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 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. (These assumptions are also challenged in this article by Jack Monroe).
It’s one reason I raise awareness of issues that make people uncomfortable, to encourage people to have those “aha” moments, where they suspend judgement for a while to gain perspective, through a “what if” question. Not because I think I’m “better than” anyone, but because I can relate on some level and I think it matters that we have that conversation. Better to be informed and challenge what we think we know.
It’s why when people imply “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 to stay with a violent partner”, I ask what if their violent partner has threatened to drown their children or pets if she leaves? There are lots of reasons women stay.
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 told me “all people who use Food Banks are alcoholics or on drugs”. I offered a story someone I knew about (neither using drugs or alcohol) who 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 can also signal someone is protecting their comfort zone (or power) and it’s ok to ask why, if that means someone else is suffering. It’s why I talk about subjects that some would rather remained hidden, like poverty, racism male violence, homelessness, modern slavery and mental health. And sex work.
The best people to speak with about sex work of course are current sex workers, especially where what they do is often conflated with those being trafficked.
In the video above, Toni (Juno) Mac talks about the ways in which different countries approach the subject of sex work and how we should consider what sex workers actually want, before deciding what they need. (The conversation is expanded in her book with Molly Smith, alongside the often damaging assumption that all sex workers need to be ‘rescued’). 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.
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 might make me unpopular. 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 celebrity gossip – 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 a voice to those who can’t be heard because our systems neglect or oppress them in some way.
I am an educator, an advocate. Some call me an activist and that’s up to them. 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 in this work I encourage in others too.
I won’t always get it right but I’m listening and asking 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.
Picture via Leadership Hospitality
Copyright Delphi Ellis – updated 2022