The elephant in the room: why I will keep talking about things which make people uncomfortable 

Note to the reader: this article discusses domestic abuse and human trafficking

A while back I was standing in a café with a friend, waiting to be served.  The couple in front of us were politely challenging the cashier about the cost of a bread roll. The couple were explaining, previously, the roll included the price of butter; today the cashier was telling them it didn’t. This meant the couple ended up having only one bread roll and butter between them, instead of two, and a bowl of chips (the other cheapest thing on the menu). 

My friend turned to me smirking and said “honestly, who argues over the price of a roll and butter?”. I replied, “this might be their weekly/monthly treat, what if that’s all they can afford?”. He looked mortified and said he hadn’t thought of that. 

To this day, he remembers that moment. He tells me he realised how judgemental he had been and what assumptions he had made, not just then but many times before. How he had lived in what he called a “bubble”, where he assumed everyone had enough money to treat themselves to more than a bread roll with butter, and how he had never considered it was all someone could afford. (Jack Monroe talks beautifully about these assumptions in this article).

This is why I talk about things a lot of people don’t seem to want to know or talk about: to encourage people to have those “aha” moments, where they suspend judgement for a while and ask the question “what if…?”

It’s why when people say to me that “people choose homelessness or poverty”, I ask what if we are all just one decision away from a totally different life? It’s why when people say that “women must be stupid if they choose to stay with a violent partner”, I ask what if their violent partner has threatened to drown their children or pets if she leaves?

Assumptions can be the judgements that take people’s dignity away. They create stigma and prejudice where empathy is what’s required.

A woman once asserted to me that “all people who use Food Banks are alcoholics or on drugs”. I offered a story of an elderly friend (neither using drugs or alcohol) who I had discovered went to a food bank one winter,  because she couldn’t afford to eat and heat her home at the same time. 

Assumptions can be the judgements that take people’s dignity away. They create stigma and prejudice, where empathy is what’s required.

It’s why I talk about subjects that some may prefer to stay taboo, like poverty, racism, Domestic Abuse, homelessness, modern slavery and mental health. And sex work too.

Sex work is complex to discuss when people make assumptions. It is actually mired in misogyny and for many, especially those trafficked, a life they would never choose. The Guardian explains in this report how one in ten 15 year olds in Kenya exchange sex for money to buy sanitary towels.  

In the video above, Juno (Toni) Mac talks about the ways in which different countries approach the subject of sex work and how we should consider what women and men actually want, before deciding what they need. She uses education to encourage people to suspend judgement about what they think they know, and instead spend time with the very people who can tell us what it’s really like. 

That’s a lesson we all need to learn I think, that when we talk about change we must involve those it most affects.

Difficult conversations make people think about change – and that’s uncomfortable.

When I signed up to a life of service to others, I don’t think I realised that being “outspoken” (if that’s what I am) or asking organisations to put people before profit would make me unpopular. But here I am.

Difficult conversations make people think about change – and that’s uncomfortable.

I’ve been called sensitive because I fight so hard for others to be treated as human. Called tenacious because I argue a point until I know it’s been heard. Labelled as boring at gatherings because I like to dig deep about things that matter, and don’t indulge in gossip about the Kardashians – because, well, for me there’s more important work to be done.  I take no pleasure in people’s discomfort when they realise what they’ve said is deeply judgemental or ill-informed. I’m not trying to be righteous, or powerful, or judgemental myself. I’m just trying to give humanity a voice.

I am an educator, an advocate, and I guess all this makes me an activist. If I didn’t stand up or give a platform to those who are underrepresented, I wouldn’t be authentic or speaking my truth, something as a counsellor I encourage in others too.

I won’t always get it right but at least I’m listening and asking the questions. So, where it helps, I will keep putting the elephant in the room. 

If you know someone affected by the topics in this article; here is a list of other links you may find helpful.

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Picture via Leadership Hospitality

Copyright Delphi Ellis – updated 2020

Published by Delphi Ellis

Therapeutic counsellor, well-being trainer and author working with grief and mental health, helping people get their sparkle back. Explores dreams on telly. Avid tea drinker. © Delphi Ellis - Helping You Sparkle™ 2006 - 21

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