Every month we will be inviting our readers to pitch us articles on a theme revealed in our regular newsletter. This month’s theme was Box Ticking and 2019 Funny Women Awards Finalist Charlie George came through with this eye-opening article…
Imagine starting a new job, it’s your first day of work and you’re riddled with excitement, nerves, self-doubt, a desire to get this right and perhaps turn things around for yourself. You’ve been on a losing streak of 0-hour contracts and awful degrading conversations at the Jobcentre, where they’re still trying to figure out exactly what a BTEC National Diploma in Circus is?
You’re starting on the back foot, living in a room in a known drug house in the centre of town, that you got on a deposit bond scheme because the government used to do things like that for young people, but without checking first what kind of property they were putting you in. It won’t take much to knock you off course or make you doubt yourself. But you’ve used your wherewithal and with a bit of luck and networking, you’ve landed your first real arts job for a theatre in Bristol.
On your first day in the office, a white woman who went to Cambridge (you know because she told you) asks you immediately in front of everyone why you’re there and if you’re just trying to get close to the director? You start sweating profusely. “A lot of people want to be close to the director,” she says, “Because of what he can do for them.” And you want to say something clever or witty to bat it off, but you’re nervous, so all you can think of is the truth:
I NEED THE MONEY SO I CAN GET OUT OF MY HORRIBLE LIVING CONDITIONS. PLUS I LIKE ART. But you panic and say: “Would you like me to do a coffee run?”
It makes you feel like shit, but beggars can’t be choosers, can they? So you’re just grateful to be there, even though it feels like everyone else isn’t and you’ve got to be at all times subservient and sentient to their moods.
I didn’t understand her questioning at the time, but I think I get it now. She couldn’t understand the idea that I could be anywhere on merit, or that I was getting chances offered to me because I’d had so many barriers previously. To her I was just getting an opportunity she didn’t think I deserved. I didn’t belong here, so it kept being pointed out in these passive-aggressive ways. I remember once being heavily ridiculed for not having the money to pay for something upfront and keep a receipt. I actually considered just stealing it and letting them bail me out so I could explain what poverty is.
And so it begins and continues for large swathes of my arts career. I am the ‘Tick Box,’ the ‘Diversity Quota,’ ‘The BAME Applicant,’ and it does nothing for my flailing self-esteem. I am told not to play the race card, but also to play the race card. But not too loudly or too much, or not in the way we don’t like, but definitely when we want to show how much we’re helping. It feels like I am trying to keep up with a marching band whilst being yelled instructions from an old drum major who can’t make up his mind and is tone-deaf.
I’m not criticising the arts itself here, but highlighting the experience of the structures in place that tell people of colour that they are minorities over and over again and can only be invited in with permission. I was funnelled into the arts as a problem child after leaving home in my early teens, it was my drama teacher’s way of helping me forge an independent life for myself and I’m eternally grateful for it because I had so little else going for me. Participation in the arts has been integral to my growth as a human being, I certainly couldn’t rely on GCSE home economics and my terrible bread making to do that. But sometimes it’s a snobby place to be, that postures liberal values whilst being incredibly exclusive.
I have often only been given respect when ‘walked through the door’ by a middle-class white person, or verified by them in some way as suitable. I’ve also regularly heard the terms ‘safe pair of hands’ when referring to established male writers and comedians and ‘a risk’ when referring to people of colour who are newer to the business or not vouched for someone more established. How does this help people believe they are capable of achieving things in their own right? How does it give them the same space to play, fail and improve that many working creatives have had?
Recently I got my first TV writing credits and was bombarded with contact exclusively from white women asking me how I got that opportunity. I replied to their messages because I wanted to help and am happy to share my process, but I’m very new and no expert! I found it perplexing that they were even asking me. Is it because they did not believe they could get it for themselves? Or is it because I am a surprise candidate for an opportunity with an artist whose work they know and love? I told them I had been writing since I was 16 and failing repeatedly, taking every opportunity I could to get better. Researching, networking, emailing, taking courses, submitting things frantically, applying for nearly everything and getting rejected for years. It wasn’t a sudden success as they thought, but a dedicated focus aligning with tenacity, luck and the right people. I am capable of that. I didn’t get it handed to me because I’m different, I fought like anyone else to put myself in the way of opportunities and to be ready to leap when they came.
I’m not naive though and I know that my appearance and background makes me appealing and palatable to people who want to posture liberalism right now, without caring specifically about who I am or what my lived experience is. But I am way more than just a queer, working-class, person of colour, I’m also incredibly annoying, impatient and pretentious.
This makes me question the harm of reminding people all the time of how they’re different. Should we be using this difference as people’s selling point and value? Should I be using it?
I know the reality of my past. I’m not here to exploit it or play a victim. But I am who I am. I’m from where I’m from and I feel what I feel. (see, pretentious, yuck) There’s no getting away from that and there’s no way I’m hiding it just to make people comfortable or pour them terrible coffee anymore. I just want to get better at what I do and I want the right to do it by being true to myself and my experiences.
As long as people in positions of authority in the industry don’t reflect or consider society at large we have this constant friction of gatekeepers blindly dictating the terms in which people talk about who they are and what matters to them. And then having others conveniently chip in calling it ‘PC gone mad’ when they feel it excludes them too.
It’s part of this pervasive, dangerous attitude and growing movement of people who feel threatened by women and women of colour coming into power as if it is a threat to their own power and identity.
No one is cancelling you. I REPEAT NO ONE IS CANCELLING YOU. Step away from the internet and look at the world. The fact that you think they are, says directly how much the very existence, expression and power of others is dependent on you feeling ok and comfortable with it. Not just with others having power, but how much, how they wield it and when. That’s what’s got to change. So get used to it.
If we have more diversity we don’t automatically lose other voices. People are simply asking for more voices to be heard more often and for our media to reflect and value more varied lives and experiences. It feels like the ‘liberal snowflake’ argument bandied about is an excuse from any real accountability in hogging power and platforms that could easily be shared by other people.
So no! I’m not just a tick box. I’m a person buzzing with ideas and the desire to share them, some of them are great, some of them are total shit – just like yours. I’ll see you on the cutting room floor. Mine’s a latte!
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