Let’s Talk About Race

By Asha Dinesh

Let’s talk about race.

I’ll be honest: this was difficult to write. In fact, I just checked, I first started drafting this to send to Gender and the City in November last year. I think what I needed was a moment of inspiration, a force to push me to explore in writing this particular topic, which is currently so publicly pervasive but also deeply personal to me. That force was Beyonce’s Lemonade album.

I have never felt comfortable talking about racial identity in the largely white communities that I had been a part of for most of my formative years. I have never really tried to explore this lens in ‘mainstream’ everyday debates, whether amongst friends or colleagues, whether about feminism or films. This may be from a fear of alienating those of my peers who cannot relate to my experience and viewpoint as a non-white female, or it may hark back to my adolescent weariness of looking different to the ‘norm’ and not wanting to emphasise it further.

It is an innate part of human nature to neatly categorise things, places and people. It is an evolutionary survival response, probably developed in the prehistoric ages when our ancestors developed labels for which berries to eat and which to avoid. Perhaps this is why we ask questions like ‘Where are you from?’ Beyond the benign purpose of breaking the ice, it is a (probably subconscious) way to gauge whether someone is a friend or foe, a berry you can eat or one that will poison you.

The question ‘Where are you from?’ has over the years triggered a range of emotional responses in me, including anxiety, pride and plain confusion. It has elicited an even wider range of verbal responses, from ‘Mostly here/there’ to ‘I grew up here but my parents are from there,’ to a begrudging bulleted version of my background. Perhaps the question is conceptually flawed, because as the impeccably articulate Taiye Selasi questions, how can a human being come from an idea such as ‘country’? The question is, I think, also flawed on a more morally questionable level, because often what is really being asked is ‘why does your skin colour look different from mine?’ In other words, it is a sharp focus on one clearly visible aspect of a person’s identity – their race.

Amartya Sen developed the idea about how multiple and simultaneous identities make up an individual, such as race, gender and religion. He argued that the obsession with tying people down to one identity can foster mistrust and violence. That is, not having an ‘intersectional’ lens which sees multiple identities in tandem causes one aspect of an individual’s overall identity, be it race or gender, to supersede other aspects in the eyes of others, leading to tensions arising from that particular aspect being at odds with their world view.

This single-identity lens pervades our society; it is ingrained within institutions and entrenched within public discourse. At best, this causes protests against works of art that fall into the single-lens trap, at worst, it leads to damaged community relationships, unjust public institutions and widespread violence. Would Michael Brown have been shot to death if Darren Wilson had seen him as an 18-year-old unarmed high school graduate who misguidedly shoplifted, rather than a black man who threatened his safety? Would Hillary Clinton face the same amount of vitriol in the media if she was analysed by pundits through a multi-layered lens rather than a gendered one?

This single-lens criticism is the typical argument made against ‘white feminism’. Don’t get me wrong, white feminism has achieved things that were previously unimaginable. Amongst numerous milestones, it got women the vote and a host of other rights, and it might get us a female POTUS. However, once you overlay an ‘intersectional’ lens on certain issues – that is, view them through a multi-layered perspective – a whole new anthology unfolds.

Commentators and academics have highlighted the gender-race scale, whereby the further away you are from a white male, the worse your lot in life appears to be. Non-white women are more likely to experience street harassment and violence. Non-white women tend to earn less than their white male and female counterparts, even when levels of education and affirmative action policies are taken into account. Disparity is also evident in the arts, arguably one of the most liberating of avenues; outspoken members of the music and entertainment industry have long lamented the treatment of non-white female artists compared to their white counterparts, leaving aside the gendered hierarchy of the industry.

Over time I have become more comfortable with the ‘Where are you from’ question and the myriad of forms it takes (my personal favourite: ‘Where are you originally from?’). I realised that my uneasiness with it is not to do with the very question being asked, as getting to know each other’s background is part of the process of how we connect with people. The uneasiness stems more from instances in which the conversation ends with or focuses exclusively on this question.

In these instances, once enough information has been gathered to categorise you into one grouping, no further exploration into other aspects of your identity is deemed necessary. Whether it is the drunk guy at the pub suddenly turning his attention to your ethnic identity, or a new acquaintance clearly having trouble matching your accent with your skin tone, this question only bothers me when there is no follow-up on other aspects of my identity. Because focusing so acutely on my race reduces me to a single dimension, which is unacceptable. The conversation needs to move beyond this single-identity lens –intersectionality needs to pervade our everyday conversations as well as the public dialogues. And art has a crucial role to play in encouraging this dialogue on both domains.

Art, in my view, is a deliberate arrangement of visual, aural and other sensory components with the aim to provoke. Its very purpose is to evoke an emotional response, and the most powerful art goes beyond this, often provoking people to act on their emotional reaction, whether with their words or actions. And so it is with Beyonce’s latest album, Lemonade. It has been hailed as a cultural phenomenon, the epitome of the #blackgirlmagic movement. It has caused middle-aged white men to foray into the largely siloed terrain of complex racial identity politics; it has caused powerful responses to said forays. It has raised the profile of debates around race, feminism, politics, power and every point in the Venn diagram where these themes meet.

Whatever side of whichever layer of the debate you fall on, you cannot disagree with one central lesson of this latest stormy episode ignited by Beyonce and that is this: what her art teaches us is to not shy away, to not be afraid, to be that bitch that causes all this conversation. So, let’s talk about race.

I Had An Illegal Abortion

By Anonymous

I had an illegal, clandestine and expensive ‘safe’ abortion. I could be prosecuted and jailed, but it’s unlikely to happen. It’s been 3 years.

I live in a country where abortion is only legal in cases where the life of the mother is in danger or if a mentally disabled woman is raped. My reality mirrors those of thousands, if not millions, of women around the globe who cannot access a legal, safe abortion. But unlike the great majority of those women, I could access a ‘safe’ abortion for the right price.

I was 22 and in a relationship with a 26-year-old foreigner (let’s call him Will) who was doing a semester abroad in my country as part of his master’s degree programme. We had been dating for 3 months and had no plans of having a long-term relationship: I was moving to Europe in a few months in order to study my master’s at a top university and he was going back to Canada. I decided to present the news in a concise and clear way so I blurted out ‘I’m pregnant and I want an abortion’ over dinner at his place one night. He just looked me square in the eyes for a while and asked if I was certain. I said ‘Yes, and that since abortion is illegal in this country we should tell no one and do it as soon as possible.’

I was only 4 weeks into the pregnancy so it was relatively easy. I called a mobile number that a local women’s rights NGO had given me. The call was answered by a doctor who insisted we had to talk face to face the moment I mentioned I needed an abortion. She absolutely refused to confirm over the phone that she had practised the procedure before I can understand her caution, she could be stripped of her licence and jailed. After a quick, chipped discussion I agreed to go to her office for a ‘routine check-up.’

The appointment was in one of the most expensive private practice buildings in the city, the kind of place where you pay for privacy, confidentiality and discretion. Will decided to come along but I told him to wait outside until I texted him. I wanted to ask for the price before he arrived because people tend to overcharge foreigners.

As soon as I sat down in her office she asked me to put my bag in a box and to turn my phone off. So I called Will and told him to come up in 10 minutes. I turned my phone off, stated the facts, and asked for the price. She said that the usual price for what I needed was US$ 1000 (more than 3 times the national minimum wage). She said it would be simple: because of the early stage I would only need some pills. ‘Why $1000 for pills?’ Because I would spend two days in a private clinic being monitored, given pain meds and making sure that the remains were disposed of and finally given a final check-up. She said I didn’t have to worry because there would be no paper trail and she would not open a file. In addition, the payment had to be made in the form of a donation to that clinic.

Right then, Will arrived, and after I explained the procedure to him, she repeated the cost and the specifications. She said that Will could stay with me the whole time, the rooms were all private and had a futon too. If he didn´t, someone else had to stay with me, it was mandatory. I said I just wanted the pills. She told us she didn’t do that, that you never knew if there could be abnormal bleeding, or if a part of the foetus could be stuck inside, or if the remains were properly disposed of. It sort of made sense: a few months back a woman was convicted because she went to the hospital after abnormal bleeding caused by abortion pills, and the person that provided her with the pills was also prosecuted.

It turned out that the private clinic was in a small town, a couple of hours from the city. I told my family and friends that we would be taking a weekend break outside the city. The procedure went smoothly; I took the pills as soon as I got there, and spent the next 48 hours under observation. I could tell I was not the only woman in the clinic who was getting an abortion. I saw a teenager with her mother, and another young woman with a couple of friends. But we had another thing in common, it was obvious from the cars, the clothes and our bubblegum accents: we all came from upper income backgrounds.

That’s the reality of restricted or illegal abortion countries. It’s not true that it doesn’t happen, it’s only that abortion is extremely expensive. US$ 1000 may not seem much for some, but it’s twice an average family’s income in my country and more than three times the minimum wage. To say that abortion doesn’t happen in countries where it is banned would be a lie: it’s a privilege for the wealthy and a jail/death sentence for the poor.

Abortion should NEVER be a privilege, it should be a basic right. Women shouldn’t have to die in a dark, unhygienic operating room, be prosecuted for taking abortion pills, or carry to term unwanted pregnancies. All women should have EQUAL rights. All women must have access to a safe abortion.

Surfing the Crimson Tide: Should Women Have Periods off?

By Poorva Puri

Once a month, I wake up in the morning with an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach: it’s the realisation that I’m about to get my period.

I can feel the cramps, the loss of energy, that ‘icky’ feeling that makes me want to stay in bed with a hot water bottle and watch Netflix all day. But, somehow, I unwillingly drag myself out of bed, take a long hot shower, pop a painkiller and make my way to work.

When I found out about a company making headlines for offering menstrual leave to their female employees, my first thought was, ‘This is amazing — the future is here!’ The idea of being able to work from home when I’m feeling my worst was appealing. It was liberating to think that as a woman I could embrace my period, admit that I was not 100% and that it was something to be incorporated into my work life, not ignored or assumed not to exist. I felt that this added a notch to the rather empty belt for female equality in the workplace. However, as the idea started to sink in, I realised that there were certain problems with this policy that might hold women back from being treated as equals in the workplace rather than level out the playing field.

For me, the biggest problem with menstrual leave is giving it a label. It’s a form of positive discrimination which separates women from men, and allows people to think that women who are on their period can’t perform as well at work as those not on their period. Since menstruation isn’t something men and women tend to discuss in a professional setting, it might simplify the issue at hand and could equate menstrual leave with the idea that, once a month, women can’t work as well as men can because they have this ‘disadvantage’. Due to a lack of communication, what many don’t understand is that menstruation is not a hindrance, it’s just an occurrence. It is something that happens and most women know how to deal with it — they just need the space to do so in any way they feel comfortable. This can mean working from home, coming into work for half the day or braving it and continuing with business as usual. I believe that the label menstrual leave will mean that those who don’t properly understand menstruation might associate this time off with generalisations which will hurt women seeking equal treatment to men.

The second issue is the idea that menstruation is something we should get designated leave for. It’s a battle which, in my opinion, is a lose-lose situation for women. Asking for menstrual leave might imply that women are disadvantaged, given the fact that once a month they’ll have to be on ‘leave’. I think this results from the fact that we consider ‘leave’ to imply we are cannot work because we are not in the office. Thus, menstrual leave may be misconstrued as sick leave, which again misrepresents menstruation — a painful period may be more similar to a chronic condition. Sick leave exists for when you are too ill to work, but a chronic ailment may simply require flexibility in working hours, rather than time off. For example, I have a chronic gut disorder which doesn’t fit in to the sick leave label — most days I can come into work. However, some days, I need to take the morning off to rest from pain and discomfort and other days I might have to leave early because the pain gets worse during the day. There is no provision in my contract for such a condition, and I feel that taking sick leave is reserved for those truly awful days and there is no in-between that fits my problem. I feel the same about menstruation as I cannot determine month by month how bad my cramps will be, or how weak I will get, but I’m constrained by my contract and the expectation of showing up to work, and constrained by the ‘face time’ culture which equates days in the office with willingness to work and productivity. However, not having it at all means that women who do experience terrible periods may lose out.

There are also many structural issues that impact the problems I’ve highlighted, especially that of a culture that rewards long hours in the office and assumes that working from home is less productive. There’s a wider lack of communication and flexibility over working hours and employee needs, whether in regard to issues related to painful periods or chronic medical conditions.

To me, the concept of menstruation leave is flawed and while a lot of companies are taking inspiration from current examples (Coexist in Bristol, etc), I believe this distracts from the real conversation we should be having about making work more flexible in general. We should be allowing employees to work during hours that they are comfortable with and using targets — not number of hours worked — to measure results. Additionally, we need to work on improving communication so that women aren’t afraid to discuss menstruation with their managers either. I personally find it difficult because all the managers in my team are men which, again, is another structural issue. Until we reach that stage, I will just have to continue enjoying the horrified look on my manager’s face when he asks why I’m late and I answer with ‘There’s a shark attack taking place in my uterus.’

Why I Didn’t Pursue a STEM Subject and How I Got Back into Coding

By Beverley Newing

Beverley Newing, Programmes Intern at Code First: Girls, reflects on why she stopped coding as a young teenager, the issues she faced in STEM and how she’s now gotten her coding mojo back.

Code First: Girls (CF: G) is a not for profit social enterprise startup with a mission to get more women into technology & entrepreneurship. I work on community programmes there and we offer free coding courses to women to help them get into coding. Over the past 18 months 3000+ participated in one of our courses or events. In telephone interviews I do at CF:G, I often get insights into the crazy gender imbalance in university courses across the country – there often being only 3 women in computer science courses (for some weird reason, it’s always 3) and that only 17% of those in the tech industry are female – and I’ve been wondering why this ever since starting this job. There is a personal story behind why every girl interested in STEM subjects turns to alternative subjects, and so I’ve decided to share my own.

When I was a young teenager, I used to start and tweek the HTML of Invisionfree forums. I loved books, and living on a lonely farm in the middle of nowhere, used to chat to people on a huge online forum instead. I soon realised there were also lots of smaller communities of groups who had created their own forums and before I knew it, I was creating, publicising, customising and managing my own with a group of international friends. I loved this community and the creativity, and was always pestering my mum for more internet time (back then, it was 1.5p per minute through the phone line in the evening!). This world was a home to me in those early teen years.

Despite this hobby, STEM subjects didn’t come easily to me at school. My engineer maths-genius father was disappointed at my choices at GCSE – ICT and languages, not Design Technology. This was a blow to me, and his knowledge of technology wasn’t sufficient for me to explain to him that I did actually enjoy making and creating things just like he did. Further disappointment came after a year of classes, when I left the last Further Maths class of year 12 in tears with an exam that was graded 30% and the written recommendation that I move down to Standard Maths.

My Further Maths class was a male-dominated class, and the (always incredibly) enthusiastic help I asked for from my male peers was often overwhelming. I’ve found that men and women often communicate differently, and my low confidence meant I often felt bad interrupting the well-intentioned but overwhelmingly long explanations from men to speak up and ask the small questions I really needed to ask. I quickly got left behind and felt like an outsider because of this.

The failure hit me hard. In hindsight, the qualities that I had used in the forums – Googling bits of code, troubleshooting things myself and with the help of peers – would have translated to Maths, but I’d lacked the confidence to do so. Over the same years, personal issues hit me hard and some home issues meant I had limited internet access, so my online communities all died as we all drifted apart. I drifted away from STEM and away from coding.

After the Further Maths failure,  my university options for studying Physics were limited – Russell group universities were only an option if I went down the English and German route. In a year 13 assembly, the headmistress announced to us all that University ranking, not subject, mattered the most, and so a bit spooked, I applied for and got accepted onto English and German Literature at Warwick University. I spent four years on the whole enjoying my degree but wishing I was doing Physics instead.

Five years on, by a twist of fate, I noticed the Code First: Girls internship advert in the Warwick Graduate Internship scheme and successfully applied. I’m now back to coding after having done one of our own HTML/CSS courses and co-organising the same coding courses for women all over the UK. Beyond HTML/CSS, the course taught me that it’s okay to ask questions, to not know or understand everything and to use Google. I’m once again in a motivating, friendly, coding community.

As well as this community helping to rebuild my confidence, coding itself is empowering. You start with a blank screen and end up with something you’ve designed and created yourself with your own bare hands. I’ve seen the same enjoyment in lots of my female CF:G coder peers. I’ve found the passion for coding again that I’d lost all those years ago, and whilst it’s not all plain sailing, I’m so happy.

If this resonates with anybody else, I’d love to hear your stories. I’d also like to say that there are also tons of communities out there to help you get back on your feet. Code First: Girls offer amazing courses, and Founders and Coders and Women who Hack for Non-Profit are wonderful as well – there really are so many organisations. Get Googling and reconnecting! There are so many groups out there for you who would love to have you join them.