Happy 21st Birthday to the 21st Century!

By Melissa Jackson

2020 has been beheaded, hung, drawn and quartered and accurately demonised as an annus horribilis. So, let’s move on. This year sees the 21st century come of age, so let’s celebrate. I’m optimistic that 2021 will give us all something to look forward to. Here are some of the highlights that I’d like to share with you.

I’m going to dive straight in and declare that I’ll be appreciatively cheering, from this side of the pond, the inauguration of Joe Biden – the 46th US president – on Wednesday 20th January and equally – his right-hand woman – Kamala Harris, the first female and woman of colour vice president in American history. I believe this is a turning point for the country and for women in the US and that, if Kamala’s reign inspires other women to go into politics, optimistically, in four years’ time we will see at least one female candidate running for the top job.

More vaccines. We cannot thank scientists enough for their relentless pursuit and deliverance of Covid-defeating vaccines, some of which are now in circulation, including Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford Astra-Zenica and Moderna, to name but three. There are others being developed or trialled in different countries, including Russia, Germany and Australia. The greatest challenge now is supply and distribution to ensure mass immunisation.

The surcharge on women’s sanitary products took effect on 1st January. This will reportedly save the average woman almost £40 over their lifetime – with a tax cut of 7p on a pack of 20 tampons and 5p on a pack of 12 pads. It’s a huge achievement in the fight to end period poverty.

There may be a slow return to mass gatherings at concert and theatre venues, but, for eclectic music fans, Eurovision is on. The ever-popular and extravagantly camp Song Contest, which was postponed from 2020, is currently pencilled in for May in Rotterdam. Will the UK receive nil points for exiting the EU? You’ll have to tune in to find out.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were paused because of the pandemic, but are now scheduled for July 2021. This is a huge boost for the world’s elite athletes who are engaged in a punishing training schedule to prepare for the international event. It may not resemble the traditional Olympic competition as we know it, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has stated that it will be a “simpler, more restrained approach”.

It’s the 75th anniversary of BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour. In its long history, the show has tackled challenging and controversial topics and had a host of illustrious female presenters (despite initially being hosted by a man). The Queen, who is reportedly an avid listener, described Woman’s Hour as a “friend, guide and advocate to women everywhere” in a message sent to the BBC Radio 4 programme – at the beginning of the year – in tribute to its landmark birthday.

And staying with the Queen, Her Majesty, who is already the longest-reigning monarch in British history, will celebrate her 95th birthday in April. Her husband will mark his centenary in June. Covid-permitting perhaps we’ll be able to hang up the festive bunting and indulge in some good old-fashioned street parties, bringing communities together for a much-needed, morale-boosting national celebration.

It’s time to confess.

It’s National Inclusion Week so I ask myself, am I really inclusive?

To me, being inclusive means first and foremost to welcome and to value that which is different; to appreciate those who look or sound different as enrichment; to know that a new or different person or experience does not pose a threat to my value system.

So am I inclusive?

It’s hard to be inclusive.  Our natural instincts tell us to stick to what we know.  We love our repeat patterns, our experienced learnings, the familiar.  Our primitive brain (the emotional one) steers us towards the familiar and guards us against the unfamiliar.  It constantly alerts us “Watch out!  They look suspicious! We don’t know their type! They are not like us and therefore unpredictable!” It’s hard for our thinking brain (the neocortex) to override our fearing, second-guessing, reluctant brain.  And most of that prodding happens subconsciously – how are we meant to confront that?

For me, inclusion is not about ignoring the impulsive, instantaneous brain – that’s simply impossible to achieve.  It’s about understanding that we are being guided by the under-informed, hasty part of our brain and knowing how to question its urging.

This, I know we I can do.

In an effort to make it a little easier for myself and for others to be more inclusive, I have broken down inclusion to 8 inclusive behaviours.  Most of these 8 behaviours are self-explanatory and when you see them you’ll say That makes sense. The challenge is to improve in each of these behaviours, to fine-tune its application and to keep doing that for the rest of our lives.

Let me give you a flavour of what I mean by looking at Empathy and Listening – 2 of the 8 inclusive behaviours.

  1. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to step into another person’s shoes, so to speak, to try to understand what they might be experiencing.  What does it feel like to be asked Where are you from? each time you meet a new person just because you look different from most of those around you?  What is it like to constantly hide the fact that your husband or wife is of the same sex as you?  What is it like to be watched by the security guard every time you enter a store because you’re black?

To understand that, we need to develop our empathy ‘muscle’.  We start by second-guessing our natural reactions.  For instance, when you pass someone you’ve met a couple of times in a social setting and they completely ignore you, our immediate thought is they don’t remember you.  But if you give it some thought, you might reach a different conclusion. It could be that they can’t see well without their glasses, or that they’re deep in thought about something and simply didn’t register you.  Imagine yourself in that situation, have you ever been ‘accused’ of not seeing someone who was almost literally in front of you?  What are you like sometimes when you’re walking along?  Do you notice everything and everyone?  If not, why not?  Purposely putting yourself in their shoes makes it easier to see more reasons for their behaviour and easier to understand them. It’s a practiced ritual that, when done in simple everyday encounters eventually extends to situations which are more difficult to understand, like ‘white privilege’.

  1. Listening

Listening in this context means more than just hearing.  Listening is about giving someone the opportunity to present their perspective and acknowledging that perspective as someone else’s rightful view.  In this day and age, we are so ingrained in our opinions about everything.  Instead of listening, we tend to want to persuade and, if that fails, we go on the attack.  Social media is full of voices that attempt to drown out other voices.

To listen in order to be more inclusive means acknowledging the fact that another’s viewpoint might have merit, and acknowledging it to them, even if we disagree.  “I hear what you’re saying and I can see where you’re coming from…” even if it might then be qualified with a “but”.  Practising this with our friends, family members and colleagues who are like us will make it easier to do with people who are unlike us.

The world has moved on.  Like it or not, we can’t stand still.  We need to break down our old patterns of interaction, be it at home or at work.  Becoming more inclusive is about practising to do so with intent in any situation.  We need to train our brains to be more discerning and not just follow ingrained patterns.  We need to bring some of the unconscious thought processes into the conscious so that we can unravel them and reform new, more complex patterns of behaviours and attitudes.

This, to me, is what being inclusive is all about.  With this in mind, I can breathe a sigh of relief and declare that I am more inclusive now than I was even a year ago.

Can you do the same?

To find out more about our 8 Inclusive Behaviours, contact Rina.