On being an ally

Roller coaster
You can’t get off this roller coaster, even when it gets scary

Over the last week or so, the knitting universe has been in uproar over posts, comments and responses made on the social media of a knitting personality. Having had a small taste of infamy years ago, I have every sympathy. I understand that when the online world you inhabit seems to turn against you, it can feel overwhelming, and putting your mental health first is vital. Right now, he needs to do what he can to recuperate, and care for himself, and though my words today are going to be critical of his actions, I believe it is vital for us all as allies to examine what it means to be an ally, and sometimes that will mean recognising that sometimes good people do shitty things.

I think of myself as a good person. I’ve done shitty things. I said an offhand thing online during the marriage equality debate that I didn’t think through, and it haunts me to this day. The pain of knowing what I did, knowing that it hurt people I care deeply about is uncomfortable. But I don’t have the luxury of forgetting about it. That discomfort drives me – it reminds me that being an ally isn’t something I should turn on and off when it’s convenient for me.

I have quite a lot of privilege. In some aspects of my life I lack privilege, but I have enough that I recognise that the ability to step in and out of being an ally is also a privilege. If I see someone behaving badly, I get to choose how involved I get. The person who is directly affected by the bad behaviour doesn’t get that choice.

When someone behaves badly online, everyone who sees that post of comment has a chance to call it out. And that is WORK. It takes effort. And if it feels hard for you as a cis/het/white/able bodied (insert privileged group here) person, just imagine how it would feel to have to defend yourself. Over, and over, and over again.

Imagine having to defend your existence over, and over, and over. Imagine being attacked online, and having all your friends sit by and say nothing. Imagine feeling like nobody cares.

Depending on your age, your culture, your family background, you are going to have different ideas about what sort of behaviour is acceptable. My paternal grandmother, raised with a lot of privilege, and in an era where racism was the norm, used to love Chinese food. She’d take the whole family out for dinner to an upscale restaurant, and call every waiter “Charlie”, with absolutely no awareness that it was rude. As a young child, I wondered whether it was a formal title that was bestowed on only the best waiters, or maybe there was some secret society.

I learned over time, through having progressive parents, that this was racism. I learned to see it. And I saw a lot of it. The war in Lebanon was raging across the other side of the world, and though I knew nothing of the war, I started to see new faces in our suburb. The single Chinese takeaway was joined by an Italian pizza place, run by a big Lebanese family. My parents had a friend who made us stuffed zucchini and kibbe. Our Greek neighbours shared every family celebration with us, and I grew to adore their name days and weddings and sunday get togethers, with the men smoking and drinking in the backyard, while the women prepared dolmades and baklava in the crowded, noisy kitchen.

My dad told me recently that the first Chinese family moved in to our suburb around 1956. He grew up with a Lebanese family next door, and maintained a friendship with his childhood friend for many, many years. The land that I grew up on had been part of my paternal great grandfathers citrus orchard. My high school was once part of that orchard, and the bush that backs on to the school leads all the way up to the Central Coast. My childhood playground was that bush, where there are aboriginal rock carvings that prove the original inhabitants of that land were there for a long time before we came. And gone for a long time before I was born.

The land I grew up on was Aboriginal land. No doubt stolen generations ago, but never talked about or acknowledged. I grew up never seeing Aboriginal people.

Our suburb was very white. English, Irish, Scottish. We sang “God Save the Queen” every morning in primary school. The Chinese takeaway was a lynchpin, as were the Lebanese family that made the best pizza I’ve ever had. I don’t know what it must have been like for their kids growing up there, where nobody knew the “N” word, but we all knew plenty of slurs for asian and middle eastern people. I think it would have been pretty awful.

As a child, my slightly darker skin tone, long dark hair, and large eyes marked me as “different”. In a classroom full of Stephanies, Belindas and Karens, the racially hard to pin down “Larissa” (absolutely an impossible name for Sydney in the 1970’s) was an anomaly. I was teased mercilessly, both on the basis of my race, and my inability to make friends, for my weird intensity, and my “off with the fairies” demeanor. I was also teased for being a lesbian, which made me think I might be, despite having absolutely no idea what was wrong with that.

I was 47 before I found out I had inattentive ADHD. And almost 49 when I found out I’m probably autistic too (diagnosis would be expensive, and not necessarily useful, so I haven’t sought one yet).

I’m still mixed race, but these days we see way more diversity in our cities, so I’m just a face in the crowd, and very rarely get treated any differently on the basis of race. I’m from Sydney, and I live in Auckland, so my day to day existence is in the context of large, fairly multicultural cities. Context matters, and while travelling in Sri Lanka, I am definitely treated with greater deference than the locals. You may have different experiences than I have had.

But my gender identity matches my biology (I’m cis gendered). I’m attracted (almost exclusively) to men (I’m heterosexual), I’m married to someone who shares parenting duties (I’m not a single parent). We have enough money to buy a home, educate our kid, and have access to great healthcare.

So I’ve got areas where I have great privilege, and areas where I’m not so privileged, and I can sometimes use an ally too.

Privilege isn’t a binary. There is no such thing as privileged vs. the under-priviliged.

Every single one of us has layers of privilege and lack of privilege. In the knitting community, the most visible people tend to be white, middle class, and female. Within that community, being male actually affords you both privilege and a lack of it, depending on the context. In the wider community, being male affords you more privilege than being female.

The context in which an interaction exists can’t be ignored either. Online, some of us have much greater influence than others. Influence is power.

If I, as a white woman, walk into a knitting group, I know I will be accepted (*at least initially) because it is very likely I will see other white women in the room. That is an example of how I benefit from being part of the dominant group.

Now, I might suffer from social anxiety, and I might feel really scared to walk into the room for the first time. Or I might have a physical disability that means stairs are a challenge. Or maybe I need to be close to a toilet, or maybe I care for a relative, and my time away is precious and scarce. There are a million reasons why walking into that room might be challenging, but not being white isn’t one of them. And that’s what privilege means – of all the challenges I might be facing, race isn’t something I need to deal with.

All my life I’ve felt apart and other. Maybe that’s autism, maybe that’s growing up in a leftie family, with artists and scientists and challenging the status quo as natural as breathing. Or maybe I’m just a sensitive soul who identifies with the underdog, and I’ve just grown accustomed to the obligation of caring for those that need a hand. Regardless of the why, I’ve always been driven to do what I can to make the world a kinder, fairer place.

In 2012, whilst at Macquarie University, I trained to be an LGBTQ+ Ally, and was part of the university ally program. I signed up because I thought it would be an interesting way to meet people, and it was an idea I believed in. I never expected to learn as much as I did. And I still have a lot more to learn.

Through Where Change Started, I’ve signed up for the Anti Racism Leadership Accelerator program. I’m a few weeks behind (another ruptured disk, plus international travel) but I’m learning a lot, and I recognise that this is a lifelong process of listening, learning, self examination and reflection, and that while I continue to strive towards being a great ally, I’m bound to make mistakes.

So I’m promising to myself that if I do stuff up, I’ll listen to criticism. I’ll take responsibility for my mistakes. I’ll repair what I am able to, and do the work I need to do to prevent myself from making the same mistake again. And I’ll try to share what I’m learning through Yarny Allies, and try to build that up as a resource for everyone who is seeking to grow along the same path.

So all of that is a really long way of saying the following –

  • if you experience something differently to me, I promise that I’ll listen to your experience
  • if you share your experience with me, I promise that I will believe you
  • if I’ve done something that causes you pain or makes you feel unsafe, I’ll do whatever I can to repair and take responsibility
  • if I see someone behaving in a way that makes you feel unsafe, I’ll speak out
  • if you are speaking, and not being heard, I will make way for you, retweet you, promote you and amplify your voice
  • the areas in which I lack privilege are irrelevant to any discussion of your oppression. I will not use my fragility to dismantle your right to expression.

So, where do I stand on the Sockmatician?

Nathan is a nice guy. He’s gregarious, and friendly, and funny, and he does clever things with knitting. He’s openly gay, and openly living with HIV. That takes bravery and brains, for him to recognise that he can be a role model for opening people’s minds about what it means to be living with HIV. When I was in my early twenties, the world was crazy with fear over HIV, and openly declaring yourself to be positive was absolutely unthinkable then. That has changed, largely due to people like Nathan being brave enough to share their stories, despite any fear of conflict, retaliation, or rejection.

I met Nathan while he was in NZ, and I thought him to be a positive role model for the knitting community. That wasn’t long after he started promoting the use of the #diversknitty hashtag, and it had taken off. I believed he genuinely and passionately wanted to promote diversity within the knitting community.

Since I started writing this post (overland travel within Sri Lanka has meant it’s taken several days so far), there has been a further incident which raised the stakes significantly, so my initial statement would have been directed differently.

An oversimplification of events would run a little like this –

Nathan posts on instagram about it being a year since his promotion of the hashtag, noting it’s widespread use. And asking for a change in how the hashtag is used, requesting that people use it to spread only messages of positivity.

Feedback is given in comments that his post is undermining people who are using the hashtag, that they have defined what it means to them, and that tone policing their use of it is insensitive and tone deaf. At a time when the knitting community is undergoing growth and change, we aren’t yet at a point where we can all be sunshine and rainbows.

Some of the feedback isn’t super nice and conciliatory. Nathan responds to criticism by rudely dismissing suggestions that he might educate himself about the issues people are raising. His partner steps in and rallies supporters to gather information about people who are critical. Nathan insists that he is a nice guy and only doing his best to make the world a better place. He then goes dark, and then his husband and sister both post saying that he has been hospitalised (without any further information about why), and that people shouldn’t be nasty.

The two main instagram posts had gathered thousands of comments. Then they disappeared, along with all Nathan’s social media presence. Ben has updated his blog, referring to mobs, bullying, and portraying Nathan as the victim of online bullies.

Nathan was apparently released from hospital, and attended a yarn event to sign copies of his book. At this signing, he was approached by a woman who wanted to engage with him about how his actions had affected her. He had to be physically restrained from attacking her.

I’m not providing links – this woman has suffered enough abuse because of what happened, I am not going to expose her to the mob. I believe her account of the event.

There are two terms I need to introduce here. White Fragility, and Racist Bypassing. You may have heard these terms before, you may not have, but please take a moment to familiarise yourself if you aren’t already.

This is a pretty classic case of an avowed ally missing something important, getting called out, reacting defensively (white fragility), and using racist bypassing behaviours (hiding behind an intersectional identity, and avowed commitment to “the cause”). My experiences as a bullied kid don’t mean I have a universal understanding of the issues BIPOC friends experience, and I shouldn’t need to be shielded from criticism of my behaviour, just because I experienced something vaguely analogous. My actions last week of being a brilliant ally don’t give me a free pass from being thoughtless and unkind this week. Being an ally is a commitment that needs to be lifelong, if it is going to have any meaning, and the commitment to learning and continuing to learn and grow doesn’t have an end date.

Bottom line. mental health is serious. We should all take as much care of our mental health as we take of our physical health. Sometimes that means withdrawing until we have the capacity to engage at the level required of us. For a public figure with a wide influence, that level might require more capacity than for the rest of us. Take that time. Do not use poor mental health as an excuse to not listen to criticism. Do not use your own fragility as a weapon against marginalised people. Do not think you understand the universal experience of all oppressed peoples just because you belong to a marginalised group.

Being gay means you experience oppression and marginalisation – but it doesn’t mean you experience oppression and marginalisation in the same way that BIPOC people do. If you have been treated badly, you have some insight into what it feels like for you – don’t assume that you can extrapolate your experience into a universal understanding of oppression.

Do the work. Examine yourself. Listen to criticism. Learn from people who have different experiences than you. Apologise when you are wrong.

*Of course, I’m not “neurotypical”, and sooner or later, the people in the room will work out that I’m a little strange, and they might start treating me differently later.

** This examination of events is my own perspective, seen from great distance, and is possibly factually incorrect in some details. I was traveling when I wrote this, and though I sought support from two friends who were following events more closely than I was able to, all mistakes are my own.

Kid has a friend over

Kids refuse to go outside to play.

Adults threaten them with Star Trek if they won’t go outside. Kids accept Star Trek alternative and sit and wait for TV.

Adults then begin an in depth discussion of which series is the best place to start them, because TOS requires a historical context, and Next Gen has too many annoying characters, and Voyager is starting too late in the canon. And the movies are so wildly variable, you need a context to be able to make it through.

Kids go outside and play…

Homeschooling, day 479

Just making up numbers, because recording things isn’t one of my strong points.

Squid has been working on year 10 (ish) maths, building skills in patience, research, persistence and resilience. Finding out the skills you need to learn in the face of challenges, something that he hasn’t really been getting from school.

Here is a link to a video that demonstrates why not being challenged is a risk factor for gifted kids.

Right now he is rewriting “The Princess Bride” in Zero Language. Probably not useful from a creative writing perspective, but his handwriting is legible, so we are also calling that a win.

I really don’t give a rats about what level he is working at. What I care about is that he learns how to deal with barriers. How to persist when things get hard. How to use your brain to foster a growth mindset instead of just expecting life to be easy, and to turn to custard when you face a challenge.

We’ve been having lots of conversations about intrinsic Vs. extrinsic motivation, and how to get through the boring tasks so that you have time for the fun stuff. A lot of kids with ADHD struggle with repetitive, boring tasks, and executive function is something that we are explicitly attempting to deal with in our “year off”.

We don’t know yet what next year will look like. I know that Squid would love to go to AGE full time, and I honestly feel like a year of exploration and low demand would be good for the soul. But I can’t see us finding the $20k per year, and I also can’t quite let go of my expectations that he should be able to function in a “normal” school environment.

Maybe, a year of play and exploration will lead to more demand avoidance. But maybe, some cognitive skills training and raising expectations will see him able to integrate back into a mainstream school setting, albeit with a few accommodations.

One reason mainstream school needs to be part of the picture is because of his strong interest in science – teaching chemistry without a lab or a licence to buy chemicals (or having any expertise at all!) isn’t an idea I can get my head around.

This afternoon we switch from the psychology team to the neurodevelopmental team at the Kari Centre. The anxiety for which we were initially referred last year has all but disappeared since leaving school. Two weeks ago, at his own suggestion, Inigo has moved back into his own bedroom to sleep. At the same time, he said he didn’t need an adult to stay with him while he sent to sleep, and has mostly slept by himself all through the night without any input from a parent.

It smells like victory.

Some thoughts on school

This week you will most likely have seen loads of first day of school and back to school pictures. This time if year is joyous for many kids and their parents, and for others, it is, well – not joyous.

Squid was desperate to start school. He thought he was getting a giant knowledge key so he could unlock the secrets of the universe, and start to really delve deep into science and maths and art. So when his teacher gave him a number two to color in (and stick two dots on!), the disillusionment was crushing and profound. He kept hoping, and I kept advocating, but after 5 terms at that school, it became evident that nothing was going to change.

So we moved to NZ. Partially we hoped that an inner city school wouldn’t be as socially conservative, and that our whacky rainbow obsessed atheist leftie six year old would find a better social fit, but we also hoped that he would find his groove academically too.

The first teacher started to send him home with books well below his reading and comprehension level. I wanted to trust the system, but I hesitantly asked what the deal was, as he was reading (by choice) much more complex stuff at home. The teacher replied that although his reading was excellent, his comprehension just wasn’t up to scratch, and that he needed to work on his comprehension before tackling more complex texts. Given that I had been discussing what he was reading at home with him for a few years at this point, I found the comments puzzling, but “hey, she’s the trained professional” is what we are socialised to say, so I backed down.

When we started to consider moving to NZ, one of the things we uncovered was One Day School, a one day pull out program for gifted kids. Entry to this was only open for kids that tested as gifted, defined by them as “on or above the 95th percentile” in any one or more sub categories of the WISC. Hoping that ODS might provide a bit. More intellectual stimulation (and mostly some weirdo peers to socialize with), we paid for the testing.

Chris, who did the testing, said to me afterwards, “he qualifies for inclusion, but I have to say that for most kids I only say that they are able to attend. But for Inigo, I am going to say that he needs to go”. In her opinion, his mental health was a risk if he didn’t find a place where his gifts were not just tolerated, but also celebrated. (One Day School with Reema, and then Mind Plus with Diana have saved all of us. Inigo wrote last year that Diana was “a beacon of hope and happiness”. Without that one day a week, I dread to think how any of us would be coping today.)

A copy of the report was sent to the school. The teacher put up his reading level significantly. Apparently his comprehension wasn’t faulty, but his interest in answering questions in the proscribed format was. His teacher was starting to “get” him. And then he changed teacher.

Year Two (called year One in Australia) he had 4 teachers. One in Australia, two in NZ public school and he started at one Day School (now called Mind Plus). With all that upheaval, we didn’t expect that it would be a brilliant year for him socially or academically, but it wasn’t that bad, considering.

Year Three he was placed in a class with a fairly new teacher who was moving down from teaching older kids. She said she had an interest in gifted kids, and our conference at the beginning of the year was hopeful. But things didn’t go well. Inigo was becoming increasingly anxious about school, and started to get in trouble for not completing work. We decided to bite the bullet and spend the very large amount of money to get a full educational psychology assessment done. If you’re looking, I highly recommend Indigo Assessments in Auckland.

Wow, was that worth the money. Kid has scores all over the place. Usually, people score within about 5 percentile points in each of the five areas tested. Fluid Reasoning, Visual Spatial, Verbal Acuity, Working Memory, and Cognitive Efficiency. A difference of 20 percentile points between two or more sub tests is indicative of a learning difficulty. Two of Inigo’s scores were over 70 percentile points difference.

The positives. His fluid reasoning is so high it falls within the area of the test where it can’t be accurately measured. Don’t play chess against this kid. Or try to win an argument. Or be surprised when he patiently explains quantum physics to you like you’re an infant. His visual spatial and verbal scores are also high, but not crazy high. Just gifted, not “oh my god I’ve never seen that before” high.

The negatives. His working memory is above average. Still better than bad, but a huge disparity for someone with his logical ability. Remembering what he is arguing about could become a real problem. But the biggest disparity was in cognitive efficiency. He may come up with ideas that will change the world, but your coffee will go cold before he gets the words out. Entire civilizations may rise and fall in the time it takes him to put on a pair of underpants. And you can forget about asking him to write anything down.

The summary. Kid has a brain the size of a planet, but it’s a planet with a slow metabolism. He’s brilliant, but so slow it would take an exceptional teacher to be able to work with him to bring out what he is capable of. He also had a 99% probability of meeting diagnostic criteria for inattentive ADHD. And possible dysgraphia and dyspraxia/DCD.

We asked the psych to attend a meeting with the school (again, at our cost – how parents without our means navigate this, I don’t know). The psych suggested that asking Inigo to do less volume of work, but to expect a higher quality of work was reasonable. She also provided a list of intervention strategies to trial.

It was a clusterfuck. But I’m still in “the teacher knows best” mode.

He we kept in at recess and lunch for not completing work. He was expected to do the same work as other kids, regardless of his needs or ability. He was publicly humiliated when he became so anxious he started chewing his clothing, leaves, and furniture in class. He was accused of sexually assaulting another child (reaching for a kid, kid moves, hand goes up pants), and accused of being a liar when he tried to explain. He was put in a room with two hostile adults aggressively questioning him with no advocate (and I wasn’t even informed), and not let go until the other child insisted it was an accident.

And when he clung to my leg, and begged me not to leave him in the classroom, the teacher joked about him “doing a runner” or some such inane rubbish. I feared he would follow me and leave the school grounds, so I went straight to the office. I saw the assistant principal and explained my distress. She assured me that if I went back to uni, or got a job, I “wouldn’t be so anxious” about my child.

It still appalls me that I didn’t do more to protect him then.

Year Four, he had another lovely teacher. But things still weren’t great. Academically he was still meeting national standards, and he had at least one friend (and it had been a while since he had talked to me about his best friend the tree). So we coasted, until the end of term three, when he told me that he had had “such a bad day at school that I thought about hurting myself”.

It seemed that this got the school’s attention. His teacher pulled out all the stops to make sure that he was assessed accurately (especially in maths, his pet subject), and he jumped two year levels. Term 4 he was a much happier kid, and we thought we had finally cracked the school code. He was asked for his preference of teacher for the following year, and was able to build a relationship with her before the end of the school year. He was to have his choice of teacher, be in with his best friend, and everything was looking positive for his transition to the senior school for year 5.

2017, his teacher was great, worked hard to make sure she checked in with him frequently so he didn’t lose track of where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to do. His friendship with his bestie was strong, and he appeared engaged in class and happy to skip off to school. Until he wasn’t.

At the end of term 2, it became apparent that his school performance was slipping, especially in writing. We discussed the possibility of getting a formal ADHD diagnosis and trialing meds. He was thrilled to have another option to try.

Term 3 he went back to school on medication, and hopeful that things would improve. But his relationship with his bestie had started to change, as M discovered new friends, and Inigo became more and more desperate and fixated on M. Academically, things improved a little, but not enough to lift him up to national standard in writing. We begged his teacher again to look at alternative assessment methods.

After this, he went up another 2 year levels in maths, but not at all in writing or reading. I was disheartened to read the teacher comment on his report that he “needed to learn to work independently”. Yes, of course he does. But for a child with significant struggles, that is a thoughtless thing to write on a report. Throughout the year it also became apparent to me that the large studio classroom of the “Modern Learning Environment” was placing extra strain on him. I explained Spoon Theory to him, and asked him how many spoons he was using just to exist in the classroom for a day. Not for social interactions, not for school work, but just coping in the environment. “About half”, was his answer.

This is a deeply sensitive kid, mind and body. He cares deeply about right and wrong and he works really hard to do the right thing. He had no choice about going to school so he worked hard to do what he could to make it tolerable. When told he needed to try harder, he did. When it was hard, he internalised everything. I asked the principal for help. I was desperate. I said, as an indication of how hard things were for him that if things didn’t improve, I’d have to homeschool. She rolled her eyes at me and turned on her heel to walk away.

So that is what we are doing. The ed psych reminded me that the definition of stupidity is to keep doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. We told Inigo before Christmas that he wouldn’t be returning to the school. We didn’t have a plan as yet, but we knew that much. He looked sad. I asked him if he felt sad about it. He said, “yes, there are some things I will miss. But I feel much more happiness than I feel sadness.”

And today, of the way home from his first psych appointment (booked months ago when things were at crisis level), we started talking about the good things at school. He listed them off one by one, but then reiterated that he was happy with the decision not to return.

“Because mama, all of those things are just the relief from a bad thing, not actually good things.”

When someone is hitting you with a stick, it feels great when they stop.