A long time ago I worked as a bread-wrapper at ASDA. It was on the Isle of Dogs in London’s East End and the rumour was that the store had 110% staff turnover per annum. It certainly felt a very transitory workforce, and my own employment lasted just under a year. From the Docklands Light Railway I would gaze down from a train to see work underway on the foundations of Canary Wharf. It was a time of huge upheaval for the local population and the East End as a whole.
In my work of wrapping and stacking I experienced something a lot of people will recognise. Wearing my bakery uniform I noticed that people never looked at me. Workers doing basic (but essential) jobs know how easily they become peripheral to people’s attention. The scope of this disregard is extensive and is manifested not only in personal interactions but in pay, conditions of service and benefits. With rising inflation, a hike in National Insurance payments and spiralling energy costs, many of these workers are now facing an unacceptable decline in living standards. MHA is one of many charity’s and operators calling on the Government to do more to support the sector and help employees be given the recognition they deserve.
My own experience of being peripheral was minuscule and fleeting. For many people, including women; people living with a disability; and people whose ethnicity is in a minority; being peripheral is part of everyday living. I am as susceptible as anyone for allowing ingrained attitudes to influence my looking and the way I value other people. It is something we all need to struggle to overcome. At ASDA the only people who gave any real attention to me and my co-workers were children. Children who found the world fascinating and intriguing and hadn’t yet learned the kind of seeing that channels our gaze to the people and things we have been taught to see as important. In her recently published collection of essays Esi Edugyan discusses race and identity with reference to works of art:
Perhaps my ambivalence also comes from certain threads I sensed missing. For these exhibitions represented renditions of the same Western story, a story of wealth and expansion. Black people are present, but as footmen, slaves, lady’s maids, magi… Black bodies are less living, breathing people than repositories for cultural anxieties. Blacks are an expression of status, of Christianity’s reach, of white morality. They are rarely, until the twentieth century, just human beings, living human lives.Esi Edugyan, Out of the Sun: Essays at the Crossroads of Race, Profile Books Limited 2022
While we cannot see everything all of the time, we need to be aware that we all face limitations to our vision. However, that doesn’t mean we should accept our outlook or leave it unchallenged. When Jesus extolled the virtue of childhood to his disciples I wonder if he had in mind the capacity of children to be engaged in the world without acquired prejudices. To remove the blinkers we are given, or choose, in order to see people as central to the mission inspired by the statement that ‘God so loved the world’. A world containing a remarkable variety of people. To be born again surely means – if nothing else – to grow again and to see again. The ability to expand our vision of the world is the condition which precedes our capacity to be changed. Only through our transformation can we then be of any use in building that Kingdom which is rooted in a peace the world cannot give.
We must always contest our inclination to let people drift into our peripheral vision. It is good that many of us are being stirred into action to support the people of the Ukraine. Yet there have been many wars in far-away places for which many people we have felt too little concern. It is likely that our sense of identification with the people under attack is the key to the different responses the world makes to various disasters. Ensuring that we are in dialogue with a rich variety of people, and reading and watching things that expand our horizons, acts to prevent a tendency to insularity. As Christians head towards Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, it is a good time for each of us to ask who is in our peripheral vision – and why are they there? We may discover that zoning-out people with certain characteristics, including those carrying out minimum wage jobs, is robbing us all of a richer life. Life in a community that is radically different from our accepted models, where no one is peripheral, and the gifts and distinctiveness of everyone are valued and affirmed.