I have moved to Fife and now often find myself on the train heading to my work in Edinburgh. Trains are fascinating. People from all backgrounds heading from one destination to another, joined together in a journey. I’m not sure if it is the extended journey time, extra space or the prevalence of table seats but they seem to be paradoxically more social and more private modes of transport. People can more easily find themselves engaged in conversation with a fellow passenger and at the same time others seem to let guards slip that they would usually hold tightly in a public space.
All of this is to say that I confess, I am an eavesdropper and a sneaky one too. Sometimes my phone dies on the journey home but I keep my headphones on. They sit comfortably over my hat and I suppose, can be a clear do not disturb sign that I sometimes wear when I am particularly. No noise comes out and I can hear the world around me still.
I hear this conversation, two guys, maybe a little older than me. Not by much. Both in suits. I guess they maybe work in finance as they join us at Edinburgh Gateway which is near the airport and some of the bigger bank offices.
They are chatting work, candidly, I want to know if my hunch on their career is correct so I tune in a little. I don’t get an answer. Instead I am left pondering another question entirely. I admit I can’t recall the conversation word for word but its about a new position in the company:
‘We are both out of the running completely though’
‘Says it at the bottom welcomes applicants from diverse backgrounds. Should just say white men don’t apply for fuck sake ‘
‘I’m gonna tick the boxes for black lesbian women. I’ll be top of the list.’
They make a joke about what their black female names should be. I don’t challenge them. To my shame I glance around and notice everyone is white, so make the awful assumption it matters less. Plus, I have my headphones on so I legitimately could argue I didn’t hear. I’m writing this now and I realise I make those quick calculations all the time. It’s safer for me not to get involved and let it slide. In my position of total privilege, the world is safer because I can let things slide. Plus most importantly, I play the conversation out in my head… I ask them not to make the joke, suggest it is racist…no don’t want to be too direct… could be construed as racist…how?...well…what if we get on to the employment question…he would be better as a black lesbian female…welcomes background from diverse applicants… I know they are wrong but I can’t win the argument. I don’t have an answer
I do not have an answer. I should have an answer.
This blog post isn’t penance or a hope for forgiveness that I didn’t call them out. I didn’t and haven’t done that thousands of times. I have calculated my own safety and let things slide when I shouldn’t. It’s wrong and blog posts don’t excuse it.
Also, all of my blogs are personal – so it makes it about me and it shouldn’t be about me.
So why am I writing the blog post? I’m trying to figure my answer. It is probably so obvious to most of you. But sometimes privilege makes things easier. So you don’t need to work as hard. You don’t need to figure this stuff out till your 30. No one is asking you too. You can walk in and remain unchallenged. Sometimes privilege makes you stupid.
I am a Caucasian heterosexual male or a male heterosexual Caucasian or a heterosexual Caucasian male or whatever order you so please. The reason this works is that the words are both adjectives and nouns. They are simultaneously descriptions and a name for people who may fit within that description. They transcend merely the physical description and become labels that carry their own cultural and societal associations.
The associations are presumptive. Most of our most progressive cultural movements today are about breaking down these associations. My adult hood has been filled with books, theatre shows, films and conversations with friends showing how fluid identity can be when measured on any of these spectrums, race, gender or sexuality. However, the labels still stand and can be hugely useful in our society. How else can we prove a gender pay gap than by listing employees and employers by their gender and job position then measuring that against their salary? We see the colour of the skin when we look at our houses of parliament and notice that pinky white hues still dominate disproportionately to the population? We seek labels to form part of our identity. I know that when I have been ill in the past, weight has been lifted of my shoulders when a doctor names the condition. Naming things is important, it groups our thoughts. Helps order them.
We should have people in all positions from all backgrounds, diversity broadens the depth of experience. It creates healthier environments, it means in your business broadens horizons and therefore can see more opportunity. You aren’t hiring a spokesperson for a race, gender, disability or sexuality – but you are hiring their own individual life experience and perspectives. You want as broad and as interesting a palette as possible.
So when it says ‘welcomes people from a diverse background’ you aren’t excluded. Find what makes you unique and if you can’t then don’t blame the diversity in you company. Blame the lack of it. It’s not the black lesbian woman that is stopping you it’s all the white heterosexual males that are already there.
‘That’s what I should have said. That’s what I didn’t say. I hope I have strength next time to say it…at least I now have an argument.