren’t totally heteronormative! I ended up discovering things like non-binary identities and queerness and gender performance and gender fluidity from linguistics. I can point to the exact book in which I first found it, and it was a sort of star to steer by.

I try to remember that sometimes, I’m teaching my students’ future selves. Perhaps my class is filled with the opposite of ghosts, shifting glimmers of lives that could be lived. I’m lucky enough to teach in areas that often explicitly involve identity, and I often wonder what seeds I nourish and what lives my students might be leading in ten or twenty or forty years time.

Some of my students may not be queer or trans or disabled now – but who knows what will happen in the future? I would not want to be the lecturer who contributes to these students’ anticipation of hostility. Instead, I imagine spaces without fear; spaces in which students with diverse backgrounds and experiences are not continuously preparing to flinch; spaces that speak to the uncertain and scared and oppressed.

Ultimately, I am interested in creating and expanding spaces. I don’t shy away from tough issues – my research has examined police brutality, nuclear weapons and violent transphobia – and I expect my students to be able to engage with difficult issues too. I just don’t see the point of shutting out students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, and instead aim to create spaces where these students can fully contribute.

A defence of political correctness

Trigger warning: this post contains slurs for race, sexuality, disability, neurodiversity and gender.

So I tweeted something the other night and was a bit surprised that it took off:

As a queer, Asian, female-assigned-at-birth person with an interesting medical history, I like political correctness. Political correctness is why it is generally considered unacceptable to loudly inform me that I am a “chink”, a “paki”, that I should “fuck off back to where [I] came from”, that I should “fuck off back to Santa’s grotto”, that I am a “fucking dyke”, that I am a “fucking lesbian”, that I am a “fucking dwarf” or that I’m an “it”. Obviously not everyone agrees, which is why all of these examples are taken from real life.

When I come across a written article that uses slurs, I am not inclined to read it. I have lots of things to read: my “to read” list is constantly full of books, journal articles, blog posts. Unless someone has contracted my services as a proofreader or copyeditor, I am not obliged to read anything – and I am not wasting my time on something that uses hurtful language. I am not obliged to “look past” those slurs when those slurs hurt me.

If someone who doesn’t have the right to reclaim the term uses the word “tranny” throughout an article, I also have to wonder how far their knowledge extends. As someone who is involved with trans* welfare, health and legal issues, I have to wonder what I can take from it. I read a lot of those articles because one of my academic interests is the media representation of minority groups and issues, but – please forgive me if this sounds arrogant – I tend not to find something interesting and insightful and useful in such articles.

I love words. My degrees have basically been a love affair with words – how they’re used, what they mean, how they come with associations and connotations. I’ve also been accused of being “politically correct” and I’m well familiar with the argument that such political correctness stifles free expression and is a form of censorship. However, I think avoiding these slurs makes me a better, more thoughtful and more creative writer. For example, when I see the word “demented” being used, my mind flashes back to the dementia ward and day hospital where my mum worked and where my sister and I would accompany her if we were off sick from school. I think of my friend’s dad – my mum’s patient – and having to pretend to be my mum because he couldn’t recognise that I was a different person and trying to explain to him that I wasn’t my mum would be pointlessly upsetting. I think of the astonishing people my mum has treated – doctors and teachers and lecturers and footballers – and their families, and the aching loss of a mind, a history, a person.

I almost certainly don’t think what the writer wants me to think, which appears to be “isn’t this insane[1]/outrageous!”.

If I wrote something and there was so great a mismatch between what I wanted to say and what my readers took away from it, I’d consider that an unsuccessful effort. Not because I’d upset someone – I enjoy creating discomfort and disquiet in my creative work – but because I’d upset someone without intending to, because I’d used my words ineffectively, because it meant that I wasn’t doing my best as a writer.

Being politically correct has made me think about my language choices, and to think carefully about what I want to say. I’m reminded of these posters by Alison Rowan:
that's so...

There are lots and lots of alternatives which often express something more precisely. Just look at what you could use instead of “gay”: silly, heinous, preposterous, contemptuous, hideous, hapless, uncouth, unfortunate, deplorable, trashy, ridiculous, atrocious, corrupt, foolish. Or “retarded”: childish, absurd, indiscreet, ignorant, uncool, pointless, careless, irrational, senseless, irresponsible, illogical, unnecessary, trivial, ill-considered, dull, fruitless, silly. Each of those has different shades of meaning. Instead of the scattershot of “retarded” or “gay”, your words can be like precision strikes, hurting only the people you intend to hurt.

If you want to hurt people, that is. How much worse it is if, in your casual and unthinking use of “gay” or “retarded” or “spaz”, you wound someone you never meant to wound, never realised you wounded.

So back to political correctness.

The term “political correctness” was popularised by its opponents; people who agree that political correctness is often a good thing tend to call it other things, like “basic courtesy”. Political correctness means treating people with respect and courtesy, being mindful of what they do and do not want to be called and how they do or do not want to be addressed. It is offering dignity to minority groups, who are already being shat on in so many ways without having to deal with a barrage of slurs.

Saying that you’re against political correctness is not radical or edgy or subversive; it affirms the status quo. It affirms society’s default as white, straight, cisgendered, neurotypical, non-disabled, male. It does not challenge or mock or destabilise power. What, precisely, is subversive about trotting out the same tired racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, ableist crap?

 

[1] And let us contemplate the wide variety of words used to stigmatise mental illness and neurodiversity.

when the internet stops being a playground

Last week, a post appeared on the Gay Girl in Damascus blog reporting that the blog’s author, Amina Arraf, had been kidnapped by security forces. People responded. They tweeted, they wrote to Syrian embassies, the news got picked up by LGBT and mainstream news.

However, there were doubts about whether this person existed. Liz Henry observed “I would hate to have my existence doubted and am finding it painful to continue doubting Amina’s. If she is real, I am very sorry and will apologize and continue to work for her release and support”. What if this person did exist and was in danger? Amina may not exist – but what if she did, what if she had been kidnapped and was being forcibly deported, beaten or abused? The stakes seemed too high to just dismiss it.

Liz Henry had her doubts, based on experience with other hoaxes, and wrote about them in two posts: Painful doubts about Amina and Chasing Amina. Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty carefully examined what evidence they had to work out Amina’s identity.

The Amina blogger turned out to be Tom McMaster – a 40 year old male Masters student studying in Edinburgh. He apologised, claiming that he did “not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about”. LGBT bloggers in Syria were understandably furious. Contrary to McMaster’s claim that he did not harm anyone, they describe tangible ways he has made their lives and online activities less safe – drawing authorities’ attention to their activism, forcing them back into the closet, caused people to doubt their existence or the authenticity of their reports. As Brian Whitaker says, “[l]iving a fantasy life on your own blog is one thing, but giving an interview to CNN while posing as a representative of the region’s gay people appears arrogant and offensive, and surely a prime example of the “liberal Orientalism” that MacMaster claims to decry”.

In a weird twist, the editor of “Lez Get Real”, Paula Brooks, has also turned out to be a straight man. He said that he “didn’t start this with my name because… I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man”. I have to admit, with some annoyance, that I have not noticed straight, cisgendered, white men as having a particular problem with “not being taken seriously” – this is privilege 101 stuff.

What this seems to be is a clash of internet cultures. On one hand, the internet is perceived as a playground for identities. As Liz Henry notes, people may have good reason “to conceal their identity and to develop relationships online under a screen name. They might like to express an aspect of their personality that would not mix well with their professional life. They might have gender identity issues they are working through. They might be in a family situation that makes it unsafe for them to come out as gay. They might write fiction using characters whose stories are under copyright”.

However, on the other, citizen journalism and minority blogging relies on authenticity; of you experiencing something that mainstream media doesn’t cover. It relies on telling your truth, shining light into areas where top-down media does not, or cannot, reach. It can be incredibly powerful – Baghdad Burning was just one example. There’s a tension between the internet as a consequence-free playground for identity, and the fact that sometimes these identities have very real consequences.

I also note that it’s straight white men doing this, and I’m finding it difficult to interpret this in isolation of that. @paleblurrr observed, in a series of tweets, “straight and/or white men not getting automatic respect/authority afforded to them in mainstream society in queer and/or poc communities, instead of respectful engagement from a place of privilege, fake identities to infiltrate and feel “powerful”. that’s all about power & control, ensuring they dominate conversations & are centre of our attention at whatever cost to others. can’t ever not be about them. Ever.”

I think what bothers me is the deliberate lying, manipulation and deception. Not stating your identity and allowing people to make their assumptions is one thing. Experimenting with different voices and persona in a setting where that’s acceptable and acknowledged is another. But creating a persona that is a member of a minority group and using that to speak on behalf of people when you do not share their lives, experiences or oppressions, and putting real people in danger when they cared about your created persona? That seems different, and makes it a much more complicated, uncomfortable and deeply problematic situation.

Edited to add: A few links which I thought were interesting – Said says Amina Hoax MacMaster-mind is Orientalist, Identity drag: Amina, appropriation and accountability and Men masquerading as lesbians online: allies or cowards?.