A British-American citizen of Italian heritage, Alexia is an editor, teacher and writing consultant. After studying psychology then educational technology at Cambridge, she moved to New York to work on a Tony-award-winning Broadway show before completing a PhD and teaching qualification. In between, she worked as a West End script-critic, box-office manager for a music festival and executive editor of a human rights journal. Alexia has always wanted a Dragon; luckily, she has her very own rib in a pot…
Diversity, visibility and equality
Visibility is a hugely important issue in diversity, but isn’t a simple one. It seems obvious that when people’s difference is visible they will suffer more from bigots than when it’s not visible; after all, if difference is invisible then the bigots won’t know to pick on you. But it’s not that simple.
If difference isn’t visible, but we make it so, then there’s often an assumption that that is a choice made freely and in acceptance of the fact that we are putting ourselves in the way of discrimination. It doesn’t make us responsible for bigots being bigoted but it makes us responsible for making ourselves visible to them as different, right?
‘I get what you’re driving at,’ you might say, ‘but a choice is a choice. It’s nice to even have one.’
Yes, it is. But it’s not simple.
Is it a simple and free choice to put away a walking stick when you arrive at someone’s door so, while they might see something off about your balance, they won’t know it’s because walking is hard? Is it a choice to show affection to your same-sex partner in public? Is it a choice to dress in a way that might indicate (purposefully or otherwise) something about your sexual orientation and/or gender identity?
It is possible not to do these things, but the minute we say something is more problematic because it’s visible no matter what you do, we put the impetus on people whose difference is visibly ‘escapable’ to escape it or face the consequences. ‘You don’t have to face bigotry if you don’t choose to – you’ve got the option to duck it today and tomorrow and the day after. You have a choice and I haven’t.’
Yes, to a point this is true.
But it’s not that simple. It is difficult to be different in a way that everyone will always see. But the blame that often attaches to difference that people can choose to make visible or invisible is also difficult. I don’t think one is necessarily worse than the other, at least in the abstract, it’s just different. And complicated.
It’s not simple.
And the more you look at the issue, the more complicated it is. For some people, visibility changes over time – whether they choose it to or not (e.g. when a mobility issue deteriorates). It’s complicated whether you announce a label or whether you’re silent. It’s complicated whether people draw their own conclusions and whether you hang your own labels about your neck and whether you fight against the labels other people put there. It’s complicated to try to determine yourself and how you’re seen and talked about. Identity is complicated. Visibility is complicated. It’s all really complicated whether any kind of choice is involved or not.
People are entitled to be who they are, whether who they are is visible or not and irrespective of their choices about visibility. That is what diversity should be about because diversity should be about equality.
And, yes, the world isn’t equal. We don’t stand on level ground. But we won’t level the ground or make our world more equal by cutting people up and putting their parts into labelled pots and then putting those pots on a ladder labelled ‘most unequal’. While we’re doing that, we’re arguing among ourselves – among those who already believe that all difference is valuable and important. We’re forgetting that the end goal is equality.
And here’s the point where I expect people will start to say ‘Well, what right do you have to weigh in on all of this? How are you disadvantaged? What are your diversity credentials?’
And I am going to refuse to answer. I am deeply uncomfortable talking from a personal platform. I should not need to prove my worth or worthiness. I shouldn’t have to turn myself inside-out to show everyone my diversity labels (X% this, Y% that, with A, B and C in the mix – am I enough to qualify?) unless I want to bring that information into what I have to say. I shouldn’t have to trade my privacy to raise myself above stinging comments about my right to speak. We should all have a voice because we’re all human.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong (or right) about speaking from a personal platform. I’m just saying it’s wrong for me. It would take away my dignity because I would feel undignified sharing stuff I don’t want to share. Oh the luxury of that invisibility. But it’s not a luxury when you feel you have to choose between silence and exposing what you view as private so you can be afforded basic human respect. People don’t have a right to know things about me before they’re willing to hear my voice. I’m a person. That should be enough.
Role models are vital and so is representation but we mustn’t – we really mustn’t – force people to be role models or to personally represent unless they’ve chosen that. People should be able to put their personal stories out there to help others and help us, as a society, move towards more equal values and ways of living. This should absolutely be encouraged. But equally – equally – people must be able to be personally silent and still be allowed a voice: people must be able to choose privacy and be allowed to fight for equality, including being part of debates about how to achieve that. No one should be dismissed because they won’t put their cards on the table – or because they apparently ‘have no cards’ – because they are equal too.
That’s what equality means. We are all the same – and we are all different. That is what it is to be human. We must see everyone as like us and no one as like us, then we can be equal because no difference is bigger or more important than any other – and neither are any of the things that make us alike.
And this is not to deny that the world is what it is – a disgustingly unequal place where some people have a megaphone and others are effectively muted. Or to deny that it is unproblematic when the powerful seek to speak for those who are denied power rather than listening to them or giving up their platform to redistribute that power. Or that we shouldn’t take care who is representing what and with what advantages – and with what motivations, especially when to do with profit. Or that some types of representation just aren’t afforded opportunities to be seen and heard. Or that representation isn’t complex and potentially dangerous and there must be commitments to listen and learn before speaking…
But none of these things are simple.
So before we tell people that they should shut up and not speak for others, let’s ask ourselves some questions about what we’re assuming about visibility and privacy. Let’s ask whether we have to require people to lay out their ‘credentials’ before they speak so that we can judge whether they’re speaking from the ‘outside’ or the ‘inside’ of the issue at stake and, on that basis, whether they should be speaking at all. I think the only credentials needed are being human. But then I believe in equality. I believe that is really what diversity is about: being different and still being equal.
Even leaving all that aside, shouldn’t everyone be able to speak up about what they believe is right? Shouldn’t men and women be feminists? Shouldn’t we all stand together as human beings? Shouldn’t we all care about marriage equality? No, a person who isn’t disabled shouldn’t start preaching about what it is like to experience disability… but being part of the debate about how to support everyone’s rights? Yes, everyone is eligible to be part of that. And, in any case, how do we know whether a person is speaking from experience or not? Disability isn’t always visible and people sometimes choose not to disclose it. We shouldn’t assume that what we see is all the truth there is. Yes, there are serious issues at stake about dominant groups speaking for less powerful groups, but we don’t always know which group an individual belongs to because visibility is not simple.
There are issues of representation and authority and privacy and all sorts of things at stake, but when we believe in equality we must stand on that principle and let equality coexist with complication. We make the world better by acting with integrity. By living equality. The point shouldn’t be what we see or hear or know when faced with another person: it should be that there is a person before us. Another human being. And whatever their characteristics and identity may be or may appear to be, they are – as we all are – no more or less than each other.
We don’t have to agree on anything except our goal if we can just respect our differences – our diversity – in what we see as the best route to get there. We can passionately disagree but isn’t it more important that we share a drive to make the world equal? Doesn’t that make us more alike than different? And even if it doesn’t, isn’t that the point? We can be complex equal human beings respecting each other for all that is the same and all that isn’t.
THAT is the one bit that should be simple.
Evie’s shattered ribs have been a secret for the last four years. Now she has found the strength to tell her adoptive parents, and the physical traces of her past are fixed – the only remaining signs a scar on her side and a fragment of bone taken home from the hospital, which her uncle Ben helps her to carve into a dragon as a sign of her strength.
Soon this ivory talisman begins to come to life at night, offering wisdom and encouragement in roaming dreams of smoke and moonlight that come to feel ever more real.
As Evie grows stronger there remains one problem her new parents can’t fix for her: a revenge that must be taken. And it seems that the Dragon is the one to take it.
This subtly unsettling novel is told from the viewpoint of a fourteen-year-old girl damaged by a past she can’t talk about, in a hypnotic narrative that, while giving increasing insight, also becomes increasingly unreliable.A blend of psychological thriller and fairytale, The Bone Dragon explores the fragile boundaries between real life and fantasy, and the darkest corners of the human mind.
‘The body is a house of many windows: there we all sit, showing ourselves and crying on the passers-by to come and love us.’ Robert Louis Stevenson
Nick hates it when people call him a genius. Sure, he’s going to Cambridge University aged 15, but he says that’s just because he works hard. And, secretly, he only works hard to get some kind of attention from his workaholic father.
Not that his strategy is working.
When he arrives at Cambridge, he finds the work hard and socialising even harder. Until, that is, he starts to cox for the college rowing crew and all hell breaks loose…