Who am I? Am I a New Zealand, Australian, lesbian, white woman? A mother, lover, friend, partner, neighbour, sister, daughter, cousin, niece, aunt? A consultant, coach, boss, leader, follower, entrepreneur, speaker, presenter, facilitator, graduate, alumni?
Our obsession to label, box, constrain, confine to a one word simplistic definition of self, of identity, of history, being, past, present and future is becoming destructive, divisive and obliterating.
Stan Grant in his essay, The Australian Dream, Blood History and Becoming, articulates so much more vividly than I ever could my increasing frustration with the narrowing of aperture that appears to be happening in the Australian – and indeed, global, field of sight.
As an Australian, global citizen who is Indigenous, he has far more experience of being categorized, labelled and reduced to an easily digitised, black and white form than I will ever have: ‘Indigenous people are constantly reminded that their identities are in question – reminded of the box they must belong to. It is there in every official form – when we enrol our children in school, join a sporting organisation, apply for a loan of fill in the national census, the box demands to be ticked: are you Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander? No one else in Australia is asked to define themselves so exclusively.’
Grant articulates so vividly, my internal frustration with boxes, labels and categories that limit our potential, limit our ability to be seen, to move from form to the formless, to be recognised for who we are as opposed to who others expect to see.
Stan has found a voice and a resonance with Australians for which we can all be grateful. We know his struggle to expand his Indigenous identity to comfortably accommodate being Australian. He describes being ‘born into a life on the margins’ where he learned that “Australia was for other people,” and gradually recognising his own reality: ‘I am an Australian with all the privilege that brings.’
He describes far more eloquently than I ever could his truth: he is so much more than anyone including himself identifies him as.
As a consultant who aspires for an inclusive country, supported by inclusive workplaces, I frequently list the demographic ‘groups’ that I’m working to include. This list itself comprises categories that are bounded in our minds by lazy limits. Consider:
- ‘People with a disability’ – a phrase that easily brings to mind someone in a wheel chair, a person who can quickly and visibly be confirmed to be part of this demographic. Probably one of the 15% who identifies as having a disability. Who possibly also lives within some constructed sense of self informed by social expectations that legitimises ‘people with a disability’. Someone with a self that is so much more: a self with a life, a history, sexual preferences, skills, talents, experiences and perspectives that are informed by a mind that doesn’t depend on a label to exist. When we know that up to 60% of the workforce has a disability of some sort by the time they are 60, yet only 15% of the population acknowledges it, we know that it is not safe nor possibly resonant for people to accept the label.
- The demographic we label ‘CALD’ – Culturally and Linguistically Diverse. How does that label wrap itself around those from a different ethnic background who grew up knowing they were Australian, who have English as a first language because it is the only safe and valid language at home and at school to be accepted? Like Stan Grant, William Yang has struggled with labels cast over him by lazy minds. He is an Australian with Chinese heritage, a homosexual, an artist and poet who shared his story in the powerful performance piece ‘Bloodlines.’ A story that pierced my heart in many ways as he revealed that although his parents were first generation Chinese, he did not know he was Chinese until he went to school and was the subject of racist taunts and worse. He spoke only English, did not know Mandarin and being labelled ‘Chinese’ seemed a betrayal of his identity.
- The LGBTI group with a growing acronym that attempts to acknowledge a broad and growing number of people who are sexually diverse. People who identify as this group and emerge from a large heterogeneous pool. But even this is not enough. I understand from Victoria’s Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality, Ro Allen, that the people she is an advocate and reformer for include those from so many different backgrounds and histories and there is no acronym that is sufficiently broad enough to include them all.
And then, of course there is gender. Gender Equity is de rigour these days – and thank God for that, because after all I’ve spent 20 years of my professional life working to achieve it. But what is gender? I find myself increasingly challenged with the fact that gender is not ‘binary’ and that my focus on women is limited by my own emerging unconscious bias.
‘I assist women move into positions of leadership and power,’ I blithely say when asked. I think I mean anyone who presents as a woman, who identifies as a woman and wants to progress – trans women, gay women, Asian women, Indigenous women – there really has not been any limits in my conscious mind but I too, have been blinded and blocked by unconscious bias – my own, and that of the people I work with.
I am baffled by stereotypes that implicitly assume all women share the same experiences, backgrounds, aspirations, interests, styles and traits… and have you noticed that many of those in senior positions are eerily similar in look, speech and action?
And then, of course ‘what about the men?’ And all the others? Where are they? We implicitly exclude so many people, so many experiences, so many alternative ways of being when we categorise.
Labels segregate and keep us separate. They divide and will conquer if we continue to use them so mindlessly.
Remember the Venn diagram we learnt in Maths? We were taught that there is overlap, cross over, seepage within and between sets and categories. But we forget. It’s difficult for us to notice the people we work with, live with, walk past on a daily basis for who they are, and all they are, people with a collage of experiences and motley histories, who show up and live up to whatever the constructs of their own and our minds contain them in.
Now more than ever, as the world becomes more divisive, as Australians become more vocal about who they want entering our country, we must become learn to see beyond form, beyond categories, labels, boxes and digitised statements of identity.
It’s time to be present, to pay attention, listen, see, affirm and validate the people we encounter. To respond to the who behind the what, to respond to what is being conveyed to us, not what we fear, project or want to see and hear.
And yes, this is hard. But it starts with awareness. It starts with noticing that each of us is more than we see, think or hear. We are not singular, we are multiple.
And perhaps the lessons from our maths classes have far more relevance than the language we learned in English.