29 January 2019

Why I have been hiding behind the pretty pots (my thoughts on diversity and inclusivity)

First up, my apology for such belated new year wishes to you all, my blog readers. (You know what January is like… ) Hope we can make 2019 a good one, with a kind reflection and ongoing hope that good will come if we try.

As a first post of the new year, I am going to talk about something different to my usual pottery stuff. The voice inside my head has been getting louder and louder. I have no writing skills, but I’ve tried my best to share my thoughts and what I’ve learnt from others so far. So here it is. I am grateful if you can stick with me. 

If you are active followers of Instagram, you might come across what I have recently expressed in my story, or you might have already seen a big discussion. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please go and see Instagram highlights from brave women, such as Rabya @sehflourished_ and Rida @beforeandagain_. It all started from a genuine voice to a clothing brand @sondeflor, asking for more diversity and why representation matters to women of colour. To be honest I didn’t see or follow much fashion accounts so I only became aware of this after reading the recent threads, but in fact there has been many more discussions on this topic elsewhere too, especially over slow fashion community.

If you are following me only just for pretty picture of my pottery, you may say, 
“You are a potter. You can just continue to show your pretty pots. It’s not your place to get involved.”
Admittedly this was one of my excuses that I have been hiding behind the pretty pictures. 
But it’s not really about pots and pretty pictures, is it? Never has been. 
Because I was afraid. 
Because I did not have the courage to speak and was scared of getting it wrong. 

But after all, there is life behind and beyond my pottery and that is all interwoven and connected. My thoughts, feelings and experience are the big part of who I am, Maki the maker of my pottery. So. I am trying to be as bold as I can, as I write this. 

It made me feel inhuman.
Let me start with sharing some of my experience being a Japanese living in UK for the past twenty years.

People getting my name wrong. Standard.

Strangers suddenly throw some random Japanese words at me, laughing then walking passed. Even with a genuine curiosity, they spot me as a stereo typed perception, never seeing me as an individual. I often find this patronising and sometimes insulting.

I go to a club or pub, people come to me and ask “how much are you?”

I walk on the street, kids throw a tin of coke at me from the school bus window, shouting “f**king Chinese!”

For minor things (even though they were annoying) I had let things go, but as the level increased, I began to shrink. I started to feel inhuman. These experiences did not just hurt me at that moment but scarred my heart for a long time, not that I can just forget and move on. It made me afraid of going outside of my house. At the same time as juggling with fear and anger, I felt really sad for them, thinking about what and who has influenced them to be like who they were, be it their parents, community or media with a poor representation.

A day after the result of Brexit referendum was announced, I went to town for a quick errand with my baby girl in a buggy. I saw a white man on the high street, shouting at another person (looked like an European immigrant to me) in a really vulgar, aggressive manner, saying things like “You are going back to your f**king home soon!” There I was, petrified, instantly flooded with flash back of my past experience, thinking would my girl and I get targeted? So I ran. In the meantime, so many other people were just walking passed. Even some people were mumbling “What an idiot!” “How embarrassing” but no one actually stopped the guy. I have no idea how it went afterward but there was no doubt that person got a scar on his heart.

Most of the direct insults / racism happened to me during my late twenties and early thirties when I first moved up North, where I understand predominantly white British people live. Before that, I was living in Brixton (London) where I truly loved the diverse culture and did not experience any direct insult. I am not sure if it was because of my age or how I looked at that time, (obviously I must have looked so naive), I hardly get any direct racism comment where I live now thankfully. However, there is still ongoing difficulty that I face on a daily basis, which is a silence. 

silence hurts
Of course physical and verbal insults are painful, but being ignored is much harder. To me personally, it really hurts more.

School gate issue, as I have read in Atia’s experience in her recent blog post (→ you can read it here), has really triggered me to think deeper. I have very similar experience to hers, when I pick my daughter from school. I only get approached by two mums (and grandparents) whose daughters are close friends of mine. They are really lovely, and I am sure all other mums are too. But no one else really speak to me. As if I do not exist. Like Atia told herself, because other mums were already knowing each other from the nursery, unlike me and my girl. 

Admittedly, my quiet, introvert character does not help. I may not appear to be an approachable person. I take time to get closer to people. I don’t just jump in and break the ice that quickly. Nevertheless, I did make a conscious effort to speak to people, which has made it a little bit easier to face the problem. But you know what? Making constant effort only from one side is quite an exhausting exercise to be honest.

If I look at it, this is not just the school gate. Some aspects of work environment, gatherings or courses I attended, college I studied, I always found myself the last person in the room to be approached by others. I’m the left-out.

My language barrier has always been another wall to climb before you even stand at the starting point, especially in a group setting. I often find myself already behind the conversation, as it has moved on by the time I am ready to speak. So I often shut up. Even feeling inside tells me that just because I often listen to others more than I speak, does not mean I have nothing to say. 

Then again, I usually blamed myself. I am making excuses. I am not making ‘enough’ effort as an ‘outsider’. I am not trying ‘hard’ enough. Although I made a handful of people who I can call really good friends, those who have time for me, most people won’t have such time, so I guess it’s my fault. 

But is it really? 

A question to you. If you are to speak to someone among many, would you choose a foreigner like me?
I guess not, because it’s unknown or even uncomfortable. So you’d probably ignore one like that. 
Not intentionally, but because it’s an easy choice. 

Ironical realisation
So why have I shared these experience? 
I am not trying to be against white people.
I am not trying to victimise myself or ask for sympathy. 
I am hoping to make it easier for you to see what you might not know and understand what it is really like. 

Because that was precisely how I have learnt from WOC for past few weeks. 
Also because I realised the fact that I certainly live in a safer, somewhat privileged place now, in which I am often blinding myself from what’s outside of this bubble. Despite some personal experience in the past and some discomfort at time. Ironically.

Here is my example.

Over years I have made some friends who happen to be mixed race or gay. I get to see or hear some of their struggles (and happiness of course). But maybe because where I live is predominantly white people, I don’t really have many friends in real life who are people of colour (other than Japanese parents). How do I know anything about them? Unless you consciously trying to understand, you can probably just continue to live without noticing them. I’ve only started to listen harder and read things they have been saying. And I cannot emphasise enough that it’s been mind blowing, eye opening and quite heart breaking. 

Another ironic example is about disability. I worked in social care industry for almost 17 years before I became a full time potter. Over years, I have seen and learnt so many obstacles in the society for people I worked with, especially young adults with learning difficulty and autism. So I felt quite confident in knowing what it is like. But I was wrong. Since my daughter was born with some form of disability (and this might be even a minor one comparing to some others), it really hit me. What it is like to be every-single-day. Only through the real experience it has sunk in. 

All those years of living in the UK, especially in the early days, I have been trying to break the wall of being (or feeling) an outsider. Because I am the one who chose to come and live in this country. I am the one who is in the minority. So I always believed that I am the one who needs to make an effort. So what did I do? I tried so hard to ‘fit in’. Even that was not an ideal course of action. (Sometimes it ended up with me being in the wrong crowd and feeling ashamed.) But I did it because it was survival.

And can you imagine those who have to survive whilst receiving consistent insults or difficulties on a daily basis? Trying to (or having to) justify their existence? It must be so so exhausting and draining. 

One of the things that totally widen my view from the past few weeks is to know that their brave voices were coming from a long way away. Most of women of colour who have spoken out may be a second or third generation in this country. Their parents and grandparents might have had to face so much pain and injustice in their life, but they have never given up on bringing their children to stand up, own their identity and not to be afraid of raising their voice. Not for the purpose to victimise themselves, but for a good hopeful future. I salute those first generation parents. 

Having my girl who is mixed race with some form of disability, it’s no longer just about my past experience. I am a first generation parent. It is now my responsibility that she will not go through the same pain. 

Hopeful seeds
Diversity and inclusivity matter and affect everyone who are perceived to be different from the majority of people in society, be it colour, origin, LGBT, size, age, disability, mental health, you name it. I think the majority of people prefer sitting in the usual, comfortable seat to an uncomfortable one. But sitting with uncomfortableness will open our eyes and ears, and I feel that can be the only way to cultivate hope. 

Rabya, et al, have used their voices as a tool to communicate with us, their allies have amplified as far as they can, so that we can hear them. So let’s hear them really hard. Those voices are hope to educate us and the next generation. And I am believing in the hope.

I am questioning myself. How can I educate myself and my daughter in a more realistic way to acknowledge the diversity and how to embrace individuality? I haven’t got a clear answer to that. Yet. This is my first conscious step into the unknown. We can start by talking about it at family time. Familiarise ourself each day. Question ourself why we think the way we think. My husband and I were discussing so much deeper about this for the past few weeks. I have lots to learn from the both mother's and maker's perspectives. Just because I am a maker of small pottery business, it doesn't mean that I have nothing to do. In fact I have loads to work on for that matter, as long as I am using this online space to showcase my work. If you are like me, running a small business, you can always question yourself more intentionally. I am only starting this now, but better than never. You can always find resources. Look where you didn’t usually access, look at it harder with a different mindset. Reach out to the unknown. These people are even taking their own time to share lists of books, podcasts and accounts that can help your awareness.

The past few weeks, reaching out to some of new faces has been a fascinating process for me. Refreshing even. Enriching my understanding. Bringing hopeful seeds to my heart. 

If you have read this far, thank you so so much. I am sure there are many more people yet to discover and learn from, but here I would particularly like to say a big thank you to: 

Atia for inspiration 
Huma for her beautifully uplifting words
Africa for her positive attitude and compassion
Vicki for her determination
and of course
Rabya and Rida for their courage

Note to myself:

Never too late to learn
We can always re learn
Sit with uncomfortableness
Look into what really matters
Until you find your own little voice

links to people who inspired me to write this post (with their kind permissions to share this):

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