Difference, Alienation, and Membership

Over the last couple of weeks, as protests over the death of George Floyd (a U.S. citizen choked to death by a policeman compatriot kneeling on his neck ― a haunting recording of which immediately went viral) rocked the world, I’ve struggled with the concept of identity. Not just about “who I am”. Or what the “who” that “I am” is. But also, about how that “who” establishes me as like, or not the same with “you, him, her, and them”. Then there are questions about what it means to be alike or different ― why, for example, some of these compartments sit comfortably by each other, and some at an aggressive arm’s length.

In all of these ruminations, few landmarks were easy to see and useful. Most people appear to agree that racism is wrong. Which essentially means that difference is okay. To make this point as vehemently as it has been made over the last couple of weeks is also to admit that there are some who believe that racial differences matter, and that these differences often mean that one race is to be preferred over others or to another.

In addition, a key part of the recent arguments seems to be that in presenting these tensions, examples of racism in the United States of America nearly always go over the top. Nothing quite explains kneeling on some (complaining) other’s neck for more than eight minutes, while gawking into the camera as if one were posing for a prom photoshoot. Thankfully, consensus on possible solutions to the incidence of acts of racism is not as tortured as is the disagreement over the causes of racism, at least in America: Systemic racism going back all the way to America’s slave-owning days; and of the enervating cultural traps that have built up in African-American communities on the back of this.

Yet, the struggle with otherness is not a wholly American problem. Still, you wouldn’t think this from the attempts by Western European governments to underplay their own race problems. Or from attempts by China, Russia, and the likes of Iran to take propaganda advantage of the recent restiveness in the U.S. For most of us, dealing with persons who are different from us is a rarely acknowledged ordeal.

Even in matters as simple as how we look, difference elicits disturbing responses. 17 years ago, I grew a beard on a whim. The susurration started back home. There was an outside chance that I’d converted to fundamental Islam ― you just got the sense that a lot about this wasn’t right. And even if it wasn’t the outward manifestation of a new definition of piety, “Did the beards not look unsightly?” ― whatever the underlining reason for keeping it. These were legitimate concerns from persons who genuinely care about my welfare. Yet still, the beard, or the “difference” that it augured appeared to threaten my continued membership of these communities.

Work gave me the opportunity to address the impending exile to Coventry head-on. “It isn’t corporate”, I was told. I couldn’t help but point out that to use the noun corporate this way is bad grammar. My beard had absolutely nothing to do with how my workplace was constituted. Nor for that matter, with how well I discharged my duties. At worst, it was a fashion blooper. But then I reminded those who would take a barber’s shears to my chin that in the 1970s, bell-bottomed trousers, platform shoes, wide-lapelled shirts and Grover Washington-style beards were the symbols of high fashion. And so-called “corporate” types in those days accoutred themselves according to the popular fashion. I then reminded human resources that none of its several roles included fashion policing.

“And how about when your fashion choices offend client sensibilities?” This was a more difficult question to meet. I have never liked hypothetical questions. Not just because they give the idiot more questioning space than any savant can take up accommodation in. But, because in this case, most employee handbooks simply insist that grooming be impeccable. And it was hard to argue that I looked unkempt.

But still, I’d chosen to be different. And the high priests of orthodoxy would have none of it. At an interview with a prospective new employer, where my technical skills were not in question, the C-Suite suit across the table from me harrumphed and hawed. So clear was his pate that it reflected far more of the early morning sun than the blacked-out windows of his high-brow office let in. And his chin? Smoother than a toddler’s behind, it looked.

Finally, he blurted out: “Does your current employer have a culture?”. At that point, this potential new workplace failed my test. If seated across from me was one of their best, I’d have nothing to do with the place. But it was important that I let him know that culture isn’t always what a people claim it to be. Nearly always it includes how they’ve come to organise themselves over time. So, even if we don’t agree with it, whatever “it” is remains the culture of those who live by it. The test that should matter is that the practices and conducts that underpin any culture do not impose costs on others far in excess of any benefit that it generates.

This is how my employers finally resolved the challenge posed by my increasingly lengthy goatee. And it does work as a test of difference.

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Ihesiulo Grace

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