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Veil of Benign Amusement March 31, 2016

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With an increasing emphasis on the value of inclusive language in the workplace, there is now an inherent realisation that the language we use could be scrutinised. We are more mindful of how we express ourselves aware that we are monitored by others, especially by those who could be classed as the ‘language police’ who are genuinely looking out for offensive content to raise awareness of alternative language and thereby effect change.

At a recent board meeting I attended as an observer, a new member who would work closely with the Board Treasurer was introduced. During the coffee break, one of the board members, on realising that the new member was Jewish, made a comment that the finances would now definitely be in order. The speaker making the comment thought it was entertaining and funny, reflected by a general reaction of laughter from some people.

However one or two people, finding the comment to be inappropriate complained. In response, the speaker described the ‘complainers’ as boring and that they did not have a sense of humour. Others agreed. In effect, a ‘veil of benign amusement’ was placed over those who had raised a concern, even perceiving them as being tiresome. The thought of taking away fun in a situation considered as entertaining created an antagonism towards colleagues who highlighted the comment as a point of concern. These colleagues, found to be too sensitive, raise questions whether they will fit into the team culture of humour.

It is known that the human brain operates in either serious mode or humorous mode. Whilst in serious mode, information is interpreted logically and rationally. In humorous mode, characterised by the positive emotion of amusement and the tendency to laugh,  rationality is suspended in the name of fun where a relaxed attitude does not process as quickly, whether comments are appropriate or not. Humour attracts attention and admiration, delineates social boundaries which however can cause a divide amongst the listeners between what is acceptable or not. It is recognised that some humorous situations may arouse negative emotions as well as amusement and laughter.

Discriminatory comments, albeit often made in jest shape perception, turning an illusion into reality and thereby creating a culture for the tolerance of hostility and discrimination against particular individuals and groups of people. There is an argument that usually there is no apparent intended malice behind a joke and that there is a need for light hearted satire in the workplace; jokes should therefore be taken in good humour.

However, what is significant about the concept of benign amusement is that it negates the imputed (stereotypical) meaning behind the joke/humour and at times jokes against individuals and groups of people can be a mask for anger and even disdain. Studies have found that making and appreciating, for example, sexist humour is a tacit consent to sexual discrimination in a context where the listener is not dictated by social norms to reject sexism since it is veiled in humour.

It is also worth looking into situations where reactions to jokes are disrespected; there is then a presumption to tell the individuals that they are wrong and that they should/have to find such humour funny. The saying ‘one person’s sense of humour is another person’s insult’ comes to mind. These individuals who genuinely are offended by the nature of the jokes are then told off or laughed at for raising it as a concern.   ‘Don’t laugh at me, don’t get your pleasure from my discomfort’.

To blame or argue is easy, the ability to recognise and reflect on the impact of jokes and banter are signs of awareness and personal growth. As we as a society develop, it is important to acknowledge that people are free to express their choices on what they find acceptable or not. Everyone has the right to be offended by something that is implicitly or explicitly discriminatory. There’s plenty in life and the world to laugh at or over, without violating the single most basic human value, that of acknowledging, respecting and validating people’s differences.

“Humour is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humour; a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.” – Aristotle

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Acknowledging their awkwardness… June 2, 2015

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I used to experience a regular tirade of ‘did you have an arranged marriage?’, ‘I bet you are a good cook’, ‘do you ever wear a sari?’, ‘what does the red spot on Indian women’s forehead mean? etc. Whether these comments were asked out of genuine curiosity or in a provocative manner – to elicit a reaction from me, it left me feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable. My added concern was that the symbolic neon arrow highlighting my difference was flashing again and that I was defined only on the basis of being an Indian woman, my other beliefs and values had casually been put back into the shadow. The sting of these regular slights became quite a burden to carry.

 

I have noticed that lately these types of questions are not asked of me with the same level of intensity and frequency. What I had not quite taken into consideration is my own internal judgement when colleagues have voiced their feelings of awkwardness when dealing with my difference, that of being an Indian woman.

 

Over the last couple of years, I have developed a friendly professional relationship with a group of white male colleagues. We share laughter, banter and personal stories whilst maintaining our professional stance. This group of men have their own differences to contend with, around religion, sexual orientation and disability; in this instance not all overtly visible.

 

Recently a couple of men from this group candidly admitted that when they first met me, they really did not know how to behave towards me and felt awkward. They acknowledged that they had not had any professional involvement with an Indian woman, and had initially placed me in their stereotypical image of being submissive and traditional.

 

I pretended to be relaxed about their disclosure, but I felt uncomfortable and somehow the sting of those regular slights that had interspersed throughout my life suddenly came to the forefront. I easily got caught up in my own judgement of their lack of understanding and their previous lack of willingness to interact with people who come from different cultural (Asian) background.

 

It can be argued that perhaps my colleagues did not need to disclose their initial awkwardness, I however recognise that their admission was a disguised compliment and they felt comfortable, enough to voice their initial reservations. However my realisation was more about my reaction to their disclosure. Why was I dismissive and impatient when they brought up their stereotypical notions? On reflection, I became aware and appreciated that in spite of their misguided perceptions, they had always approached me with respect and professional affection. Also they had never highlighted my difference, inadvertently or otherwise and certainly did not put any pressure (or burden) on me, of needing to discuss/explain the complexity related to my race/gender. If they had, our conversations would not have been genuine and would have lacked nuance.  Our discussions instead tended to focus on what we had in common, our professional values and to continue to invest in the work that we were required to do.

 

It is common knowledge that instinctively we all interact with people who look, behave and dress like us. When we do encounter someone who does not fit our category of ‘sameness’ it is important to acknowledge that we would and do feel awkward. I realise to my chagrin that my colleagues’ awkwardness was their overt conscious effort, to make sure that they did not say the wrong thing or behave in a manner that might cause offence.

 

I learned through my colleagues’ affirming attitude and behaviour that I should not allow myself to be a prisoner of my past experiences or limit myself to valuing only those who shout from the rooftops of their knowledge of diversity and inclusion.  What these men have taught me was that whilst we all have our anxieties about other people’s differences, it’s how we manage them which is the key, to be able to look yourself in the mirror and know you’ve acted in good conscience.

 

Lonely are the Brave January 29, 2015

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Whilst flicking TV channels, I came across a film title – ‘Lonely are the Brave’. I pondered over this powerful statement for a few days, thinking of individuals who, in the face of adversity / discrimination, particularly at work but also in wider, social / political reasons, have needed to confront / challenge a situation bravely, whilst facing isolation and loneliness.

Recently, I read* that Harinder Bahra, Associate Dean for External Development at Southampton Institute (now Southampton Solent University) had raised concerns about discriminatory practices and the management of Higher Education Funding Council for England funds. After coming forward, he eventually made a race discrimination complaint and resigned in 2003. His new employer Brunel University found out about his outstanding employment tribunal and he was eventually sacked on the grounds of not passing his probationary period. Bahra took Brunel to another employment tribunal. It ruled that he had “suffered unlawful race discrimination by way of victimisation”. Bahra won an undisclosed sum in an out-of-court settlement and the university offered him an apology.

“There seems to be an underlying assumption that life will return to normal if you’ve been exonerated and received an unreserved apology. It doesn’t. One continues to pay a long-term penalty for raising issues and concerns and many employers will view you as high risk,” he says.

Would he do the same again, knowing the subsequent impact on his career? “I think that it would be a dereliction of duty not to come forward if one is a senior manager and sees any wrongdoing,” he replies. “Sometimes you have to come forward because it’s the right thing to do. Is that not what ethical leadership is about?”

In another case, *radiology service manager Sharmila Chowdhury revealed allegations that doctors were being paid to see NHS patients while they were actually moonlighting with their own private patients. Ealing Hospital NHS Trust sacked Ms Chowdhury but a Watford employment tribunal judge ordered that she be reinstated. She has subsequently been made redundant.

In both cases, whilst it must have taken tremendous courage and resilience in raising legitimate but lengthy complaints against large, reputable organisations, it can be isolating and lonely, especially if there is a lack of support from colleagues and / or senior managers.

During a training session, a participant talked about returning to work after taking maternity leave. She worked for an organisation dominated by older, male senior managers and was regularly exposed to negative and disparaging comments, about women choosing to work rather than staying at home to look after their children. As a result, she dreaded going to work, felt lonely and often cried in her office. She tried to share her discomfort with her one, other female colleague, only to be told that she was being ‘too sensitive’ and to ‘stop acting like a girl’. She reflected that working for the organisation at this time was difficult and painful but she recognised that she had to be brave and deal effectively with the negative comments. The participant felt she had two alternatives, to leave the organisation or to ‘stand up to them’; she chose the latter and won her case.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.” E. F. Schumacher

Over the years, I have worked with many individuals who have faced adversity in their work. Inevitably, this adversity is due to them voicing their differences, raising concerns and being treated in a negative manner as a result. I noticed a consistent theme – at times, people in this position experience despair to the point of wanting to weep. They are aware that their moral compass is not aligned with that of their colleagues and the organisation. As a result, they don’t feel ‘grounded’, experience churning in their stomach, insomnia, changes in their appetite and so on (all classic signs of stress). Throughout this, however, they want to find ways of utilising their anger and frustration by translating it into constructive action. The statement I commonly hear is ‘I simply want fairness’. The individuals in question said the alternative would be to collude and therefore ‘agree’ with the organisation’s (discriminatory) culture.

Such individuals feel that, although their ‘fight’ (for justice) involved difficulties and emotional grief, they had to take responsibility and focus on the outcome they wanted, basically to continue their personal and professional lives with their heads held high. They wished to share their stories, not as ‘victims of discrimination’ and regretting their inaction but as ‘warriors for fairness’.

Risk! Risk Anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for Yourself. Face the Truth.

*Source: Times Higher Education July 2014
*Source: Guardian October 2012

 

Kindness of Strangers December 5, 2014

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Tanzania

Last month, I completed my bike challenge in Tanzania. As part of the group of 11 cyclists from the UK, I cycled 370 km from the base of Mount Kilimanjaro (nearest town Moshi) to Ngongoro Crater. It was one of the best experiences of my life as well as one of the hardest physical challenges. Two things were particularly remarkable, people’s generosity / kindness and the realisation that, without any formal rules or guidelines, as a group of cyclists, aged between 20 and 62, with 6 women and 5 men, there was an underlying, unconscious respect for diversity, with everyone acknowledged, supported, valued and celebrated. There was no specific reference to differences (contrasting with mandatory, conscious policies whereby people feel that they ‘have to/must do diversity’).

My chosen charity was Teens Unite against Cancer, which is based in Broxbourne. I particularly like their philosophy when supporting teenagers with cancer. The charity provides a respite facility and activities enabling teenagers to seek support, share their issues and recognise that they are not alone in their battle against cancer. I was humbled by the generosity of my family, friends and colleagues in terms of time, money and ideas given by. The anonymous donations were particularly amazing. Everyone recognised the effort that required of me in training and doing the bike challenge and their contribution was an acknowledgement of both the hard work involved and that the money was going to a good cause.

I met the 10 other cyclists at Heathrow. We were all strangers and, during the bike challenge, we were together 24 /7, including sharing rooms in pairs. We stayed in different types of accommodation, a Masai Village hut on one night and small, two person tents on two nights. In addition to the cyclists, there were 12 crew members consisting of a doctor, mechanics, crew cyclists (including a Masai warrior) as well as the catering team. The overall process was managed by the group leader whose leadership qualities, people skills and the fact that he gave his attention to each person were noteworthy and pivotal in setting up a culture where everyone looked out for each other amidst a lot of laughter and jokes.

The bike ride was a challenge in itself and much harder than I expected. We cycled long distances over rough terrain (rocks, stones and sand) as well as on tarmac roads, and over some steep hills. Whilst cycling through the different types of terrain, it became apparent that we all had weaknesses and strengths and of course there were ‘meltdowns’ – tears of frustration, general tiredness and the realisation that cycling continually was exhausting. All cyclists and crew members rallied around and provided tremendous support and on reaching the top of some very steep hills, the loud whoops of delights from everyone echoed into the plains and the Rift Valley. Our will to persevere up the steep hills was inspired by local people cheering us on with ‘pole pole’ (slowly slowly) and the gorgeous children with their delightful shrieks of ‘jambo’ (hello) as we cycled past clad in our bright, lycra clothing. On some occasions, the locals looked at us with frowns or uncertain looks but, as soon as we shouted ‘jambo’, their faces beamed with smiles, more than making up for our physical struggles.

Since returning to UK, I have reflected on my ‘journey’. I realised that cycling became an activity, a focus whereby we spent time with others in the group, making sure everyone was all right and that, through this process, everyone felt valued, respected and included. I am enthralled by the fact that, despite being the only Indian woman in the group, I did not feel that there was a ‘neon arrow’ following me, highlighting or emphasising my differences or adding any concept of stereotypes based on my race or gender. Over time and through mutual respect, we all chose to share our stories of differences, including our personal experiences. The Masai Warrior shared his experiences of killing a lion, a ritual in his culture. He was highly amused by our fascination and curiosity that he had chosen to cycle the distance wearing brown brogue shoes, more noticeable with his cycling shorts. There were nicknames given and, whilst previously I have advocated that nicknames are inappropriate due to possible negative connotations, I recognised that nicknames indicated an intimacy, a bonding ritual and arose from admiration, affection and intimacy. I was given the nickname of ‘Mama Simba’, a respectful term highlighting my determination. It was a fact that I was the slowest cyclist in the group and, like others, I struggled through the challenge. My nickname became a source of recognition, a label of what I am capable of.

I cried when I cycled past the finishing line, not only because of the Challenge of the bike (with a capital C!), I had tapped into my inner resilience, reminding me of what I can accomplish, through sheer perseverance. I also know that I would not have completed the bike challenge without the support, encouragement and loud cheers from the others in the group. It was heartening that when some cyclist had reached the top of a steep hill they would walk back down half way, wait for me and cheer me on, running with me whilst I continued to cycle to the top.

The bike challenge highlighted and confirmed that the principles of integrity and decency are inherent within us. For each of us such principles offer us a measure of who we are and how we interact with family, with friends, with colleagues, with strangers as well as with ourselves. I felt privileged and honoured to be part of a group that started as strangers, where the qualities of integrity (harmony, honesty, trust) and decency (respect, fairness and compassion) became the underpinning, automatic models of kindness. We finished the bike ride as a family.

http://www.justgiving.com/Snehabikechallenge

Hyphenated Identities in UK June 3, 2014

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I have been given two hyphenated identities. The first one was given over 40 years ago when my family and I left Uganda and came to UK. We were referred to as ‘Ugandan Asians’.  This was to differentiate us from those of African ethnicity. More recently, the media, government policies and the census has put me into the category of ‘British Asian*’.

There has been an ongoing controversy –  in a society as diverse as UK with about 400 languages spoken in London, whether hyphenated identities are considered woefully inadequate to truly encapsulate a multicultural UK, where different cultures do live and work together in some form of harmony. There is also an expectation for the diaspora communities living in UK to absorb and merge into the British culture. The hyphenated identity is a term that implies a dual identity. It evokes questions regarding which side of the hyphen the person belongs to, giving the impression that the person is oscillating between two cultures. I certainly have been asked ‘so what are you, British or Asian?’ Although my response would be to say ‘Yes’, I am aware that when I am in UK, I am considered Asian but when in India, I am referred to as British and even Non-Resident Indian. Thus, are these hyphenated identities based on culture, nationality, religion, country of origin or simply refers to skin colour?

In the UK, we openly use terms such as Black British, British Asian and even Black and Minority Ethnic, sometimes known in its acronym form of BME. At a recent conference I overheard a participant complain about a person jumping the queue at the train station and she went on to say ‘that is the type of behaviour I would expect from a BME’ (sic). Through this one statement, the participant had totally negated the fact that Black and Minority Ethnic communities encompass a multitude of cultures, behaviours, rituals, language patterns and attitudes. She had tarnished everyone whose roots do not originate from UK,  with the same negative brush stroke, all because someone had jumped a queue. It is worth considering that the hyphenated labelling somehow does not seem apply to other large migrant population living in UK, we d0 not hear of ‘British Romanians’, ‘British Irish’ British Portuguese, ‘British Australians’, etc. Does this mean that dual identities are only applied to people who are not white?

There is another interesting concept for consideration. The Muslim community living in UK have been given a hyphenated identity of being ‘British Muslim’ yet hyphenated identities have not been given to other religious groups living in UK, for instance, there are no references made about  ‘British Jews’,  ‘British Hindus’ ‘British Sikhs etc.  It is hard to understand why the media has made a distinct reference specifically about the British Muslim, identified only by religion and not by ethnicity or country.

Some believe that the British Asian identity, in my case British Indian identity in essence has transplanted Indian identity, supposedly to preserve the ‘Indian’ culture, language and rituals. Others believe that a person who is British Asian is now intrinsically British and should be understood within the context of assimilation and multiculturalism. During a recent visit to India, the street pedlars gave me a lot of hassle to buy their wares whilst my taxi waited at a traffic light. My response to the pedlars was to politely say ‘No thank you’ or ‘I am fine’ which somehow allowed the street pedlars to hassle me further. My Indian friends, conditioned to respond differently, were highly amused by my British politeness and suggested that I should have been aggressive by telling the street pedlars to go away. Had I been assimilated into the British culture to such an extent that my country of origin’s behaviour norms had become alien? I did think my Indian friend’s suggested response somehow contravenes what I had absorbed of the British culture, the concept of courtesy towards everyone irrespective of their status. Putting it another way, was I hooking my personal values into the notion that this is part of the British culture, a culture I am most familiar with?

For me personally, being British and Indian has its advantages, I can easily and comfortably assimilate into either culture. However, there are times when I am very much aware and conscious of my ‘non-white’ status in a meeting or event, especially if I am the only person who is from a (visibly) minority background. Admittedly there are times when I feel more British than Indian and other times more Indian than British, for instance at an Indian function when I am wearing a sari, dancing and miming to Bollywood songs and laughing at the in jokes which only an Indian person would understand.

I am aware that I have worked hard, with support from my family that the incompatibility between being British and being Indian is reduced. My parents have instilled in me the value of independence, free thinking and that there should be no excuse or reason for being held back. These values and ethics are universal and cannot be labelled to belonging to one country or one culture and fundamentally are more related to an individual’s beliefs and principles.

I have three identities – born in Uganda, of Indian ethnicity and holding British nationality, and all of these backgrounds have made me who I am now. I truly do not believe that I have had to sacrifice any of the identities over another. In fact I value what the different identities have to offer and think I have become more open, stronger, accepting and resilient as a result.

*In UK, Asian is used to refer to those of South Asian ancestry, in particular Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi. The Chinese, Korean and Japanese are not included in this definition and are more likely to be defined by their country of origin.

 

It’s all in the subtleties March 18, 2014

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Igualtat de sexes.svgOver the years negative, hostile behaviour towards women at work is generally deemed as overt sexism and therefore unacceptable.  However the subtle and no less insidious sexism continues to fester in the background. There are comments and behaviours, whether made by men or women that devalue women.  During a recent training session, I conducted an exercise titled ‘Acceptable Continuum’, providing statements to be categorised as either ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’.  I noted with concern some participants becoming indignant that ‘I am going through a blond moment’* or referring to women as ‘girls’ was generally considered ‘unacceptable’.  This indignation was verbalised by comments along the lines of ‘This is PC gone mad’, ‘We are walking on an eggshell culture’, ‘I can’t say anything now??’ etc.

I have worked with various organisations and noted that colleagues sometimes use certain but subtly negative language patterns, either out of habit or because it has become unconsciously ingrained into office culture and banter, that it becomes acceptable.  There is a lack of awareness or a perception that, if no harm is intended by these comments, no one should be offended.  It is worth pointing out that these kinds of every day subtleties, with their ‘drip drip’ effect, are damaging and detrimental to how women are perceived and therefore treated.

In some organisations, colleagues have explained that when women have stated ‘I must have gone through a blond moment’, this seems to have given some men the freedom and permission to make disparaging comments about women, albeit in jest.  Some of these comments made by men were along the lines of ‘That was good work… for a woman’, ‘Can you be Mummy and organise lunch for the next Senior Management Team meeting? (made to a female member of the SMT), ‘I am surprised that you managed to do the project given your child care responsibilities….’, ‘here comes the handbag brigade’;  the list goes on.  It is apparent that sexist humour, which is really the denigration of women through humour, trivialises the unpleasant reality of sex discrimination behind a smokescreen of harmless banter and implies that, when sexist language is presented as humour or in jest, it is to be viewed as acceptable and considered a bonding ritual between colleagues.

I recently attended a Board meeting of a public sector organisation which was also attended by two newly appointed members.  I noted with wry interest that the Chair of the Board (a man) introduced the new female Board member with a detailed background about her family; she had three daughters, was a PTA member and attended a book club. In contrast the male Board member’s professional qualifications and professional accomplishments were highlighted.  It was also telling that the Chair even introduced the female member with ‘I would like to welcome the beautiful Jackie* to the Board’.  This type of subtle sexism leaves some observers feeling uncomfortable but not entirely sure about what. However, the real danger lies in it being possible to see the comment as normal and acceptable. Further, the Chair could even argue that he was complimenting Jackie.  I later learned that Jackie had similar professional qualifications and accomplishments to those of her male counterpart; this was not mentioned at the meeting.

Various studies* reveals that sexist jokes and gender stereotype are some of the main factors in holding women back from thriving at work.  The hard-to-detect comments can have an insidious effect, which over time is profound enough for women to start conforming to the stereotypes instead of focusing on their career advancement.  Research findings show some common subtle incidents occurring on average 2-5 times a week.  These include:

  • Comments that women are not as good as men at certain activities (maths, sports, leadership).
  • Comments that women are too easily offended or that they exaggerate problems.
  • Seemingly benign comments about women, that they are naturally better at cooking, shopping or child care.
  • Choosing women for stereotypical assignments or tasks.
  • Making comments about women’s clothing.  

The studies show that, in response to the subtle sexist comments and attitudes, women have been known to perform poorly on cognitive tests.  Further, they express feelings of incompetence and even greater dissatisfaction with their work-related performance.

Fundamentally, it is important for all of us to be aware that, whilst we have made huge strides in moving away from explicitly negative and sexually inappropriate behaviour, subtle comments and remarks considered to be innocuous, are damaging and help maintain the ripple-like effect of discrimination against women.  As we celebrate International Women’s Day in March, we need to be more aware of subtle sexism in the workplace, the need to move away from stereotypes and to place a greater focus on treating people as individuals and not labelling them with the group that they represent.

The United Nations theme for International Women’s Day 2014 is Equality for Women is Progress for All’.

* ‘I am going through a blond moment’.  Term usually made by a woman to imply that she had forgotten to do something, is a scatterbrain or is being silly or stupid.  The term is used as a get out clause, a public persona of how ‘vulnerably dumb’ a woman is.  1990s: from the stereotypical perception of blonde-haired women as unintelligent.

** Melbourne Business School, Australia, Pennsylvania State UniversityUSA and Philipps UniversityGermany

LGBT History Month (UK) February 23, 2014

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Throughout history, lesbian, gay and bisexual people have made highly influential contributions to all aspects of public life. All too often, however, these contributions have not been acknowledged. This not only ignores a vital part of our history, but has also left LGBT people feeling invisible and without role models.

Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans History Month takes place in UK every year during February. Its purpose is to raise awareness of, and combat prejudice against, an otherwise substantial invisible minority group. The LGBT History Month marks a series of events which recognises and celebrates the lives, achievements and contributions, whether to society or in history of the LGBT community.

These events create an opportunity for learning, discussion and debate about some of the issues faced by the community. Each year the LGBT History Month is dedicated to a particular theme, this year’s theme is Music, more specifically combating homophobia through music.LGBT

The LGBT History Month, now in it 9th year  was initiated to coincide with a significant event which took place in February 2005, the repealing of Section 28 in England and Wales. Section 28 was a UK law from 1988 to 2003 (2000 in Scotland) which prevented schools from discussing LGBT issues, prevented teachers in offering advice to LGBT people and prevented the portrayal of same sex relationships as an acceptable family relationship.

Taking into account that education is considered paramount in eliminating prejudice against all minority groups, LGBT History Month stated aim is to “educate out prejudice” while “celebrating the diversity of society as a whole”. Schools, colleges and universities needed to be free to divulge information, offer help and advice, and promote equal treatment of LGBT students.

The idea of celebrating diversity of LGBT people stemmed from the ‘School’s Out’ campaign. School’s Out founded in 1974, to work on the visibility and safety of LGBT people in Education is now a registered charity which strives ‘to provide a formal and informal support network for people who want to raise the issues of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and heterosexist in education’.

The LGBT History Month initiative in 2005 received government backing, in particular from Jacqui Smith who was the deputy Department of Education and Skills (DfES) and Equalities Minister at the time. The DfES allocated a two year funding for LGBT History Month as a start up measure. The event is now widely publicised, acknowledged and celebrated by public sectors, charities and private organisations. Long standing sponsors include Metropolitan Police Service, Amnesty International and Crown Prosecution Service. The prelaunch events have been held at key venues, Tate Modern, TUC Congress House, Royal Courts of Justice and Downing Street.

In the US, LGBT History Month, initiated in 1994 is celebrated in October, to included National Coming Out Day (October 11). Both in UK and US, there is a respectful acknowledgment to the example of Black History Month.

With the badge ‘Claiming our history, celebrating our present and creating our future’  LGBT History Month will continue to press for equality and visibility of LGBT people around the globe all year round.

At least 260 species of animal have been noted exhibiting homosexual behaviour but only one species of animal ever, so far as we know, has exhibited homophobic behaviour – and that’s the human being. Stephen Fry

“I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you…And you…And you…Gotta give em hope.” Harvey Milk  – first openly gay person to be elected to public office in US 

Do White Men Care? October 23, 2013

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There’s an assumption that being a white man is easy, that if you are white, you’re right and can do whatever you want, there are no holds barred; a selection of jobs, promotions galore, choices in where you live and no suspicious sideways glances based on colour.  Simply put, because you are white you are perceived to have everything and be part of an ‘exclusive’ society.

However, during my coaching and training sessions, I have come to realise that white men do care and don’t always have it easy.  I recently investigated allegations of racism, made by a black woman against a white man.  The white man was devastated that he had been accused of what he considered a heinous crime and the resulting effect this allegation, even when not upheld would have on his professional life.  There was no evidence to indicate that he had behaved in a way that could be construed as racist and the allegation was dismissed.  I was nonetheless conscious that just the nature of the allegations and the investigation would have a devastating effect on him and his future behaviour.  The impact might even spiral; he would be hyper-conscious of his behaviour towards black and minority ethnic staff, who in turn could interpret his resulting, cautious behaviour as racism.  And so the cycle continues…
 
There is a flip side to the coin.  Managers have told me informally during breaks (in training sessions) that they, at times, feel pressured to overcompensate in dealing with women and black and minority ethnic staff, due to the fear that otherwise they could be perceived as discriminatory.  They felt they had to go the extra mile to justify their decisions, to the extent that, on occasions, they even considered allowing poor performance to continue rather than confront the member of staff concerned due to the attendant risk of being labelled racist or sexist. 

One manager said he regularly gave in to an individual’s requests to finish early on Fridays although he knew it wasn’t legitimate for this staff member to finish early.  But, on the two occasions he had refused, he was accused of being racist and somehow it seemed easier to cave in to an unjustified request than confront allegations of racism. 
 
During one-to-one coaching sessions (white male) managers have shared (with me, an Asian woman) their anxieties and dilemmas about ‘getting it wrong’.  They recognise that the coaching process is a safe place to air and explore views, without worrying about knowing the right answer.  Interestingly, many managers acknowledge that they feel unable to discuss these concerns with colleagues or the Human Resources team, as they fear raising such issues might have detrimental repercussions on performance appraisals or promotion (‘inadequate management skills / knowledge on diversity issues’). 
 
One manager told me that he was under considerable stress at work – he had witnessed sexual harassment toward younger women.  But he felt unable to expose this harassment as he knew that, if he did, he would be ostracised by the men in the team – and wouldn’t be invited to after work drinks to catch up on the office politics and promotion prospects.  He was also conscious that, in the current economy, he simply couldn’t afford to whistle blow, as staff were being made redundant by the very same men who were harassing the women.  Feeling powerless had caused the same man to suffer from headaches and nausea as well as anguish as to what sort of a role model he was to his five-year-old daughter.
 
The underlying theme in all these situations is the fear of being ‘told off’.  A director, in his late fifties, from the north of England said he had been reprimanded publicly when he used the term ‘coloured’, and was told unequivocally that this term was offensive.  He explained that he had understood that using the term ‘black’ was considered insulting and hadn’t realised that the ‘politically correct’ language had changed.  He said he wished someone had explained this to him rather treating him with contempt in front of colleagues as this had made him feel humiliated.
 
There is a saying that ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing (Edmund Burke)’.  The ‘good’ white men I have met over the years genuinely do not know quite how to promote equality and this compounds their biggest fear – being perceived as evil.  When confronted with the seemingly incomprehensible labyrinth of unwritten rules as to what is deemed as acceptable practice, I certainly do not see these men as evil; simply (and sadly) helpless.  

 

How does one respond? September 9, 2013

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.
2 comments
  • Over the summer holidays, I caught up with some of my Indian friends.  A discussion that came up repeatedly was about comments made to us that invariably highlighted our differences. These questions and comments often had no ready answers and we found some to be quite bizarre.

    In no particular order here is the list of questions/comments and some responses that were given.

    1. Comment: ‘I think I must have been an Indian in my previous life’.

    Response: Have you been to India?

    Comment: No

    Response: Do you interact a lot with the Indian community in UK?

    Comment: Not really

    Response: So what makes you think you were Indian in your previous life?

    Comment: I don’t know, I just feel it, maybe because I love yoga.

    2. Comment: Do you know how to cook chicken tikka masala?

    Response: No it is not part of my diet, I am a vegetarian. I am not from that part of India where chicken masala is the regional dish.

    Comment: I so want to learn how to cook chicken tikka masala, are you sure you do not know how to cook it?

    3. Comment: I am not racist, my best friend/neighbour/colleague is an Indian.

    No Response

    4. Comment: You are assertive for an Indian woman, what do your parents say?

    Response: They think it is important for everyone to be respectful and assertive

    Comment: That is so unusual; I always thought Indian women were brought up to be submissive.

    5. Comment: Where do you live?

    Response: I live in Hertfordshire

    Comment: Oh really, I know a Mr Patel who lives in Hertfordshire, do you know him?

    Note: Hertfordshire has a population of over one million.

    Patel is ranked in the top ten of common surnames.

    It is so tempting to respond, yes I know him…..

    6. Comment: My Indian friend Shilpa is…….

    Is it necessary to have a prefix of ‘Indian’ every time a reference is made to Shilpa?

    7. Comment: I love Indian people; I wish I was an Indian…….

    How does one even respond to this comment?

    8. Comment: I love your earrings (or necklace or blouse etc) they are so ethnic.

    Question: Which ethnic group are you referring to?

    Note: The definition of the word Ethnic:  a) Of, relating to, or characteristic of a sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage. b) Being a member of a particular ethnic group, especially belonging to a national group by heritage or culture but residing outside its national boundaries. Source Online Dictionary

    9. Comment: I love Bollywood actresses. They look so glamorous and exotic. I would love to marry one.

    Response: I would love to marry George Clooney.

    10. Comment: Do you wear saris?

    Response: on special occasions

    Comment: How do you drive when you are wearing a sari?

    Response: The way I always drive

    11. Comment: Were you born in India?

    Response: No I was born in Africa

    Comment: Oh so you are an African

    Response: No I am Indian

    Comment: I thought you were born in Africa – does that not make you African?

    12. Comment: You speak very good English.

    Response: Thank you, so do you

    13. Comment: I would love to have an arranged marriage.

    Response: Have you tried dating agencies? Maybe I can ask my parents to introduce you to someone they know.

    14. Comment: What is your Christian name?

    Response: I don’t have a Christian name because I am not Christian

    Comment: yeah but England is a Christian country, so what is wrong in my asking you about your Christian name?

    15. Comment: Do you speak Indian?

    Response: I can speak three languages, including English.

    The national languages in India are Hindi and English.  There are around 30 official languages. According to the Economist (February 2012), there are around 438 languages spoken in India. It would be like me asking you ‘do you speak European?’.

    It is worth noting Oscar Wilde’s quote, ‘Questions are never indiscreet, answers sometimes are’.

Discrimination Behind Closed Doors July 9, 2013

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

HandsDuring a recent conversation, Sunil was indignant that he hadn’t been promoted.  He was convinced that, even though he felt entitled to the promotion, he did not get it because of his race.  Sunil, who is of Indian origin, lamented that the Equality legislation was in namesake only and that organisations still have to make long term, effective changes before equality is fully embedded.  Towards the end of our conversation, Sunil told me that he was inviting a few colleagues for drinks to his home the following Saturday. He added that Peter, another team colleague, had not been invited.  In response to my query, Sunil explained that, whilst he is happy to interact with Peter at work, he would feel uncomfortable about inviting him to his home.  Peter is gay.

I reflected on this conversation and recognised that some do succumb to the ‘pressure’ and expectation of being inclusive in their professional lives and indeed do interact with colleagues from different backgrounds in a respectful manner.  However, there seems to be a different impetus when managing differences in our personal lives.  What became evident from my conversation with Sunil was that not only was he concerned about how his friends and family would behave towards Peter, he was anxious about the reaction from his family; that he was socialising with someone who is gay.  Sunil explained that, given homosexuality is a taboo subject in his family; he would not want to experience his family’s anger and disapproval.

We select and sift through who we want interact and be friendly with, both at and outside work; our matching processes are inevitably based on similarities –  interests, values, personality etc.  It is apparent, based on conversations with friends and colleagues that in some instances, social (personal) interaction hadn’t taken place due to anxiety as to how to behave towards someone who is different and therefore unknown.  There are stories of women going through a divorce, who are not invited to events dominated by couples.  In one instance, a person who followed a vegan diet was not invited to a dinner party as the host did not know how to cater for her.

Whilst it can be argued that people are entitled to invite and engage with whoever they choose to in their personal lives, my concern is that not inviting someone only because of their difference inevitably becomes ‘discrimination behind closed doors’.  Elements within the definition of discrimination include whether there was an intention to exclude and what the impact was on the recipient.  Sunil clearly and intentionally excluded Peter from an invitation to his home, taking the view that, as Peter was unaware of the exclusion, he was not affected.  Sunil argued that he could not handle Peter’s difference in his personal life and, if Peter does not know that he was excluded, then it doesn’t matter.

Are we, behind closed doors, maintaining a form of segregation, an exclusivity of ‘let’s interact with people who look, talk, behave and think like us’?  Is this acceptable, especially as no legislation, policies or procedures govern the selection process, a process whereby people aren’t invited to an event purely because their perceived difference does not fit the host’s standards / norms of ‘acceptability’, whatever that may be.

For me, this means that even those of us who consider that we have been treated well at work may not really know what is said when we are out of the room.  Is there a subliminal message of ‘I cannot deal with your difference’ when not inviting someone to events?  And, even if the person concerned is unaware of their exclusion, this exclusion is quite possibly apparent to those who have been included.

Fundamentally, we live in a discriminatory world whether we like it or not. Of course this is not to say that there are no liberal-minded people to whom differences do not matter.  But between them and the Sunils of the world, there is a broad swathe of humankind who, if we are honest, discriminate behind closed doors.  Whether it is a coping mechanism or a cop out, nevertheless it is negative bias.

“I hate these affairs”, he’d told her once, tearing up an engraved invitation to an exclusive charity ball.  “They’re the worst kind of discrimination.  An invitation doesn’t really mean that you’re invited; it means that a whole lot of people aren’t”. 

 

Melinda Cross, One Hour of Magic