Herding Words: Uncomfortably numb
by Wendy Shepherd (@thewordshepherd) On the first day in my class, a student once asked me how I could possibly be gay since I wore makeup and had long blonde hair. I asked her how she could possibly be at university when she was clearly a woman. After a few awkward seconds, she burst out laughing. That was a great moment. It was like watching the sun come through a determined storm. In that one moment, a mind moved on. If only they were all that easy.
Sitting on eggshells
Discomfort is good for you. None of us like it very much but it’s one of the most-valuable gritty feelings we have available to us. The recent world has presented a whole lot more for us to feel uncomfortable about. We can do three things with this: ignore it, walk on eggshells, or sit with it.
If you ignore it, you don’t want to change. If you walk on eggshells, you don’t know how to change. If you sit with it, you allow yourself the space to change.
We all need to change in some way. It’s a growth thing, and it sucks to be you when it’s happening. On the other side, you come out better than you were, though. It’s worth it.
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If you’re white, you don’t get it
No, that’s not a controversial statement. It’s a simple fact. I can’t write this article from any other positionality than my own. I’m white, and privileged. It’s irrelevant that I’ve had my own struggles. What I got, for free, at birth, was a white skin. I’ve never had to fear because of it. The world has allowed me to believe that I can do anything, be anything, go anywhere. I will never truly understand what it’s like to be black.
George Floyd’s terrible murder caused me pain, too, but I will never really appreciate how the culmination of centuries of that same pain, felt on a daily basis, has weighed upon people of colour.
My only remit here can be to learn, to educate myself, to use my privilege appropriately, and to never tell someone “I know how you feel”. This statement is more problematic than “I don’t care”. Being uncomfortable is the only place I’m teachable without arrogance or overcompensation.
What I do know
I know what it’s like to talk about uncomfortable things. I’m gay — I get a lot of awkward. A man was so busy staring at my wife kiss me goodbye outside my offices once that he literally crashed into a parked car. We know this because he told us in a dazed post-accident state as if he could hardly believe it’d happened. Sexual orientation is no more a choice than your race. You only have two choices — in or out — and most of the time your environment chooses for you. I know what it’s like to be a woman, too.
Sexism and sexual orientation are also part of the interesting cluster of Subjects You Don’t Raise at the Dinner Table, along with politics and religion, and they are also Things We Don’t Tolerate in Our Work Charter. I think it’s very funny that these are all the same issues censored for the same two reasons. First, sexism, racism, homophobia, religious prejudice and political agendas are repugnant, but also because any discussion of these things makes us uncomfortable. To my mind, that makes them important.
Advertising, I’m looking at you, kid
Everyone in advertising probably knows someone who’s had a high old time on the boardroom table at the Christmas party. Be honest, you do. What do we do with that? We laugh, we gossip, we lightly admonish, we nudge-nudge and wink-wink when the subject invariably keeps coming up, and the whole agency knows. Very little happens. Because we’re not particularly uncomfortable about sex. That doesn’t make it okay, but it’s the reality.
Same boardroom, cold light of morning and a former student of mine decided to stick her head above the parapet and do a presentation about white privilege in advertising and why it matters to look it squarely in the eye. It was met with shocked silence and deep discomfort, especially by the white men who run the agency. What they could have done with that is stand up and say, “I am so uncomfortable — I feel like I really should be. I think we need to talk about this.” But, instead, silence. And if you think that silence isn’t part of the problem, you need to have a word with yourself.
I grew up an ad brat in the ’80s. The whole advertising world was full of white men in power and women who were secretaries. It was impossible to be a young, black creative, let alone management. Thirty years later, it hasn’t changed as much as it should have. Women of all races are still under-represented in agency management, and people of colour still face the same exhausting battle to just be allowed to do their jobs well for decent pay, without some cretin calling it the BEE advantage. Trust me, it’s not an advantage; it’s an albatross. The only way you’d know that is to ask. The only way I know that is because I did.
Four years ago, shortly before graduation, one of my most-talented copywriting students collapsed into my arms one afternoon. Floods of tears ensued. Her concern? The incredible opportunity she’d earned at a top agency. She was convinced it was only because she was black and a woman. It broke my heart. I’d watched this young woman go to a very white college and slowly find a very bold and unapologetic voice in spite of feeling overwhelmed by her environment on a regular basis. She was then, and still is, an absolute tour de force, a terrific writer and a gentle, brilliant creative. How dare the industry put that down to anything but her consummate talent? But there are still those who do. They ignore the discomfort.
I hope you’re sitting uncomfortably
If there’s not a knot in your belly by now, you’re either ignoring the discomfort, too, or you’re patting yourself on the back for promoting people of colour and are convinced you’re not that person. But, if you’re white — and especially if you’re white and in charge — it’s important to let that discomfort in. You become infinitely more teachable, open and fundamentally changed when you let yourself feel uncomfortable. In advertising particularly, discomfort sometimes drives the best solutions.
Sometimes not having the answers is the best place to be. If you don’t have them, you might have to ask — and that is something that can change the world.
- #BlackLivesMatter — and should for SA’s ad industry as well
- #Transformers Transform 2020 • Sponsored by the ACA
Wendy Shepherd (@thewordshepherd) is a pharma copywriter and true-crime fanatic. She contributes the regular MarkLives.com column, “Herding Words”, which takes a sometimes irreverent look at copywriting, adland and the human universe in general. Other BHAGS occupy the rest.