We all need to have the experience of walking into a room, or a town, or a whole region, and being the one human who looks different to everyone else there. To be the one sticking out like a sore thumb, purely because of the body we’re walking around in.
In Ruth’s Entirely Reasonable Programme for Being A Person, this sore-thumb experience is non-negotiable. (That, and an hour’s exercise EVERY DAY. Miss Bevis, my old P.E. teacher, would be proud. If incredulous).
Every one of us needs to know how it feels to be stared at, commented on, to feel your strangeness made visible. To want to peel off your skin and put on the same one as everyone else. Just to stop it speaking for you, before you get the chance to open your mouth. We need to realise how helpless we all are to the ways in which the world reads us, the meaning that is given to our outsides. The way all our bodies are tangled in webs of caricature and stereotype.
In Nigeria, I used to long to be able to step out of my pointy-nose Oyinbo hide. To walk into the market in Akure, without the handicap of flaming otherness. To be free of the exhausting enterprise of managing what I meant to others. Of the effort to make sense to people: explain myself. Having been sealed up on the inside of my own body, I vowed I’d never read others from the surface again.
White British people, people with skin the same weak-tea colour as mine, can react in funny ways when it’s their turn to become burning beacons of difference. They can get indignant. Feeling seen disrupts their sense of the white self as a transparent window onto the world. Everything they’ve absorbed on this small island from the magazine covers, the cultural establishment, the juggernaut of imperial history, that decrees that beigey people are the invisible, universal norm.
As if, in the UK, people with more melanin in their skin are the only ones whose outsides are dense with meaning. As if their ‘diversity’ lies like a gauze between them and the world. As if there aren’t as many universal norms as there are humans on the planet. In Ruth’s Entirely Reasonable Programme, I’d take anyone spouting racist abuse and put them into the crowds in Karachi, Lagos, Jakarta, Beijing. Let them know what it feels like to be seen purely from the outside.
Ruth’s Entirely Reasonable graduates would know that we need to find less claustrophobic ways of being people in the world. All of us are prisoners of the ridiculous accident of being born who we are. We owe each other the courtesy of really paying each other attention.
Today, Valentine’s Day, when our particular loves are mass-marketed a red sea of tat, I’ll be looking at every face on the tube, on the bus, on the street, with extra care. (Yep. I know. If I don’t get punched, it’s a miracle.) I’ll look at them like I do when I’m drawing. With the gaze of a lover, seeing all the ways the most-loved face is precisely itself.
Because the only way past the inescapable surface is to look at it as closely as possible. To recognize the fact that none of us alive look the same, no matter what our tribe, our type, our tint. We need to be able to see each other as our families see us, how we were looked at when we were newborn. See that we’re nothing but a collection of sore thumbs, each one irreplaceable, sticking out together.