Wednesday, June 10, 2020

White chalk

If we are honest, we all have ‘kairos’ moments that break into our days, confronting us with systemic racism and the white privilege it perpetuates. Opportunities to turn from one often unconscious perspective and to seek to move deeper into a new outlook. Here’s another of mine.

Jo Saxton is my second-favourite Jo in the whole world, second only to the one I married. When I first knew her, she was Jo Oyeniran, and she was the first British Nigerian I properly met. She was an undergrad in the university department where I was a postgrad. I was the teaching assistant on one of the modules she took, on the portrayal of biblical characters in art and film.

On one occasion, I wrote the names of several students on the board. I don’t even remember why. On the list, I wrote Jo O. This was the name by which I was aware that she was called, more ‘neutral’ and, from a white perspective, ‘less racist’ than ‘Black Jo’, by which she was also referred to. But I had never taken the time to find out how she felt.

Jo called me out. Not good enough. You need to do better.

Say my name.

Jo called me out, to do better, to overcome my toxic laziness. Lazy, because it is quicker to write O than Oyeniran. Toxic, because I probably would have written Oliver or O’Brien in full. Probably; I can’t say, for sure: I am not a committed racist, but a casual one. [Edit: even had I abbreviated a white name, the action would not have had the impact. Jo responds, “Hey Andrew—thanks for your reflection. I don’t recall that specific conversation, but I remember how tiring it was, how frustrating and dehumanizing it was to have my name erased, or to be known as “the Black Jo”. And how over the years I stopped calling people out, stopped demanding people learn my name, because I didn’t have the capacity to do it all the time. I side eyed some people, backed away from others. But I noted it and absorbed it all. It cost me. So it was good to see an example of where/who I was before I was worn down in that area.”]

And Jo called me out, to try harder, to do better, to overcome my fear. Fear of an unfamiliar name, fear of spelling it wrong, fear of causing offence, fear as an excuse—I don’t think Jo would have minded had I needed help spelling her name.

Say my name.

I am deeply thankful that she called me out. I am deeply sorry that she needed to. I am glad that she was brave enough—for, in that room, I held the structural power; she held onto the moral empowerment.

Say my name.

My own name causes me enough problems. I cannot begin to tell you how many people can’t say my name. Dowsett. Dow•sett. The ‘e’ hovers somewhere between ‘e’ (Dow•sett) and ‘I’ (Dow•sitt). But I get Daw•sett or Dossett or godknowswhatelse. My wife’s maiden name is similarly problematic. Is it Mar•fell, or Marf•le? In his best man’s speech at our wedding, my brother commiserated with her. He had taken to using his flatmate’s name when ordering pizza, and would recommend it, except that her new flatmate had the useless name. And so, as his wedding present to her, he gave her his flatmate's name—Matthews—to use at her discretion. Oh, for a good, solid name like Saxton!

Even when I correct people’s pronunciation, they persist; largely, I think, because we tend to listen to confirm what we already think we know, and not to hear and understand and learn and grow. One form teacher in particular refused to say my name correctly. In the end, I refused to respond at registration, forcing him to look up from the register to see me in the room. Reader, I called him out.

On a superficial level, this is the same. “See! Not racism! You’re being overly sensitive, unnecessarily defensive. Black stubbornness. White guilt. Get over it!” In fact, they are entirely opposite. No-one ever shied away from my name because it was different. On the contrary, they assumed a familiarity.

White friends, we need to stop making excuses, attempting to justify ourselves, to distance ourselves from the problem, to tip the playing field back in our favour.

Jo, I am so grateful for your presence in my life, your friendship over the years, your challenge on more than one occasion. Forgive me for honouring you, perhaps clumsily, and without permission. You are welcome to edit this telling, as you have edited my life; though you may choose not to. You are undeniably part of my story, but you are so much more. Thank you.

Friends, you will benefit from Jo Saxton’s writing and podcasting.

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