I recall the first time I became aware of my own difference. I was seven years old and I had been invited to our neighbour’s house to play. We had recently moved from our condemned terrace house to a relatively ‘nice’ part of town, denoted by Victorian semi-detached houses and our neighbours’ occupations in the ‘professions’: teachers, doctors and solicitors. I was unaware at the time that we were ‘moving up in the world’. All I knew was that when told we were having spaghetti for lunch, and I was confronted with white ribbons of pasta on a bed of bolognese, as opposed to the lurid orange Heinz tinned spaghetti I expected, I felt, with painful clarity and immediacy, a sense of being ‘wrong’.
Without words or comprehension available to me, I nevertheless knew instinctively that these pale worms on my plate represented ‘proper’ spaghetti, and the tinned spaghetti I knew and loved was somehow inferior. This intuitive knowledge was immediately followed by a deep sense of shame, where I became painfully aware of my own difference in this new neighbourhood of ours, and a sudden realisation: you don’t belong here.
This memory surfaced for me recently at a workshop in which all participants were asked to recall a time we first became aware of our difference in relation to others. As a group, we shared stories of awakening to difference in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, class, religion/ faith, sexuality and (dis)ability (funnily enough, food memories featured significantly in many of the stories, being such a marker of culture, class and nationality). I was surprised that, of all the stories I could have shared, it was this childhood memory of awakening to my working-class status that should surface. What connected these stories of recognition was the shame we all felt at being different. But as I listened, what emerged in the sharing was a strong sense of kinship, and how, in the telling and retelling of our stories, shame became transformed into an appreciation of ourselves and each other’s differences. I remember leaving the workshop feeling nourished by the generosity of others in their sharing – and a delicious sense of having contributed something of texture and colour to a rich tapestry we were weaving together, in the moment. I left feeling less that I was part of a group of homogenous counsellors and therapists, and more aware and appreciative of the diversity that existed even within our small community; some of it immediately visible, some less so.
I share this story with you to remind myself, as our contributors have done so sensitively and courageously, that difference in our profession, and among our clients, is multifaceted, intersectional and complex and can prevent us from, to paraphrase Robert Stephenson in our lead article, ‘…taking our place at the table’ (in my case, quite literally). And yet, when we open up to our own and others’ difference, when we welcome and embrace difference within our community, and model this for our clients, when we take our place and welcome others to the table – what a rich feast we could enjoy.
After the divisive politics of recent years, and a pandemic highlighting gross inequities in our nation, I’m ready for a kinder, more compassionate, person-centred, community-led way of living and working; one that includes, embraces and celebrates, rather than excludes, rejects and discriminates.
And to remind myself, with humility, that I can eat all the sourdough and smashed avocado in the world – but there’s a part of me that will forever be a seven year old from Hull eating Heinz spaghetti on toast.
Wishing you all a happy new year, and here’s to 2021.
Diane Parker, Editor firstname.lastname@example.org