Are We Who We Think We Are? - A Personal Journey Through Rank
by Steph Bradley - Transition tales
written in response to the recent Rank and Privilege Day, held by the Transition Network in Bristol
I thought I knew who I was, once, way back when, before I left our shores ...for what turned out to be a 14 year sojourn in the sunny climes of Brazil.
I thought that was all of who I was. I thought that was fixed, set in stone; that she who I could see was what everyone else could see, and that things couldn’t change.
That was nearly twenty years ago, when I was naive, innocent, and out for an adventure.
I was looking for my Purpose.
Today I look at this description through different eyes:
English, white, female, middle aged, educated, lower middle class, heterosexual, a bit of a hippy....and shy.
Yes. All of that, yes, I’ve matured, but apart from that, it’s the same old list. Or is it? Back then I thought that was who I was, all of who I was...
Now I know that what that list is is simply a list of my various rankings. I can’t change that. But I am radically different, and I have been those things in radically different settings... and been treated differently because of them. I don’t need to identify myself with any of these labels, the person I am is the still quiet voice within who uses these various guises in service to the different things I am called on to do to help make the world a better place than how I found it.
In the post industrial wastelands of northern England where I grew up my family were outcast; for daring to be “posh” in a working class environment. As my once poverty stricken parents painstakingly climbed step by step up the socio-economic ladder, trying to give my sister and me “a better start in life” than they had had, classmates rejected my carefully cultured accent; my mother, determined to give me a chance to not be held back by my humble roots, had taught me to “speak properly”, and thereby sealed my fate as outsider for the whole of my school days.
Amongst the hurly burly of a working class Lancashire playground the exuberant confident lyrical girl child was taken down a peg or two, or ten, and took her place, in the lowest ranks, that of a shy member of the class. Silenced by the gift her mother had given her with love, bewildered by the rejection of her beingness, shyness seemed the only possible rank to take for one who loved other people so.
Outcast at high school; couldn’t play sport, enjoyed lessons, recipe for exclusion. Inward; noticing that the behaviour that gave high rank was that which made me feel sick to the stomach; one up man ship, cruelty, establishing and maintaining pecking orders, competition and winning.
In the middle class Christian environs of the teacher training faculty of the university of Lancaster, the working class culture, which my parents, for all their hard work, could not disguise, showed me up for what I was; no social skills and no idea of how to acquire them; a lifetime of never having guests for dinner, of visiting relatives whose working class background was as comfortable as an old shoe....for them, and as uncomfortable as putting a right shoe on a left foot for us, had taken its toll.
Excruciatingly uncomfortable, the rank of shy member of the class once again served its purpose. Under this guise, lowly rank, the ineptitudes of an education that had included none of the etiquette for how one behaved in a truly middle class environment, were hidden from view... Haven’t read the right books, seen the right films, parents read the Daily Mail, didn’t know the names that were dropped casually into conversations for effect. Ouch. Fish out of water.
Then, suddenly, the power of sexual love struck. Gone in a flash was my childhood sweetheart, son of Polish immigrants, a relationship fraught with insider-outsider complexities, I was off, to move in with a long-haired, drug-taking hippy from the Lakes.
For the first time in my life, outside my immediate family of lower middle class aspirations and working class hang ups, loyalty, and love, I found a group who accepted me. Not as an equal, I realise now, looking back. I was delighted not to be rejected for things I could no more help than my wild curly hair. However now I had status. I had been to a locally prestigious college. I had an education. I could get jobs easily. I could speak well. Police officers trusted my innocent grey eyes, and if there were driving to be done I could be trusted not to have drunk as much as the rest.
And even in my lower ranking of being unable to stay awake all night whilst the others got out of their heads and into their hearts, I was accepted. I could learn these things, in time, or so they thought...
Desperation slowly sank in, as that young woman saw her comrades unable to hold their own in society, their great ideals swept away. as the grand community plans of cannabis-induced euphoria gave way to dole cheques that barely covered costs, and the desperate reaching out for the new paradigm all could see coming but none could find the power to act for, as they one by one collapsed under addiction, suicide, poverty, childcare on a shoestring, and the weight of abused childhoods coming to light.
Sunk into deepest depression, recovery and then I was off...on the adventure of a lifetime, idealism still intact in spite of all those years of seeing the effects of a consumerist society upon the vulnerable, to explore the world...
Gilbraltar. Where the Gibraltarians are of highest rank and the English their poor cousins; the lowly ones who would even stoop to a job in a nightclub or a sailors’ bar. As the contexts flowed smoothly into one another the Navy and the locals, the ex pats and the travellers, the Spanish from just over the border, I felt my rank shift from one thing to the next and in that began, for maybe the first time, to notice that little quiet voice of who I really am. In the large communal cockroach-ridden Dutch barge that I called home the others teased me and called me Janet Street Porter; kinda sensing that I was not really one of them, planning the next drug run to get the best black in from Morocco. I was biding my time, noticing, how it is that each group firmly believes they are right, and that the others are missing something.
But aboard the yacht I took to Brazil I had high status; ship's cook and captain’s lover; it was a privileged position and easy to abuse. Ship's rations were between he and I to decide, the menu mine alone. No night watch for me but delicious daytime off duty sun bathing on deck as dolphins swam lazily by.
Arrival on Brazilian shores. Phallic NY style skyscrapers seared the gorgeous blue skies of Recife. A little to the right; Olinda (‘the beautiful one’) lay basking in golden sunlight, a green hill full of weathered old colonial dwellings.
Brazil. Land of paradox. Land of great equality and desperate inequality, side by side in perfect juxtaposition. Land where the English are revered. Por os ingleses ver goes the popular saying. A bit like our behaviour when the Queen comes to town. Quick, sweep up, paint over it, hide it under the carpet; impress, impress, impress.
Suddenly the lowly northern hippy had real status. It took me a while to understand this. Why was I treated with such respect? I was behaving exactly as I always had yet people stopped and listened, valued what I said, asked my advice, and took me places, invited me to expensive resorts for weekends, exclusive restaurants to meet important people, showed me off, the jewel on their arm.
The English. Not the Americans, Canadians, Aussies and all: the English were the real thing.
English, white, female, young, educated, heterosexual...?
What high status you have! Welcome!
A bit of a hippy? That‘s OK, a bit of quirkiness will give people something to talk about when we introduce you. Shy? Well of course, you’re English, and what better place to overcome your English reserve than with us? Our exuberance will soon have you chatting away like a native.
Class? That sounds interesting. What’s that?
Ah, a whole lesson is devoted to that quintessential English thing. On the blackboard it goes:
Upper middle classes
Lower middle class
Unemployed & Low Income Communities
Is it like India then? The Caste system? Well, yes, perhaps. Yet you’d never be told your class, just silently recognised, boxed, and judged. Put in your place, and don’t you dare climb out of it!
Teaching 12 hour days, employing a housekeeper, the two of us making friends, going out for dinner in the favella. On the side of a muddy hillside her neat and spotlessly clean wooden home perches, prey to the next rains.
“Are you mad? You didn’t go there!” exclaim my closeted, gated-community work colleagues; privilege keeping them prisoner behind bars of their own making.
In the dusty city square the ragged street children sniff glue, teaching the little ones to stave off hunger pangs, whilst the well dressed Catholic preacher tells them where their salvation lies. Under the mango tree we teach the kids English and they teach us to suck the unripe fruit and dip it in salt for flavour, and laugh at the preacher, and at our clumsy attempts to pronounce their names.
Man in his prime, sits on street corner, feet swollen beyond recognition with elephantitis, smiling a smile only the Buddha could better. Begging for his daily food, relishing the bright sunshine upon his face, beaming out vitality and love for life; his a rank not many attain. Whilst in the air conditioned environs of the soulless planned city of Brasilia the politicians sit in Miami bought suits, passing unconscious sentence on a myriad of folk they can never hope to understand, and look forward to holidays on beaches where only those with money can afford to walk upon the golden sand.
Living in a tiny sleepy fishing village, in a house built from pictures in my heart. Trees planted from seed; mango, papaya, acerola, cashew, lemon, tangerine and orange, glorious giant watermelons on the compost heap. In the community meetings of locals, ex pats and hippies, idealism meets human nature in a sea of misunderstandings and conflict of interest, as green values and knowledge clash with Dallas style dreams and the fisher folk and lace makers sit on neighbours doorsteps in the cool of the fading evening light.
And then, the god Tourism arrives, bringing with him hoards of English package tour holidaymakers, wealthy Scandanavians, and property developers. Land prices soar and the locals look at their quiet idyll destroyed, as the drugs and good time girls move in. to service the sad and lonely, those that abandoned their homelands in search of ...what? ... their soul?
English, white, female, young, educated, lower middle class, heterosexual, a bit of a hippy, shy...
What good that, to belong here? It’s not who I am. Sadly...acknowledging...it’s time to go home...to find my place.
Home. Sense of place. Sense of tribe
Shared values, ideals, dreams, passion, enthusiasm...
Here we go again.... haven’t read the right books, seen the right films, parents read the Daily Mail, names I have never come across, unwritten rules about ways of presenting oneself, shared culture...
Belonging, and yet not. My class takes me down a peg or two, or ten. Others come in after me and are seen, step confidently up to take their place, and I , I step down, not knowing how to bring my piece, yet knowing, deeply knowing, that my piece matters.
Knowing that each group has its code of rules, unwritten yet set in stone, each thinking they have it right. And that until we see that no one group has it all right, that until we can all humbly sit down together, in every context, and acknowledge our various ranks, and share all of our knowledge and our knowings and not set up any one group as being more right than another...
We are not honouring the spirit of Transition.
English, white, female, middle aged, educated, lower middle class, heterosexual, a bit of a hippy....and shy
They don’t matter, if I do not listen to the quiet voice inside, the one that tells me rank and privilege are precious gifts to be shared with others, that they are not to be taken for granted, nor ignored either, but used in the service of compassion, and that when proffering my knowledge to those of different rank great humility is required, and offering my beingness and deeply listening for another’s truths, no matter how alien their culture may appear, is the greatest gift of all.
When I can step out of my rank, and into who I really am, when I can stop all my doing until I can just be, then can I truly be said to relate, to listen, and to learn.
When I can step out of my group, and acknowledge my place within many groups, in many different rankings, I belong, not to them, but to myself.
When I can, from that place, stand alone in my truth, I can really start to say equality is truly important to me, and, as I meet each person standing in their truth I can see that rank is not who any of us are at all.
Storyteller, facilitator, and writer Steph Bradley has had several years involvement with the Transition Network and in particular with the Transition Tales project, Amongst her current projects are an e book of the tales of 2010, collected on a 6 month Story Walk around England in a pair of red flip flops, and the Quest, a interactive community card game and workshop. She can be commissioned for storytelling performances and workshops, personalised tales, poems, and paintings at http://www.storyweaving.co.uk.
Steph has been an active member of the TTT (Transition Town Totnes) Education Group since 2007 when she received funding to run the first ever TTT Youth Event; an interactive music festival for 11-18 yr olds. She blogs regularly on her website http://www.storyweaving.co.uk and http://www.transitionnetwork.org/blogs/steph-bradley.
Images: Steph Bradley; graffiti in Bristol outside the Rank and Priviledge Day workshop; workshop flip chart; Transition Tales training in Hungary, 2011