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Let’s talk about…belonging

Continuing our ICL blog series, Lyn French, A Space Director highlights themes featured in our most recently published set of emotional learning cards, Let’s talk about values. 

This set of 30 cards covers values identified by the Department for Education as “British” (Democracy, Rule of Law, Individual Liberty and Tolerance) – alongside the values of Determination, Belonging, Empathy, Forgiveness, Gratitude and Honesty. Each of these ten values is featured on three separate cards highlighting what they look like in practice. They explore the affects on our emotional life within the context of family, peer group relationships and the wider community. This set marks a departure from our existing cards: the images have been specially created by artist Shiraz Bayjoo using techniques which relate to his own practice. Lyn’s blogs in the months to come will highlight one or more of these ten values linking the discussion with other life values and contemporary as well as historic themes. Selected images from Let’s talk about values enrich and extend Lyn’s reflections.

Let’s talk about . . . belonging 

Family – whatever form it takes – is our first experience of being part of a group.  If we’re fortunate, we can recall childhood times when we felt a sense of comfort and security that went deeper than simply being at ease with ourselves and others. A sense of profound belonging comes when we are around trusted family members whose love and acceptance we can count on. Shiraz Bayjoo captures this kind of relaxed intimacy in his image of an older monkey caring for a younger member of their group with a second one benignly looking on.

Belonging in the Family

This moment reflects one of harmonious co-existence marked by calm and contentedness. However we know that close relationships can trigger feelings on the opposite end of the spectrum too such as the pain associated with sensing that we are, in some way, ‘other’.  It is not uncommon to experience being outsiders even amongst family.  Feeling misunderstood, unacknowledged and not recognised or validated for who we really are can be short lived or an ongoing state of being.

In a chapter titled Perspectives of Gay Fatherhood, published in Clinical Implications of the Psychoanalyst’s Life (Routledge 2014) the joint authors Noah Glassman and Stephen Botticelli talk about being in touch with their difference when they themselves were young.  “As proto-gay children, we emerge into families unlike us, often without a sense that anyone is like us – either out in the world, or within our own biological family structures.  We often do not get to know of the gay uncle, the lesbian aunt.  These relatives have often been closeted, or, if not, then disowned, their very existence sometimes eliminated from family trees or narratives. … In terms of kinship and processes of identification, perhaps gay people of certain generations have been largely denied a type of ‘kinship’ knowledge and experience. Maybe we have something in common with those adopted children who may feel some lack of a sense of genetic continuity, who may feel different from their adoptive parents, either in temperament or in more obvious physical ways. ”

A reminder that we can be part of the same family but fundamentally different is alluded to in Bayjoo’s print of two bears balanced on a see-saw.  The most eye-catching feature is their contrasting colour. They may both belong to ‘the bear species’ but that is where their outward similarity ends.

Within the human family, skin colour is arguably one of the most obvious markers.  In a chapter titled The Dialectic of Shame in Cross-Cultural Therapeutic Encounters published in Shame: Developmental, Cultural and Clinical Realms (Karnac, 2016), Christie Platt says the following:  “To grow up as part of the majority cultures is like growing up in a world of affirming self-objects.  It is as if the culture is looking into your eyes and saying, ‘Yes, you belong.’ While one’s individual family may not be able to provide the same kind of affirmation, the cultural matrix is secure and can be taken for granted.  … By contrast, members of racial and ethnic minority groups are forced to confront the implications of their racial identity every morning the minute they walk out the door, regarding the world with vigilance because their safety and well-being depend on it.”

Less visible, but with the potential to be equally alienating, are differences in class or status, commonly linked with poverty or degrees of wealth and privilege.  Gloria Watkins, better known by the name she chose for herself, ‘bell hooks’, is an American author, feminist, and social activist. Her self-assigned name is derived from that of her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, and perhaps reflects the desire both to honour her female lineage while also ‘levelling language’ (i.e. reducing or eliminating language markers) by not capitalizing the first letters of her name.  Language itself is the tool used to construct meaning and, as such, can be employed either to reinforce power hierarchies or dismantle them.

The focus of hooks’ writing has been the ways in which race, economic positioning (that is, capitalism) and gender intersect, both creating and perpetuating systems of oppression and class domination. hooks was born in a small, segregated town in Kentucky in 1952 to a working class family.  Her education was primarily in racially segregated public schools and she wrote about the experience of moving to an integrated school where teachers and students were predominantly white. Her first major book, Ain’t I a woman?, explores themes of on-going interest such as the historical impact of sexism and racism on black women, the devaluation and marginalisation of black women,  stereotyped media roles, whiteness and its links with capitalist patriarchy and the ways in which issues of race and class have often been disregarded or downplayed within feminism.

If we are part of the dominant culture, we may fall into seeing the world through this filter. hooks’ basic premise is that the identifications we project onto others are merely constructions – not reality – and will inevitably reflect our unconscious biases.  The two children in Shiraz Bayjoo’s image ‘Rules’ are what we make them out to be – what do you see when you look at the image?  Do you see two boys or two girls? How do you interpret their heritage? What we see might reflect our place in society and could also reflect what we hope for society.

The vivid yellow lines cutting across the two figures seem to be ‘crossing them out’. This can be read in different ways.  One interpretation is that the lines encourage us to stop and look again, perhaps asking ourselves, what is going on between these two children? Is the figure on the right taking hold of the other’s arm in anger or as a sign of reassurance or empathy?  Is an invitation to play being offered or is one pushing the other away?  Decoding images like this is more than a creative exercise. By describing what we see, we are getting in touch with the way in which we all ‘make meaning’ out of what we observe around us, whether we are aware of it or not.  ‘Reading’ art helps us to become more conscious of this process and can expose the way in which we can automatically make the kind of assumptions and create meanings which reinforces prejudices, inequalities and class judgements.  If we are committed to challenging our perceptions and catching ourselves when our biases surface, we are one step closer to creating a more level playing field.  Bayjoo’s depiction of a mixed crowd rendered in muted colours lit from within suggests that living well with others may still be an ideal rather than a lived reality but one which justifies the work required to achieve it.Lyn French is Director of arts and therapies service A Space and works closely with Iniva Creative Learning on the Emotional Learning Cards and Art Lab schools programme. 

All images are by Shiraz Bayjoo from the Emotional Learning Card set, "Let's talk about values". The set covers key life values including the British Values identified by the DfE as essential to living well with others. 
Copyright Iniva Creative Learning and Shiraz Bayjoo.