Owning the space?

As always my squiggling thoughts have been working hard, but for many reasons the writing has been slow to follow. I recently finished a round of counselling which I have mentioned in a previous blog, and this resulted in a realisation that I needed to think more before committing myself to action. Self-protection has to be part of my decision whilst retaining my commitment to my authentic self. I have also realised that I don’t need anyone’s acknowledgement or acclaim for my words, I don’t need ‘followers’ or ‘likes’ as my aim is only to ‘speak my truth’. I share my writing to those who are interested in my story, if they want to share that writing with like-minded people I am happy.

A few weeks ago I took part in a brilliant BrewdEdEY Sussex event. This wonderful movement draws together those interested in early years education and care to hear different voices of the sector. It is a supportive environment where speakers give their time for free, and attendees pay just a small amount to cover the costs of the venue (from the name of the event you will understand that this venue is often a pub!). I had taken the leap to speak about ‘colourblindness’ in early years settings based on my experiences, drawing on a short piece I had written for an in-house university journal. I was stupidly nervous beforehand as it was the first time I had spoken ‘my truth’ attached to my life-long passion for the experiences of children in the early years. I am used to teaching and therefore talking in front of large groups of people. I am always nervous and imposter syndrome often rears its head. However, this talk used personal experiences to illustrate ideas of belonging, the power of relationships on children’s sense of self, ideas of white fragility and white privilege and the impact of equality when it goes no further than “we are all the same here” (when this is so clearly not the case for people like me). I was feeling vulnerable and exposed by my upcoming talk as I drove through the countryside early on a Saturday morning. I arrived at the venue, to see a smiley black man crossing the carpark. Without even thinking I raised my hand to wave at him as he entered the door of the pub. I knew that @jamel.carly was speaking too and assumed that this was him, although this was not the reason that I waved. I waved with relief that here was another black face when I knew from experience that many of the people attending would be white. This has always been my experience in Sussex and I am used to that – in my lifetime of living in a rural space I have learned how to navigate the white space. However, on this day I knew I would be addressing topics that would cause discomfort for me and those listening. I needed to see another black face.

I knew that the room would be supportive as early years colleagues so often are, but my concerns were that the subject of white privilege would be a challenge for some. I sat with some familiar faces, people I have known and admired for a long time. Yet still I sat on the edge of my seat, hand shaking as I sipped water and took pills for my pounding headache. I listened enthralled to the speaker before me – so many practical discussions about spaces in the early years setting. Her talk prompted interesting questions, connections and ideas. A wonderful buzz filled the room, but all too soon it was my turn.

I cast my eyes around the room at the sea of white faces, stopping at the one other black face in the room that I had waved at earlier. I began with a call for us all to be brave, to go with the discomfort that we may all feel during my presentation, because change would only come once that discomfort was acknowledged and moved passed. Once I started the words flowed. As I knew would happen I went over my allotted time, but the applause afterwards seemed to suggest that my words were received well despite the moments of palpable disquiet at points during my talk. There was no time for questions and I fled from the front seeking comfort in the arms of people I knew. I felt emotionally drained – I had shared a part of myself with others; a part of myself which had been hidden and buried except on the pages of my writing. I was close to tears at that point but at the same time freed because a significant personal barrier had been broken. I had been frightened to connect my thoughts on racialisation in white spaces with my passion for early years, in case the first tainted the latter. But at last it was done.

I answered a couple of questions about my talk during the lunch break, but when given the opportunity for the whole group, there were no questions for me. I felt a moment of disappointment before rationalising the fact that many people would need the ‘safe space’ to unpick their thoughts just as I had suggested during my presentation. The wonderful @jamel.carly then started his talk. His passion, energy and enthusiasm filled the room and there was a tumultuous round of applause as he finished his talk and the questions afterwards flowed. Someone turned to me as I said “wow that was brilliant!” and she responded “yeah he owns the room when he talks”.

As I drove home I mulled over the day as is my habit after any talk I share or teaching I deliver. I reflect on the content, my style, where I could have improved and what changes I would make should I do it again. The phrase “owning the room” popped into my head and there it has stayed ever since. I have never felt I owned a room – and I was curious as to why. I have had moments where I feel that I have done a good job, that I have connected with those listening, and co-construction of ideas (my ultimate aim) has been achieved by the majority in the room…but ‘owning’ that room?

I think “to own” means to feel possession of something as belonging to you. It requires a certainty of a right to something that I have seldom felt. Looking at the dictionary definition of “to hold one’s own” it states “to be equal to the opposition.” Perhaps I do not possess such confidence because of my personality – an inbuilt tendency for self-denigration and a belief that others should be put first as they were more deserving?

Or is it because of my gender that I do not feel ownership of a space? I have noted so often in different work places that many men had such confidence and assurance when they spoke. When they talked people listened. In my current workplace students commented on the wonderful talk by male colleagues, yet I had heard the more outstanding wonderfulness of the woman before him. More recently, when I have spoken my ideas they have been ignored, but a man has used those same ideas as his own and been acclaimed for his ingenuity. Frustrating but the experience of so many women.

Do I not own the space because I am black and so often in my lifetime I have learned not to expect ownership? I have been taught to step aside for white people, to defer to their wisdom, and their culture – hey you, that is the right way if you want acceptance. Being the only black face and voice in nearly every space I have found myself in has left me alone and vulnerable. However I have also felt a tremendous feeling of responsibility to all black people, and that I had to work smarter and stronger to prove my right to be there. My 10 years in academia have not helped with this. I entered those hallowed halls with wonder at my luck in landing my dream job, and a huge dollop of imposter syndrome to boot. What I discovered was that whilst there were many wonderful people those same rules which were applied to gender and colour in the outside world still applied in higher education…but with knobs on! Added to this however were the hidden rules of academia. A hierarchy of qualifications, of complex words and phrases and with some a hidden club which held these things in high esteem, whilst looking down on those without. The dance is interesting to watch as the outsider I am. It is a subtle but exclusionary dance: there is the positioning that takes place, the reverence of one type of knowledge over another, or the deal that is done in exchange for acceptance, before the choosing of the face and too often the gender that fits.

Is it some or all of those things that prevents me ‘owning’ a space?

Over the last year I have enjoyed my return to writing. I fought hard for it to remain my writing and my story. I have resisted the pressure from others (and myself) to justify my words with academic references. This academic structure is so much a part of my everyday work this has been hard to do and to believe in myself and trust my words for what they are – my truth. Today I read some blog posts by the wonderful Dr Muna Abdi discussing how she wrote her PHD recording the voices of Somali men in her job as a community youth worker. Her words in the second of her blogs resonated with me:

“academic writing often creates a paternalistic structure that excludes the groups of people who are often the topic of discussion. […] I fought the urge to theorise their experiences, and realised in my hesitation that it was not so much that the subaltern [marginalised peoples], lacked the ability to speak… but rather Western intellectuals’ lack the ability to hear different stories.”

Suddenly the penny dropped for me. To own the space I need to own my words. I do not have to justify my story by using the words of others whose words and ideas others may see as more worthy than mine. I need to believe in myself and the words I write and speak. At the start of my presentation for BrewEdEY I said that what I spoke of may not be the experiences of all black people, but that I spoke my truth as a black woman who has lived her whole life in a mostly white place. Now I hold onto a realisation that my truth is good enough, and I own any space where I choose to speak it.