And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

On being #woke (or: privilege, minorities and ignorance)

I’ve experienced being a minority twice in my life.

The first time was in 2014 (when I was 27) at a Guardian event featuring Sheryl Sandberg promoting her “Lean In” book. My girlfriend bought me a ticket and I attended in solidarity despite not being the target audience. In a room with a capacity of perhaps 500, I was one of maybe 20-30 men in the room. As I looked around me, all I could see were women (both on the stage and in the seats).

I began to feel uncomfortable, feeling that I was taking the seat of a woman who could’ve benefited from the talk content more than me. As the talk began, Sandberg asked the men in the audience to raise their hands. She got the audience to applaud us, making some crack about us being boyfriend material. It was cute, but immediately afterwards I felt that guilt return as I realised that I’d been given extra credit for showing up and contributing nothing, solely because I was a man.

This was balanced somewhat by the brilliant Jemima Kiss who was interviewing Sandberg on stage – in the Q&A section I debated asking a question but decided not to (with the same reasoning as above). In the pub afterwards I mentioned this to Jemima who immediately said “good – because I wouldn’t have picked you”.

The second time in my life that I experienced being a minority was midway through 2017 (when I was 31) at an event called Wile Out in Birmingham. It’s an open mic night aimed at (and run by) women of colour performing music, poetry and live art. I went along partly to support a new event in my city, partly to hear some new music/poetry, and partly because I realised there was a huge subculture in the city I lived in that I knew nothing about.

I was one of perhaps four white people in a room of 50 or so people of colour – the first time I’ve ever experienced this. Of course this speaks to the lack of diversity in my own social groups and events, and I’m embarrassed to admit it. At no point did anyone make me feel unwelcome (quite the opposite) but throughout the whole experience I felt—for the first time in my life—like an imposter. This event was intended as a safe space for people of colour, a gathering for their community and a space to be together and collaborate. As a white man entering that space, was I breaking it apart just by being there?

Again, nobody there made me feel unwelcome and I chatted to folks and enjoyed the music and poetry hugely. I was again reminded of my own cultural ignorance: as poets performed and dropped lines that resonated with the audience, people clicked their fingers in appreciation of strong words well-spoken. I’d never come across this before—in my ignorance—and was impressed. At the equivalent white events I’d been to (okay, so nobody markets an open-mic night as being aimed at white people, but we all know the kinds of performers you typically see here) there was nothing like this; just po-faced performers with Radio 4 intonation.

Bridget Minamore performed and read some fantastic work, and she introduced her poems by talking about how she felt she was at home and with friends who’d get her references – again, I felt that imposter status: I wasn’t part of this world and she was only comfortable performing like this because there weren’t more people there like me. At one point she asked for a beat and audience members clapped out a bass rhythm while someone beat the wall with their feet to make a snare noise while she spoke over the top of it – it was like nothing I’d ever heard before.

Getting out of your comfort zone is important and attempting to get a feeling for what actual minorities experience every single day is essential. I can never claim to know what that feels like and I never will thanks to my privilege and status.

Even in my pathetic two instances here, I was given treatment above and beyond what others would experience because of my status playing life on “the easiest difficulty setting”.

I walked away from Wile Out feeling both inspired, embarrassed at myself and motivated to do more to support this kind of stuff and to offer up the spotlight that disproportionately targets me (and other folks like me) onto others.

I’ll still fail and I’ll still embarrass myself at my ignorance but knowing that ignorance is there to be eradicated is the first step in itself, I hope.