Passing – By Natasha Stone

Passing is great isn’t it? Everything that appears to have been of major importance, exams, tests, Chartership, passing is the most important thing of all. Not passing = failure. But there’s more to it than that. Passing in life, is held as the be all and end all. And it extends much further than just a written test or a viva voce.

Recently I read an amazing article in Vogue, by the journalist Paris Lees. The Life-changing power of being invisible. The implications of ‘passing’ in this case was astonishing to me, and sad too, in that I’d not realised quite what it meant, and of course, how cruel society can be with unconscious and conscious bias. Invisible. Passing meant, that she could hide.

Then, whilst I was mulling over what ‘passing’ meant in this context, I fell upon another article, by Laura Jane Williams. “Laura Jane Williams isn’t talking about weight any more.” Laura talks about acceptance, the struggle to pass through life, and be told ‘ooh that’s flattering on you’, which is essentially, ‘that makes you look thin’. She coins it ‘thin passing’ which, with growing horror, I realised was “Passing as being thin, means you won’t have people pointing at you, judging you, seeing you stand out – you would be invisible”. Again, passing as thin, means, she could hide.

Further research bore out that ‘passing’ is a real thing. Wikipedia has this to say about it, and not only does society dictate your success based on gender and physical size, but also you race, as the following Metro article details. “I may be white passing but skin tone and ethnicity aren’t mutually exclusive” Of which, I have absolutely no doubt, BAME surveyors can fervently confirm.

In all honesty all of these examples sent my blood cold. The need that women in society can only feel safe if they conform and are invisible in some way. Drawing attention to yourself is instantly recognised as a bad thing. Many who know me will completely understand this reaction from me, as I’m no shrinking violet. From my late 20’s early 30’s I made the decision to always wear colour and enjoy my clothing choices come what may. I’m fat, and I make no apology for it. Fat isn’t a swear word, it’s just a fact, and I dress for myself and no other.

Though, whilst I deliberately make myself visible in these terms, I’m very guilty of ‘passing’ in others. This was a realisation that made me uncomfortable in many ways. Plus the more I thought about it, the more examples floated to the surface.

Able passing. Every day, I pretend to be able bodied.

I have, what is classed as a life long disability, of which there is no cure, and I’m on medication for life. But I ‘pass’ every day, for fear of someone, anyone, considering that I’m a liability, that I can’t do my job as well as the next person. So when I’m in excruciating pain, I simply pop whatever pill is appropriate, grin and carry on. Some days I’m more acerbic or jovial than others in order to deflect comments or concern, but it’s always to the end goal of ‘I’m ok, nothing to see here‘ to keep my illness invisible. I might be able to hold my head up and face down anyone who dares to try and shame me for my size, including the assumption that my intellect is lesser because of my apparent sloth – but I’m beyond terrified that my disability be common knowledge and my vulnerability displayed for all to see. But that’s why I’m voicing it now. I refuse to make myself invisible for the comfort of those who would judge me because of it.

Yet there’s more. Age passing.

I retrained later in life, I was constantly trying to prove myself with a ‘youthful mind, and the ability to learn just as quickly as the Grads on my course‘. It’s like age is a dirty word. Age and experience bias = inflexible with an inability to embrace change and new ideas. It didn’t matter that I was changing my arts degree into a science degree, the flexibility and creativity of my mind, to do something new and exciting – I still had to prove ‘I was young enough‘ to even consider starting a new career at a later age. To not draw attention to the older woman sitting up the corner with a bunch of younger students.

It’s all complete bunkum.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why is our fear of others’ opinions so great, that we seek to reduce ourselves to suit others’ requirements and judgements? You are never going to be able to please everyone all of the time, so we might as well face up to the fact, the only one we can truly please, is ourselves. Why are we afraid of standing out and being the ones to stand up and say ‘maybe we shouldn’t all look, think, feel the same?

All of this is true for Construction. Every last bit of it.

We need more diversity in construction, and until we move away from this idea of ‘passing’ we’re simply not going to attain that goal. Women need to be able to be themselves – not ‘pass’ as ‘one of the lads‘ or ‘she thinks like a man‘. We need to simply be ourselves, and nothing less. In the past year, I passed my RICS Chartership and also my CICES Chartership – and this is something that for many years, I was told I couldn’t do. I couldn’t pass as a surveyor because ‘I was a musician‘, and perhaps I ‘should go back to doing that‘ and ‘I had no place in this profession, looking and thinking the way I do‘. But I’ve fought on, as many others like me have – and I more than pass as a Surveyor.

I have every right to be in this profession, however I look and think; and I openly challenge these narrow minded assumptions from my past. And for those naysayers who still argue I should go back to where I started my life, I have the strength of two chartered bodies agreeing that I do have the competency and intellect to hold a place in this industry. But I’m also proud to be a musician too. You can be both.

Sexual identity and orientation. We should not place any expectations on someone to ‘pass’ because we think someone should look ‘more like a lady‘ or ‘more like a man‘. What right does anyone have to dictate that only people attractive to them should occupy space in their general vicinity. Such thoughts are downright dangerous and should be called out wherever they arise.

All of this becomes so much easier when our own personal biases are faced head on. People do not exist to please one another, or be attractive in any way. If they are? Then great. Just don’t let it cloud your judgement in other ways. That’s just as bad as judging someone for not being to your taste.

So the next time you see someone who challenges your perception of the world, who doesn’t ‘Pass’ in your eyes, I challenge you to swallow that unease and urge to judge, and speak to them. Strike up a conversation. You might just find that person has the most interesting and inspiring journey to share with you – it really is as easy as that to smash the unconscious bias hiding within us all.

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