Reaching in, reaching out

When I started writing a blog it was because I felt unheard and ignored by people with more power. I put that down to a single situation in my workplace; the loss of my beloved work-based Early Childhood part-time degree. I was angry and bereft. I chose to unpick why I was feeling such strong emotions through reflective writing and wanted to share this with like-minded Early Childhood folk. Initially I thought my writing would all be about early childhood and the lack of recognition or respect that this important stage has from those in later age phases and in large institutions. I thought it would reveal that I was saddened about the loss of a course that had been so liberating for me: a course that had awarded me such confidence in my beloved early childhood education and care, and which I could see reflected back in the voices of my students. Whilst all those things came to the fore I was surprised to discover that a previously unacknowledged thread was being followed: that of my black, mixed-heritage identity and the impact it has had on my experiences. I realise now that it was not just unacknowledged by me, it had been consciously ignored.

Many may think: here comes a metaphor that she loves to include in her writing…and yep, you are right. My brain works in pictures and connections to everyday things.

I often listen to people who are talking to me of a dilemma, and I tell them that they are reaching a fork in the road. Which one looks like the best road to travel? Is it the bumpy unmade road, with the trees overhanging causing shadows that may hide scary things, and that curves so that you can’t see where it takes you? Or is it that smooth tarmacked road, which takes you easily to a destination that you can see in sight on the horizon. I admit to them that at times like this I am a person that sits right down under the waypost (that is missing details of the destination or the distance to travel) and writes a little list. I write down the pros and cons in choosing the road to travel.

Sometimes the list writing makes me realise that I have already made the choice; whereas my head and the pros list tells me I should go on one journey, my heart tells me that the cons list will be a much more rewarding one. I think that writing about early childhood is my comfort zone, that tarmacked road. Of course occasionally I am held up by the annoying roadworks, and I trip over the pothole that has appeared, but it is a relatively safe-journey being accompanied by many others. The journey I need to take is perhaps a more lonely one and rather scary as I am unsure of the destination and I know from previous experience that there are definitely scary things like wolves waiting along the way. I need to reach further inside to find out who I am, and the effect that looking like me has had on my experiences and the ‘choices’ I have made, and reach out to others as I make my bumpy journey.

I am just starting a period of annual leave and as always happens this means time spent reading things that I want to, rather than things I have to for my work. I realised today that the pile of books I have chosen are all by black authors and examine lived experience. Unconsciously I have embarked on my chosen road. The first book I have picked up is “Talking Back: thinking feminist, thinking black” by Bell Hooks. Why, oh why, have I never read this wonderful woman’s work before? I have heard her name, and her works have been flagged to me in times past, but I have made a conscious decision to turn away embarrassed and fearful to acknowledge that the issues of which she writes are also my issues. As I read her writing today which resonates so deeply with me, a hundred light bulbs lit in my head: a hundred wisps of ideas pricked at my mind, begging to be followed.

In my own institution, as across many universities, it has been highlighted that black students are not fulfilling their academic potential. These institutions seek to ‘solve’ the problem often approaching it from above rather than recognising that the culture of the institution, the structure, the content, the people themselves, are all part of the problem. One single measure won’t address it – hearts, hands and minds change things. I am currently feeling such a strong sense of discomfort in my own institution as the powerful try to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ and I have been trying to unpick why. For the moment I am only able to investigate my personal feelings. I can only make sense of the bigger picture by making sense of my small part. I am still trying to make the connections to my own experiences.

I have said before I am weaving together the threads of my identity, as explored in previous blog posts. I have been brought up surrounded by white people and without a strong black culture, and for the majority of years on the earth saw myself as more white than black. It is difficult to admit, but I have often been embarrassed of the black part, because in declaring it, of drawing attention to it, I am immediately saying ‘I am other’ and therefore different and separate. When I have been brave and drawn attention to my colour, or challenged insensitive language on race or culture, I have been acutely aware of the awkward silence, pregnant with indignation. Sometimes what follows is a denial, that it was not meant in the way I had received it, at other times a laugh or gesture negates and dismisses my words. What sits on both my part and theirs is acute embarrassment that the elephant in the room had been poked. I had learned to avoid that. It is uncomfortable and I didn’t want to hurt them or me.

In the past when I taught content around inequality I avoided talking too personally of the issues for Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. My raw hyper-vigilant senses would notice the subtle shift of the bodies of the mostly white students as their discomfort surfaced – here was a black woman talking of a difficult uncomfortable subject. I would notice the flick of eyes towards me from any students of colour and how quickly their eyes looked to the ground…and I would move swiftly on. I could imagine myself in their position the heat building inside “Don’t draw attention to me. They will notice I am different. You will make them see me and we will all be embarrassed”. Now I realise how much I have perhaps projected my discomfort onto them or perhaps my discomfort is read by them and internalised resulting in those downcast eyes.

I know that I have in the past avoided raising my eyes, and now acknowledge that as a black woman I have a part to play in raising my gaze proudly and my voice too, not just for me but also for others like me that have been fearful to speak out scared of being seen. As Bell Hook writes “we will always need to promote and encourage talking back”. So recently whilst taking a deep breath like plunging into cold water and gasping for air, pushing down the little voice “I am not worthy”, I have instead begun poking at the elephant in the room. I have been raising my voice above a whisper to say: I am here and my voice as a black woman is knowledgable for I am living this life. I have begun to reach out to students of colour to share the journey we are on together. The wolves will circle and snap at my heels but I am ready for them, because now I am more self aware I can see them coming.

I am still fearful of upsetting, of embarrassing, of being dismissed. In her book Bell Hook quotes Audre Lorde “and when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid so it is better to speak”. I started this blog as “A little voice in a noisy world” and I am speaking, I am talking back. Just now, as a break from my mad intense burst of writing I went out into my garden. I breathed in the spring air and listened to the sound of bird-song. I could hear the many sounds of the bigger birds; the deep caw of the crows, laughing-calls of magpies and the noisy coos of the wood pigeons. However amongst that noise soared the quiet but insistent song of a robin as he sung with his heart and I heard him.

More posts will follow as I grab hold and follow the little wisps of ideas prompted from my reading. If you are interested where that bumpy unmade road is taking me, watch this space…just keep a look out for the scary things along the way.