Sunday, 26 October 2014

Immigration is a good thing. So there.

It's a contentious topic and one fueled with misconceptions and outright lies from certain corners of the media and political sphere. The general public are worried, no doubt due to politicians using words like "under siege" to describe the changing population of the UK. UKIP would have us believe that Britain is set to become a distant memory, while Eastern European migrants take over and we all start speaking Polish or Romanian or Bulgarian, or some mangled mixture of all three - but crucially with no trace of Engerlish remaining.

I'm being hyperbolic, of course, and I don't mean to come across as flippant. When you do start to research the facts and figures behind UKIP's claims, you quickly realise how absurdly laughable they are.

What stops them being seen for the joke they are, sadly, is the tacit endorsement of their fallacious claims by the Labour and Conservative parties, who have responded to their rise in support NOT by deconstructing their rhetoric and promoting a more accurate picture to the electorate, but instead by competing in a race to the bottom on who can come out with the most hardline policy on immigration.

What IS the real picture of immigration then? What does the population of the UK truly look like at the moment? I talk to people a lot about this issue, and the same themes come up again and again. People believe that there are more and more non-UK born families across the country. People believe that British workers are being sidelined for employment in favour of lower-paid migrant workers. People believe that migrant families are prioritised for social housing and that the housing shortage is due to increased demand from non-UK born households. People really believe that the strain on the NHS is down to demand from "health tourism" and a higher than ever immigrant population. 

Where have all these beliefs come from? When I go out, for example, to collect my children from school, there's a definite mix of nationalities and ethnicity, but still an overwhelming majority of white British families. When I go out shopping, I see the same thing. Yes, there is diversity, but it's nothing like the "swamping" that some would have us believe. 

I've said before that this anti-immigration rhetoric forms part of a wider smokescreen designed to keep the electorate enraged about a total non-issue while the genuinely damaging problem - i.e. the carefully cultivated wealth inequality - goes unchallenged. While we waste time debating immigration issues, we are not talking about the economic crisis, or how the UK is in more debt now than before the coalition government took control; we are not talking about about how the European economy is MORE fragile now than in 2007; we are not asking where the £46billion taxpayers' bailout given to RBS has gone; we are not throwing every fibre of our being into protecting our NHS from privatisation, or even into understanding what privatisation means; we are not vilifying the government for the callous welfare reforms that have seen over 1million people turn to foodbanks, and incalculable numbers of disabled people die within weeks of having their lifeline benefits stopped

There are genuine problems with the UK at the moment; real issues that must be addressed. But immigration is nothing, nothing like the thumping great threat that UKIP, the Conservatives and the rest would have you believe.

Let's take a look at some numbers.

University College London, in collaboration with the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, last year published a paper titled "The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK". Their research uncovered some astonishing findings:
  • The net fiscal balance of overall immigration to the UK between 2001 and 2011 amounts to a positive net contribution of about £25 billion.
  • Recent immigrants are 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK-born citizens.
  • By sharing the cost of fixed public expenditures (such as defence), which account for 23% of total public expenditure, immigrants reduce the financial burden of these fixed public obligations for natives.
Is your mind blown? Mine isn't, because I had suspected for some time that immigration is not only positive for the UK, but actually necessary for our economic survival. "Now then", I hear you murmur, "if this is all true, why don't the government just admit it?". Well that is a very good question, and I wish I knew the definitive answer. You don't need to look very hard for evidence that the government are not only aware, but actively trying to conceal the real picture of immigration to the UK - earlier this year, they came under fire for blocking the publication of a report which would have blown open all their reasoning for tightening up EU migration!

"But there ARE more of them!!"

Yes. Yes there are more "of them" than there were last year, and the year before that. Specifically, net migration (that is, the total number of people coming into the UK minus the number of those leaving) for the year ending March 2014 was 243,000 compared to 175,000 in the previous 12 months.

"That's a huge jump! Bloody Farage is right!!"

Hold your horses! Never take numbers out of context. Let's look at the bigger picture...

Total immigration in the year up to December 2010 was 575,000, while in the year up to December 2012, it fell to 497,000. As emigration from the UK has hovered between 316,000 and 350,000 per year, a clearer picture starts to emerge. In terms of population percentage, the net migration figures are not fluctuating all that much - certainly not enough to justify the outrage meted out by the noisy right-wingers. 

Here's a little graph for you:

I didn't make this. I'm not THAT much of a spreadsheet whizz. This came from the Office for National Statistics, August 2014 report on migration.

It's right there in black and white (and green and blue and pink). The picture of immigration in and out of the UK over the last decade really hasn't changed all that much.

So back to these problems facing the UK today; the housing crisis, the strain on the NHS, low-paid jobs. I'm going to elaborate on each of these topics in subsequent posts, but let me just say that not one of these problems is caused by immigration.


The housing crisis in the UK is a mess. Briefly, between the government selling off 2.5million council houses through the Thatcherite "Right to Buy" scheme and not replenishing the stock with new builds, we now have 1.7million people on council house waiting lists across England alone with nowhere to put them. Alongside that, soaring house prices and mortgage rates have been exacerbated by the rise in houses being used as commodities for investment rather than homes, making it more difficult than ever for first time buyers to afford a home. Meanwhile the private rental sector has exploded, now accounting for more than 13% of housing across the UK but with soaring rent, no long term security for tenants and the ever-increasing instances of homelessness caused by tenants finding themselves at the end of one tenancy but unable to afford the myriad fees of another.

Without private rent caps, the immediate introduction of more social housing and a drastic overhaul of the definition of "affordable housing", the housing crisis will not get any better. Immigration has not caused this, the government's appalling mismanagement has. Capping or reducing immigration will not alleviate it. Only sensible, proactive intervention from the government will. 


The coalition government's attack on the NHS is scandalous. The model, very simply, works like this: slash the budgets --> services decline --> "outsourcing" is heralded as the knight in shining armour --> wham! We have sleepwalked into a privatised health care system.

Source: Another Angry Voice
Do you remember David Cameron's pledge to not expose the NHS to pointless restructing? I do. And yet the abysmal Health and Social Care Act (2012) has brought about the biggest top-down reorganisation of the NHS in living history, not to mention removing between £60-£80billion of funding from the now-abolished Primary Care Trusts and giving it instead to Clinical Commissioning Groups, who are a prime source of entry for private companies to gain health provider contracts. Crucially, this move was not in the Conservative or Liberal Democrats' manifesto, so the public never had the opportunity to vote against such massive changes to the functioning of the NHS.

I will blog in more detail about the true cause of the NHS crisis, but you can read more here for now: Twelve Things You Should Know About the Tories and the NHS

Once again, waiting time for GP appointments, hospital closures and downgrading, waiting lists for treatment - none of it has been caused by immigration. ALL of it has been caused by massive government budget cuts. Capping immigration will not relieve the situation; only reversing privatisation and investing back into our hospitals and health services can restore the NHS to its rightful state. Incidentally, did you know that 26% of NHS doctors are non-UK born? Our lives, quite literally, have depended on immigration.


And we roundly return to the "dey terk er jerbs!!" argument. Anecdotally, I've heard this a thousand times over. British workers are turned away while the jobs are given to migrant workers who will accept a lower wage.

Firstly, this is largely a myth. In the few instances where this has happened, why does the migrant worker shoulder the blame instead of the unscrupulous and exploitative employer? Why aren't we stamping our feet and demanding the immediate implementation of a Living Wage for all employees, regardless of their country of origin? 

Back to the myth-busting. There is a 52 page government-commissioned report from the Migration Advisory Committee which you can read for yourself here. Briefly, the report found that the impact on wages from the flow of migrant workers was minimal, and there was only a weak - but not causal - correlation between the two. It also identified that there are specific areas of the country where migrant communities are more concentrated and so the perception of the impact of immigration will obviously be skewed. 

Plainly, there is no evidence to support claims that migrant workers are harmful to British employment prospects. Where exploitation by employers occurs, this must be dealt with by enforcing existing legislation about pay and introducing a Living Wage for all workers in the UK. Immigration in and out of itself, has not driven down wages. Capping immigration will not result in a pay rise for UK-born workers. Only decisive action by the government to recognise the current massive pay gap and support employers to pay proper wages can relieve this.

Considering that this will rank amonst one of my more epic blog posts, I really only have scratched the surface of the massive and intricate topic of immigration. I haven't even begun to talk about asylum seekers, illegal immigration, or the actual practicalities of any kind of immigration cap, but if I try now my fingers will fall off, and if you have to read more of my opinions, I suspect your eyes will mutiny.

I hope that I have successfully unravelled some of the commonly held myths around immigration and at the very least prompted you to question some of the claims made by the likes of UKIP and the Conservatives. I leave you with this image from Another Angry Voice:

Further reading:

Office for National Statistics (including all Quarterly Migration Reports): International Migration
Keith Taylor MEP in The New Statesman: "I'm ashamed of our government's stance on immigration"
Crisis Policy Briefing: Housing - the Private Rented Sector
Migration Advisory Committee: Migrants in Low Skilled Work

Monday, 13 October 2014

Tories. Tories EVERYWHERE.

Irritated; annoyed; exasperated; vexed; irked; raging; maddened; incensed; splenetic. Just some of the words one could use to describe my current mood after reading that the Green Party will be omitted from the upcoming pre-election televised debates while Nigel Farage has been welcome with open arms. 


With over 20,000 members in England & Wales alone - an increase of 45% this year! - three elected MEPs, a peer in the House of Lords, London Assembly member AND an elected MP, not to mention polling level with the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party are hardly marginal. Neither are we a single issue party focusing only on environmental issues, though securing media coverage for our social justice policies is no mean feat.

Labour, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and UKIP are all different sides of the same coin. The same old establishment faces, totally disconnected from ordinary people and the reality of life in the UK today, with policies engineered to satisfy wealthy party donors. Tories in blue, Tories in red, Tories in yellow and Tories in purple. They might have different party names, but there's barely any distinguishing between them anymore. For the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to schedule debates between the four white male wealthy party leaders and to leave out the Green Party's female leader - the only mainstream voice of the left -  demonstrates precisely what an uphill battle we face if we want to relieve government of its corrupted self-serving infestation.

It's not just about telling people what our policies are. How can we expect the public to back something like the Citizen's Income without first unravelling all the myths about modern day poverty and the welfare state? How do we realistically expect them to trust us about our immigration policy while they're being force-fed a inflated figures and biased analysis of the current state of things? People are backing UKIP because they feel that is the party who reflect their needs, but those needs are based on the pervasive manipulation of the truth spread by right-wing governments and a sock-puppeted mainstream media. 

For the sake of democracy, we have to fight to have political parties represented fairly in the media - and I don't just mean the Green Party; I'm talking about the SNP and Plaid Cymru too. How much of UKIP's success can be attributed to the media love-in from the past year and the resulting self-fulfilling prophecy?

I would like to set a challenge for the British media; swap the Greens and UKIP round in your level of exposure. Spend the next 7 months talking about the Green Party as frequently and fervently as you have UKIP, and give the kippers the same flimsy coverage the Greens have had. Let's see what impact THAT makes on the election, eh? If media coverage hasn't influenced election outcomes, as you've insisted, you have nothing to lose and UKIP's "success" will continue unabated.

For the rest of us, there are numerous petitions floating round about the media and the Green Party. Sign as many of them as you can; let's keep up the pressure and demand some decent coverage.

BBC Complaints online:

N.B. The initial publication of this post contained the phrase "limp-wristed", which I have now edited out. I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused and will take greater care in future to avoid using such insensitive wording.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Big Brother is Watching You

"It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself--anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face...; was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime..." - George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

This week, my reactions to the news have been brought to you by the letters W, T, F. The period after the Conservative Party conference was never going to be anything other than stressful, as numerous plots to make our lives ever more miserable were gleefully unfurled while Iain Duncan Smith literally fist-pumped the air with joy:

From: Another Angry Voice

If there's a Tory I dislike even more than Iain Duncan Smith, however, it's Theresa May. They're all reprehensible, morally-bankrupt filth in my honest opinion, but May's unwavering assault on human rights legislation just cranks up my loathing another notch.  

A year ago, I read her pledge to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which came just a couple of weeks after the country was outraged at the detention of David Miranda under spurious interpretation of the Terrorism Act (2000). To be detained for nine hours, prohibited from accessing legal representation, compelled to answer all questions asked of you and having your personal effects confiscated - when you have done nothing wrong and given no indication of wrongdoing - surely constitutes a breach of human rights. Yet the incident was ruled lawful by the Home Office, and now the Tories want to bring in yet more legislation that systematically dismantles our basic expectations of human rights, under the banner of "fighting extremism and terrorism".

It sounds a noble cause. Nobody likes terrorists. Extremism, as we've seen with ISIS/ISIL and Al Qaeda, is very dangerous indeed. But we are fools if we believe that this is the extent of the Tories' interpretation of extremism.

Just three months ago, news broke that Green Party members, Jenny Jones (Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb) - and Councillor Ian Driver, had been added to a database of "domestic extremists" despite neither having a criminal record. Along with thousands of other political activists, their right to lawful protest had been reclassified as "extremism" and used to justify the storage of personal details and photographs on secret police databases around the country. 

One of my earliest blog series looked at Human Rights and Human Wrongs, in which I explored (at length!) the logic behind my view that we must always observe the basic human rights of everyone, even the most abhorrent criminals. You can read parts one, two and three here (get comfy first). Essentially, human rights are absolute and inalienable; one does not "earn" them, nor can one have them revoked. That philosophy is fundamental to protecting the human rights of me, you and every other ordinary nice person. The minute we start deconstructing the human rights of people deemed to be unworthy of them, we are on a very slippery slope which threatens anyone with a predilection to challenge the status-quo.

If Baroness Jenny Jones can be labelled a "domestic extremist" for her political activity, so can I and so can you. My husband jokes that if I'm not on some CIA watchlist by now, he'd be very surprised, but there may well be an element of truth in that. After all the definitions of extremism, and the legislation that criminalises them, are constructed by the people whose interests are best served by censoring dissent and preserving the social state which keeps them in government. 

We have also heard this week that Theresa May plans to implement "Extremist Disruption Orders", which will see people banned from speaking at public events, taking part in protests, having to submit to the police in advance any publication on the web, social media or in print, and having social media closely monitored. This is not limited to those preaching hate or radicalising young Muslims; David Cameron has said that this will look at "the full spectrum of extremism" and those who threaten to "overthrow democracy". I would be intrigued to hear more of Cameron's definition of democracy, given that he acts as Prime Minister in a country where two-thirds of voters voted for someone else. 

The past five years of Tory governance have seen inequality increase, child poverty go through the roof, untold numbers of suicides in the wake of callous benefit sanctions and ATOS "work capability" assessment, UK debt increase, NHS services privatised, social services cut, care homes closed - the list goes on and on and on. If you are anything other than wealthy in the UK right now, life is pretty scary and set to get much worse if the Tories are re-elected next May. I consider it my moral duty to devote time and energy into getting them out of government and fighting for a decent standard of life for everyone in the UK. Theresa May and David Cameron would probably call me a domestic extremist for that view and for my role in countless campaigns to overthrow the Tories, which puts people like me right in the firing line for all this anti-human rights rhetoric. 

Do not trust that this policy is simply about fighting terrorism in the form of violent aggressors. It is very much about enshrining the right of politicians to censor those who would speak out against their war on the poor.

Further reading and websites:

Friday, 19 September 2014

The times, they are a-cha-aangin'....

Earlier this morning, I was idly daydreaming about what the future may hold for me. I wrote a blog post two years ago agonising over what I would do "When I Grow Up", articulating my anxiety at what a career gap would do to my employment prospects and how I felt at odds with my role as a stay at home mother. It suddenly dawned on me that since joining the Green Party, that anxiety has vanished. 

The time I commit to the party now is entirely voluntary, but the experience I'm gaining and the skills I'm polishing have given me a sense of empowerment that I thought I'd lost. Politics is traditionally thought of as male-dominated territory - not just male, but white, upper class, able-bodied, public-school educated males. What could an ordinary working class* woman hope to achieve? 

*delusions of grandeur and a predilection for reading The Guardian notwithstanding!

Shahrar Ali's rousing speech at Green Party Conference earlier this month spoke of the "Politics of Imagination" and challenged us all to take ownership of ineqality within the party and outwards, in wider society.

 "You don't have to be a woman to fight patriarchy, to want to reassure a voter on the doorstep, no she doesn’t have to wait for her husband before talking politics with you. You only need to be Green.

You don't have to be black to want to rail against racial prejudice or persecution. You only need to be Green.

You don't have to be gay to want to march alongside PRIDE. You only need to be Green."

I know I don't speak for all women when I say this; I know that women with a disability, gay women, transgender women, and women of colour experience complex layers of intersecting oppression that I cannot claim to understand - but today I realised what an awesome sense of pride I feel in belonging to a political party in which my gender will never be a barrier to my ambition.

The Green Party's leader is a woman, as is our MP, our peer in the House of Lords, two of our three MEPs and one of our deputy leaders. Six amazing, inspirational women.

I am greatly encouraged that the Green Party is THE future of politics, and represents a truly progressive outlook where equality is the automatic starting point for all people, not just a dream. The people I have had the privilege of meeting and working with so far have restored my faith in humanity and shown that there is a chance for my generation to break away from the oppressive, nasty, divisive narrative that has pervaded politics so far. It is time for the government to stop being the playground for white privileged males and to become representative of our beautiful, colourful, diverse nation.

As today's news is dominated by Scotland's referendum decision to remain part of the United Kingdom, there is a fast-paced undercurrent that sees how people are beginning to reengage with politics and bring democracy home. It is time for us to harness that current and turn it into a tidal wave. It is time to rejuvenate British politics and I am exhilarated to play my part.

Yours truly with Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Old Hatred, New Victims: When recycling is a bad idea.

We've just passed the 13th anniversary of "9/11". I vividly remember September 11th, 2001. I was 17 years old and sitting in my A-level English Literature class on the second day of term. A friend's phone beeped with a text message saying there had been a nasty plane crash in New York and it was all over the news. The class soon finished and we idly made our ways home. I went to chat to my mum, who was watching the news in horror just as the second plane hit the towers and we remained fixated on the television for most of that afternoon as the events unfurled.

I felt something change that day. There was something in the air that was new and yet familiar at the same time. The suspicion, mistrust and, ultimately, hatred of a group of people sharing a religion - in this case Islam - that I'd so recently studied in its historical forms with regard to anti-Jewish propaganda in Nazi Germany. 

I'm not the first person to highlight parallels between modern Islamophobia and Nazi propaganda. This article "Same message, different minority" succinctly compares statements from self-titled "anti-jihad" writer, Robert Spencer, and Der Stürmer editor (1923 - 1945), Julius Streicher. Similarly, you may be surprised by the results of this quiz, which invites you to differentiate between anti-Semitic statements from Nazi Germany, and modern anti-Islam rhetoric.

The similarities are bloodcurdlingly abundant. The manipulation and misrepresentation of the truth is as pervasive today as it was 70 years ago, only this time it's directed at Muslims, not Jews. Then, it fed into pro-Aryan sentiment at a time when Germany was recovering from the First World War and national morale was bruised and vulnerable. Adolf Hiter exploited this and coaxed enough support for his heinous ambition to start a war with devastating consequences, not least for the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust. Today we see Islam conflated with extremism and terrorism, with degrading stereotypes flung around mainstream media with casual abandon, while far-right neo-fascist groups such as the "English Defence League", "Britain First", and the BNP declare themselves the line of defence against a perceived Islamic invasion of the UK.

I'm not a conspiracy-theorist. I'm satisfied that it's more likely than not that Neil Armstrong really did walk on the moon in 1969. I don't believe in chemtrails. I don't buy into theories that 9/11 was orchestrated by the American government. But if you ask me whether I believe that Islamophobia is a carefully constructed political agenda to justify the so-called "war on terror" that is systematically dismantling the Middle East in pursuit of its oil-rich land - then yes. Yes I believe this is true.

Do you remember the "45 minute" claim from the September 24th 2002 dossier used to strengthen the cause for invasion of Iraq? How we were urged to believe that Saddam Hussein had been stockpiling weapons of mass destruction which could target British soil in under an hour? Do you also remember that these alleged WMDs were never found, and that the UK government had to admit that the 45 minute claim was untrue; that there was no stockpile of weapons. That we invaded a country, killed over 400,000 people and left a legacy of chaos for which we should be eternally ashamed.

'Ahh, but Al Qaeda! Terrorists must be stopped!' What do you say to the revelation that there was NO evidence for an Al Qaeda presence in Iraq before 2003? Even more so, that the rise of the latest group, ISIS, can be directly traced back to the abominable bungling of the 2003 Iraq war by the UK and US governments? And for the cherry atop the proverbial cake, the allegations that the US government has in fact been arming and funding ISIS by supporting its allies in Syria, just as they aided Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.

Let's just take a step back from this mess for a moment, and come back to what this means for ordinary people at home. I remember studying anti-semitism in Nazi Germany during high school history lessons. I vividly recall everybody in the room feeling horrified and bewildered by the force of the propaganda that proliferated the era. We watched documentaries about Kristalnacht and the concentration camps that frequently reduced us to tears. And time and time again we asked HOW and WHY the ordinary people of 1930s Germany could have tolerated such vile besmirching of so many people just because they were Jewish. 

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established soon after the second world war, with the ultimate aim of ensuring that the atrocities visited upon the Jews could never be repeated, that we as a global community learn from the horrors of our history and commit ourselves to never allowing it to repeat.

And yet here we are. Western governments are demonstrably complicit in the rise of organisations such as ISIS, meanwhile the threat they pose is used to justify military action in the Middle East and domestic tension is aggravated by an undeniably Islamophobic mainstream media. In short, if you make people afraid, you make them malleable and open to manipulation. 

The surge in support for groups such as Britain First is symptomatic of a nation whipped up into fear, anger and hatred. There is nothing patriotic or defensive about these groups, despite what they claim. Islamophobic attacks are on the rise in the UK and US, with attacks against Muslims in America having increased 1700% in the year after 9/11, and British Muslims experiencing violence and abuse every single day. Political figures such as Lord Christopher Monkton, former deputy leader of UKIP, spout such diatribe as: “Nearly all acts of terrorism perpetrated throughout the world in the past quarter of a century were carried out by Muslims in the name of Allah”. and newspapers continue to publish exaggerated and plainly untrue stories to perpetuate the propaganda of hatred towards Islam. 

However, there is a beacon of light - something that didn't exist in Nazi Germany, or even in any useful form around the events of 9/11. Social media has burst onto the scene and given a platform to anyone who wishes to be heard. Whilst that has been exploited by far right hate groups, it also gives the oxygen of publicity to those who see past the red herring of Islamophobia and are frenetically urging the world to reject the scapegoating of Islam, to look beyond what the newspapers tell us to think, and to expose the corrupted workings of governments whose vested interests are in the financial gains to be made from war in the Middle East. 

There is SO much information out there, so many ways to scratch beneath the surface of the information endorsed by governments and to question their agendas. We have the opportunity now to stand strong and refuse to be manipulated, to stop history repeating itself. Education and respect are the antidote to bigotry and ignorance. For every misinformed, hate-filled piece of literature, there exists a counterpart. Let's make the most of the internet and keep looking for the truth. 

I urge you to look at the links in this post - especially the quiz about Nazi propaganda and modern Islamophobia. They're a starting point for understanding the role of Islamophobia in the UK today.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Uncomfortable truths

I love learning new stuff. There are few things more exciting than adding a new topic to my (probably relatively limited!) repertoire of Things I Know About The Universe. Sometimes though, I learn a thing I don't like; something that makes me reevaluate my place in the world and how I contribute to it. This month has shown me one such occasion. 

At the beginning of August, I attended a training day with the Green Party's "Young Greens", including a workshop on "Intersectionality". It was a new word to me and I regret to admit that I spent the first few minutes fidgeting in my seat, feeling like I was back in an A level sociology lecture. In brief, intersectionality relates to different systems of oppression and the way they overlap to form complex compounds of prejudice. We have a tendency to treat sexism, racism, homophobia, disablism etc. as distinct and isolated streams of intolerance and neglect to consider the individuals whose lives are impacted by one or more of these. You can find support systems for gay people, disabled people, ethnic minorities - but where is the inclusive, all-encompassing support for the gay, black, disabled person?
A seriously over-simplified diagram
of interlocking systems of oppression.

It sounds so straightforward, that it's almost ridiculous to have to point out that someone can be a victim of multiple systems of oppression and that we should all endeavour to see the overlaps and not separate them out into neat compartments that we know how to handle.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone. Last year I wrote a blog post about Miley Cyrus and that VMA performance. It was the first time I'd really had to consider that traditional feminism sidelines non-white women, and so I wrote about the insidiously racist undertones contained within the aforementioned dance routine. Reading it back now, I could kick myself for falling into the trap of separating out sexism and racism. The two, in this case, are tightly interconnected. And I missed that.

Why did I miss that? Why did I fail to see the gap in traditional feminism that applies to women of colour? Because "white privilege".

Those two words made me squirm in my seat during the workshop and frequently since. In very basic terms, being white gives you an immediate advantage in every single area of life whilst simultaneously conditioning you to not see the privilege. Does that make sense? I'm a white British female. I've been in situations where I've felt self-conscious about my gender, some where I've been hyper-aware of my nationality. Never once have I felt that the colour of my skin might be an issue to someone or might affect my chance of getting a job, renting a house, being looked at strangely on public transport, called names in the street. I can look at newspapers, television programmes and movies and see my culture represented without giving it a second thought. THAT is the essence of white privilege. The fact that someone else had to explain that it even exists is itself indicative of the widespread normalisation of white privilege.

We don't tend to think of racism in these terms. It's easier to frame it as negative actions towards someone else based on their ethnicity, when in actual fact white privilege is the foundation upon which racism is built. 

So I've been trying to get my head around this for a few weeks, and I'm still not sure I understand it. Too many times, I've felt very defensive and upset, wanted to shut down the computer, dismiss white privilege and carry on feeling that I work far too hard to promote tolerance and social harmony to ever justify being called a tool of oppression. Do you know why it would be easy for me to do that? WHITE PRIVILEGE. Because I am white, I can - if I choose - look away from the problem and pretend it doesn't exist. I have that power because my life is not negatively impacted by the colour of my skin; I don't even have to give it a second thought. 

Something happened this week that reinforced my determination to educate myself properly on issues of race and racism. I saw a post on Facebook which had prompted a debate that eventually turned nasty and saw one person call the other "mayo face" and later "mayo brigade". I've never heard that insult before, so I googled it and learned that it is a slur used against white people. I felt an instant hollow in my chest and could have cried. Here was someone dismissing one person's entire opinion with a nasty jibe about skin colour. I felt angry, sad, humiliated - and it hadn't even been directed at me. Just a couple of words on a screen, but they ate away at me for days. It dawned on me quickly that this can't be far from what people from ethnic minorities feel All The Time

At what stage in their childhood did they learn that people will give them grief for no reason other than their skin is darker? What must it be like to go into a shop, browse the newspapers and see nobody who looks like you? How do you manage the frustration at being sidelined for jobs because of the colour of your skin? Even more - how do you refrain from shouting and screaming at everyone who tries to say that racism isn't an issue these days?? Because oh, god. IT IS. It so is. And this is an every day reality for people who aren't white. 

How I felt after that one isolated incident doesn't even begin to compare to prejudice experienced by non-white people, but it gave me a fleeting insight. So the next time I want to write something about feminism, I am determined to not imagine that whatever I experience as a white female could be the same as that of a black woman. I don't know nearly enough about intersectionality and how to apply it to my life, so educating myself is my goal. 

If you've read this and feel as I initially did -  defensive, annoyed and like I'm talking out of my backside - I invite you to consider that it is your position of privilege which allows you to feel this way. We cannot begin to unravel the labyrinth of prejudice until we all accept that being white and/or male and/or straight and/or able-bodied, etc. affords us certain perks that we teach ourselves to see as an automatic right.

Further reading:

Explaining privilege to a broke white person:

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack:

Kimberle Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins:

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Depression in the 21st Century

Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life is harsh and cruel. 
Says he feels all alone in a threatening world. 
Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go see him. That should pick you up." 
Man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor... I am Pagliacci." 
- 'Watchmen' (2009)

The outpouring of grief on social media when a celebrity dies is a curious phenomenon. I often see this public display of grief derided because we didn't "know" the deceased person personally, or criticised for masking the daily deaths of countless ordinary people. Sometimes the tide can turn when the circumstances surrounding the death turn out to involve substance abuse, and I've seen those conversations turn very nasty indeed. 

Today I woke up to the news that Robin Williams has died, from apparent suicide at the age of 63. Facebook, Twitter and myriad social networking sites are full of grief-ridden posts and videos of fans' favourite moments from his career. In amongst that, I've seen at least half a dozen comments along the lines of "so what, suicide affects hundreds of people every day and that doesn't take over the internet". 

It's a pretty shitty attitude to take in the wake of someone's high profile death, but I can't argue with the fact stated there. 

The World Health Organisation estimates that 1 million people die from suicide every year. That figure has risen by 60% in the last 45 years - some of which may be down to the way deaths are recorded, but doubtless there has been a significant increase in the incidence of suicide.

This number translates to approximately one death around the world every 40 seconds. In England alone, someone dies from suicide every 2 hours, and at least 10 times that number make an attempt on their lives.

Suicide and depression are not intrinsically linked, but according to the Mental Health Foundation, at least 90% of suicide victims suffer from a psychiatric disorder at the time of their death. 

It is said that Robin Williams was suffering with severe depression at the time of his death and had been seeking treatment. His death is no more or less tragic than the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken their lives this year already, but his celebrity status and the sadness expressed by so many on social media could give us all a golden opportunity to talk about mental health and break down some of the most damaging and cruel myths surrounding it.

I would like to take a moment to highlight why I haven't used the common phrase "committed suicide" here. This is how people commonly discuss the act of taking one's own life. We don't talk about any other manner of illness-related death like this. It is how we talk about murder, and other crime. You can commit murder, assault, robbery. By saying that someone who has died from suicide "committed" it, we place their death in the framework of a deviant act that they have enacted against themselves. It is that archaic notion that suicide is a sin, a conscious,  deliberate, selfish and indulgent choice made by someone to end their lives. 

Let me tell you now, that this is not how suicide happens. It is not how depression works.

When I posted on Facebook today about Robin Williams, I described depression as "an enveloping darkness". It is all-consuming. It is heavy and it hurts. There is no logic or reason to how it develops and controls your life. It is indiscriminate and does not care if you're male or female, white or black, rich or poor, privileged or oppressed. 

Robin Williams was known as one of the funniest men on the silver screen. I grew up watching his films and laughing until my ribs hurt every time. And yet he carried this dark secret for so many years, and so do thousands upon thousands of people around the world. Right now, there are probably people in your life battling just to get through the day. Maybe they're open about it, maybe they bury it and try to act out the part of a normal functioning person. But it will be there. 

Buzzfeed published a list of "21 Things Nobody Tells You About Depression", and while the use of cutesy gifs to illustrate this is questionable, the points made are pretty accurate. 

We don't talk about mental health very well in this country. People get awkward and embarrassed about it - and often, too often, people are downright ignorant and cruel. I've lost track of how many times I've heard phrases such as "pull yourself together", "try to focus on the positives", "just try harder", "get a grip" - all in response to people talking about depression. It is not a "really sad feeling". It's not that rational! It's an invisible disease and because of that, people so often dismiss it. 

I was 13 years old when depression found me. At 14, I took an overdose of prescription tablets and ended up under the care of a psychiatrist. Over the next few years, I was up and down. Mostly functioning well enough - I got through my GCSEs and A levels with good grades, went to university for a year. But it was always there in the background, always messing with my judgment and self-esteem, influencing decisions that I now look back on and think "what the actual hell?!". At 19, it took a stronger hold. I left my job and spent roughly 2 months unable to leave my flat - actually, mostly unable to leave my sofa. My then-boyfriend would go to work and suggest that maybe I could try to vacuum and wash the dishes. He would come home 9 hours later and I would be in the same spot, having forgotten to eat or wash, not having been able to do a thing around the house. It sounds like idleness, but there are no words to explain why I couldn't do things. I couldn't. That's it. I would try, but after two hours of trying and failing to get up and walk to the kitchen, I would give up and slump even further into a black hole of hopelessness and loneliness.

The world looked physically different to me, almost as if my entire surroundings had a black vignette effect. People would talk to me and their voices would echo around my head, the words entering my brain but meaning nothing. And I would nod and smile and say words back to them, but my mind was far away, screaming and howling that I just needed to fade away. The panic that set in when I tried to push myself harder to do things was absolutely crippling. I could get as far as getting dressed, shoes and coat on, but then I would find myself curled up in a ball against the front door, hyperventilating with my heart pounding through my chest and limbs shaking at the very thought of stepping outside. And there were numerous days when it got too much, when I couldn't see a way out, when I felt I was just not meant for this world and I needed to get out. And on those days, I would collect together all the pills I had amassed over time, lay them out on my bed, fill a large glass with water and wait for the moment when it felt right to take them all. 

I don't remember how or why my life changed and the cloud lifted. But at some point, the days where I could function outnumbered the days when I could not. I went back to work, and my life carried on. Life has thrown me plenty of shitstorms since then, but blessedly the enveloping darkness has stayed in the background and I've carried on functioning. 

The myth is that you can recover from depression. That's not how it works. Like an addiction, it doesn't ever go away. You learn to manage it, sometimes with medication, sometimes with other coping strategies, but it is always there. It will always be a part of me and I will always be aware that it could take over my life again. I manage this by talking to my husband very openly, and he does his best to understand. 

For others, the fight was too much. For the one million people a year who take their own lives, the next day, hour, minute was too hard. It is not a selfish or indulgent whim. It is an act of purest, agonising desperation. And we can only begin to halt that by breaking down the pervasive ignorance surrounding mental illness and suicide, by abandoning judgment, educating ourselves and reaching out to those around us who are suffering with it. 

So, take a moment today to change something for people with depression. Donate to a mental health charity, offer up your time to someone you know with depression, challenge your own perceptions of the illness and ask yourself what you can do to make a potentially life-saving difference to someone. 

Feel sad for Robin Williams and his family, and also for everyone worldwide who is a victim of this awful, intangible disease.

Mental Health Foundation:
Samaritans:  08457 90 90 90 
Mind, mental health charity: