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:

Monday, 4 August 2014


A post about Palestine had to happen some time. I haven't been ignoring this stream of atrocities; I just haven't been able to gather the will to write something coherent and intelligent about it. I've shared stuff on Facebook and Twitter from people far more knowledgeable than myself, spoken with friends at length about our shared horror, joined the solidarity campaigns, signed petitions and written to my MP. And still the death toll rises, the UK & US governments trot out the faux-diplomatic subtly pro-Israel speeches, and an end to the violence feels as far away as ever.

Today is August 4th, and from the figures I can find, the death toll in Gaza stands at 1,822, the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians, children in particular. 

I have seen countless heart-wrenching images of dead children over the last few weeks. While the temptation to look away is strong, I feel it is my duty to see these losses, to share in my miniscule, feeble way, the anguish of their parents. I will not hide my head in the sand and get on with my cosy Western life, pretending that there aren't innocent people being killed. 

Violence of this nature is, of course, not restricted to Palestine. The Israeli government is not the only authority to exact terrible murderous atrocities against innocents. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, Sudan, Nigeria, and more - all of these countries are experiencing ongoing violence and conflict, with untold numbers of civilian deaths and injuries. 

What makes Gaza stand out, for me, is the UK's role in creating and sustaining the oppression of the Palestinian people. I shan't attempt to outline the history here, but I do urge you to look into it if you don't already know the background. In short, the Palestinians have been systematically marginalised and oppressed over the last 60 years, and broadly speaking, much of the responsibility for that rests on the shoulders of the British and American governments, both historically and currently. Today Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, called for an urgent arms embargo on Israel, and highlighted that  since 2010 Britain has sold £42million worth of military equipment to Israel. Just a few days ago, after condemning the shelling of a UN school in Gaza, the US government opened up their Israel-based weapons store to the Israeli forces and yesterday, news broke that congress has pledged $225million to replenish Israel's missile stocks.

Meanwhile, the people of Gaza - the targets for all this weaponry supplied, largely, by Britain and America - cannot escape. They are literally walled in, and even their shelters in the forms of schools and hospitals are increasingly falling victim to shelling attacks.

The pretext for this month-long wave of attacks from Israel - the "collective punishment" meted out as retribution for the kidnapping and murders of three Israeli teenagers - has quietly been exposed as not in fact the work of Hamas, but a lone cell. But has the violence abated? No. It escalates daily. And people die by the hundreds.

I saw a post on Facebook that made for an interesting analogy:

Let's stop "other-ising" the people in Gaza for the moment, shall we. Let's imagine that these are fellow human beings, in a beyond desperate state with not so much as a hint of a light at the end of the tunnel. 

There are small things that each of us can do that, collectively, may make just enough of a difference to force the UK government to change its course of action (or lack thereof). There are petitions and open letters to sign, email templates to send to your local MP, charities you can support, marches and demonstrations to join - and you can carry on witnessing and acknowledging that the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza is real and gut-wrenchingly unfair. 

To the people of Gaza: I see your pain and suffering. I see the destruction of your homes, hospitals, schools and livelihoods. I will not turn my eyes away from the obliterated streets lined with torn bodies and pretend you are not there. I see you. 

Some useful links:

Palestine Solidarity Campaign:
Open letter to David Cameron:
Petition to UK government to end the conflict: