The Identities Programme
This talk is going to cover a lot of ground. This work is huge. Together, we’re going to try and change the way we talk about diversity, inclusion and all these related concepts which are really about the way we are together, as human beings.
The slides and words will be available to you online, once the ad libs are written in – it never comes alive until then! And no doubt this ‘script’ contains many things that I’ll forget to say on the day – nerves will account for that, not dodgy priorities.
The first thing to say is that this is not about teaching you stuff, it’s about learning together. No-one has nailed this, or the world wouldn’t be the way it is. So the whole programme is about providing the inspiration and the space to work through what it is that you (and I) need to do, to change how things are. Essentially, I’m going to be re-introducing some concepts to you here that we’ll then all keep thinking about until May and beyond.
Some context, first of all. Northern College’s mission is one of transformational education: we want to change the world. We try to do this through social purpose education. This model expresses what we are trying to do. Connecting with our own values and expressing them through our teaching; reflecting on why we do what we do. Focusing on the impact our students make: on their families, their communities and on the world. And striving always to even things up, meaningfully, genuinely, until they way we see one another stops being about difference.
Yes, we want an end to putting people in boxes and we define diversity as the ability to be present as yourself, no matter where and who you are. But we’re not idealists. We might be educators who haven’t got cynical, but we’re totally real about how the world is constructed, and our eyes are open to the sausage factory that education has become. We don’t talk about people when we talk diversity: we talk about “E&D”, a concept so stripped of nuance that it’s become meaningless. My first task for today, now I’ve told you where the toilets are, is to strip away that E from that D and put it to one side for the time being.
Equality is desperately important, but it’s had its time in the sun. The last twenty years of the 20th century were spent developing standpoint legislation, following the huge civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The Equality Act in 2010 brought all of this together into a recognition of the nine protected characteristics, on the grounds of which it is now illegal to discriminate in any form whatsoever. This is one of the most significant pieces of UK legislation in generations and I’m not downplaying it here. But the work here has been done and we have a legislative framework now which offers protection to those people whose identities include those in the protected groups. We’re concerned with two limitations of the Equalities framework.
The first is, what happens to the identities which fall through the gap, those that are not present. When did marital status get to be more influential than social class, when it comes to how I’m treated in the world? When there are – rightly – campaigning groups for each one of those protected characteristics, who is campaigning for the human being which is, uniquely, me?
The second is more subtle, and even more dangerous. There’s a hierarchy in those coloured bubbles, a hierarchy which arises from our social and personal histories, a hierarchy which is hugely culturally specific and which causes equalities work to be fraught with tension. Rightly, everyone is fighting their own corner. I belong to a national network of equalities networks and – understandably – when the Black professional speaks, she speaks for black professionals; the LGBT representative speaks for people from a sexuality point of view. The net result, of course, is that those circles get drawn even more securely; they silo, they close.
So our work here is almost everything but those nine circles which are protected by law – which is not in any way to say that we don’t keep doing that work too. Equalities work is essential to any public (or private) service. If we don’t monitor the people we are reaching, how can we reach those we are not? I’ve no patience with the notion that people are ‘hard to reach’, it’s the service that doesn’t get it right. So I’m never afraid to use those silos if they are going to help me target the resources we have. In fact, we’ve sung about it 😉
That video is part of a campaign to raise the profile of equalities monitoring; we’ll be sharing some of that work with you, including a movement to get the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ taken out of data, to be replaced by heritage terms, such as ‘African’. Perhaps we’ll have chance to explore what we think about that, at some point?
So let’s put equalities to one side, take it out of E ‘n’ D, park it. Once again, I’m not saying that work is not essential: it is. But now that we’ve recognized and named it, it’s not what we’re concerned with here, today. This project is about the other ingredient of the “E’n’D” trifle: diversity in all its nuances of privilege, intersectionality, inclusion. Here at Northern College we define diversity as having two elements:
- Being present as yourself
- Bringing in perspectives from invisible and absent identities
…because, after all, you can’t get everyone in the room. This definition makes sense of differentiation as a practice you do with someone (not to them) and means that there are real things that educators can do, while organisations are sitting in committee.
This is an approach based in personal identity: that we all have a series of identities that ebb and flow over time, that we tune into them more or less, that they are shaped by each other and by the environment around us. It’s the concept of “I Am”, rather than “I Am Not”. Everyone will have seen this a couple of years ago, advertising Channel 4’s Paralympic coverage; I can still remember exactly where I was the first time I watched it and it’s still like an emotional electric shock (of course Public Enemy helps). Human beings are harder than you think and in a world of oppression and self-victimisation it’s good to keep that in mind.
But Hannah Cockcroft is not her wheelchair and Ellie Simmons is more than the physical impact of her DNA. This project is about intersectionality (as we call it today). The concept, if not the word, was summed up by Audre Lorde years ago: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” A lot more work has been done on the concept by critical race theorists such as Kimberle Crenshaw, but that remains essentially it. We are uniquely ourselves, in all of our identities. Some are more visible than others; some more or less denied, either by society, by other individuals or – powerfully – by ourselves. This project gives you (and us) the space to explore our thinking, as ourselves.
I said earlier that there is in the UK a hierarchy of identity characteristics, written down nowhere but internalised everywhere. It’s the same hierarchy which keeps social class dominant, even though it’s not a protected characteristic (and politicians keep telling us there’s no such thing as class). Mind you, it’s just appeared in the diguise of ‘social mobility’; it will be interesting to see if that catches on. The same hierarchy was at play in Rotherham, my home town, where the fear of being labelled racist enabled powerfully sexist things to be done to vulnerable girls. I’m going to choose two of the protected characteristics to explore further only because we don’t have time for all nine. I don’t want you to imagine that I think any identity is more important than another.
I feel most lost in protected characteristic of race; suffused by ‘white guilt’, embarrassed by that, and of an age to be mired in 1980s race politics, which made me terrified to speak in case I got it wrong. All of this has left me paralysed and in denial, until I watched this video produced by Nathan Richards and the NUS Black Students Campaign. It’s worth watching in full. Thanks to this, I got braver, stumbled into places I knew nothing about on Twitter and, thanks to Diane Leedham, who is here today, found out about the concept of ‘white work’, which has been the most liberating thing that’s happened to me this year. White work is OK and in a world of racism and unseen white privilege, it needs to be done…by white people. Not everyone agrees, but I’m feeling in tune with the belief that it’s not up to people of colour to help white people be less racist.
I’ve also been getting my head around the notion of privilege, which has been subject to a massive amount of media debate recently. What’s not to like about a little humility, which is all it seems to me to be? Each of my identities carries with it more or less privilege and every person I come into contact with experiences the same. The trouble only starts when we compete…whether that plays out in oppression, self-victimisation or self-indulgent ‘guilt’, it’s all a waste of time.
It seems to me that sexuality is moving forward in some senses, where other identities are not. I know I won’t see equality in my lifetime, but in the UK at least there have been some advances – you notice that as long as being gay carries the death penalty in some parts of the world I’ll never be more than cautious in claiming progress. And in LGBT work in the UK, the experience of trans people is still more often appalling than not. But sexuality thinkers have done what we’re attempting to do here; they begun to change the language around not just sexuality but also gender (in the sense of socially constructed identities, rather than biologically determined sex). Anyone here heard the term ‘gender queer’? It has taken me forever to ‘get’ this and I’ve got to thank both my friend Ellie Trees and my 18 year old son Fraser for hammering it in. Queer theory separates what you are out from what you do. So sexuality is an action or performance; it’s not a fixed part of your identity. Gender, too, is about the way you choose to live your life, whatever type of reproductive organs you were born with. That makes sense to me…eventually. And the language around it – though not commonplace, not yet – is a far cry from the South Yorkshire playgrounds of the early 1970s, where queer was a hate term. I’m not suggesting that language can always shift in that precise way, but it can always shift, and that’s one of the main things that this project is all about.
Finally, before you really start the programme and all the wonderful stimuli it contains, to spark your own thinking, I’d like to say a little bit about the pedagogy behind it. I began this talk by saying, we weren’t here to teach you anything. What I mean, in fact, is that we are not here to teach you how to think, or what to change in your own practice. You’ll figure that out, if we create the right conditions for you to do your best thinking. That’s what we call the Thinking Environment, a series of simple but radical processes which get that environment right. You’ll hear more from Lesley Whiting later about the Thinking Environment, including where to find out more about it, but we believe it’s revolutionary. And it contributes to the form of pedagogy you’ll experience here: rhizomatic learning: where the community is the curriculum and we facilitate one another to learn what we need to.
Rhizomatic learning is a messy, complex, uncertain stuff. It happens all the time, when people get together in a genuine community of inquiry. It can be facilitated, but not managed. The metaphor comes from the sort of plant that you can never dig up, something like ginger or couch grass: it’s invasive, persistent, subversive. It can be manicured – like our snow day rhizome where the whole Certs class, tutors and critical friends went online when we couldn’t get in, or like the huge, international #rhizo14. But it has a rich and powerful life of its own.
And so you see where I’m going with this. All these individuals who have a passion for social purpose education are nodes of the rhizome. We connect in multiple ways, all the time, pooling energies, regenerating ideas. The end of a course or project doesn’t mean the end of thinking, for social purpose educators who give a toss about what they do. Once we start this work together today, I’ve no doubt that we’ll continue it as long as we have the appetite or until the work is done.