Being a White Immigrant

I have been an immigrant for most of my life.

When I was 6, my family moved to another country for economic reasons. We arrived expecting to take advantage of the country’s health care and education. In fact, we fully expected that the normal rules of the education system would be bent for me. As time went on, I took up a place on a highly prestigious education programme, depriving the child of a citizen of that country of the opportunity. We eventually became citizens, but stubbornly retained the culture and values of our home country.

At no time did anyone question our right to be in our new country. People made sure that the journey was as safe and comfortable as possible. We were not imprisoned, detained or penalised in any way for our decision to become immigrants.

Since then I have been an immigrant in 3 different countries. I have always been treated with courtesy and respect, often receiving better treatment than the ordinary citizens.

This is all because I am white. We like to think that migrants are only black or brown people but there are millions of white immigrants globally. Nearly as many Brits live abroad as there are immigrants in the UK (5.5 million compared to 7.2 million). Long running reality shows like ‘Wanted Down Under’ and ‘Escape to the Continent’ share the reasons behind white immigration as well as top tips on how to emigrate, actively encouraging white families to move to the country which will best serve their interests.

Almost every family in Britain has members who have moved elsewhere. In the state of Florida alone there are nearly 400,000 Brits. When the housing bubble burst and banks started to foreclose on those who couldn’t pay their mortgages, large numbers of these Brits simply left all their debts behind and went back home. (http://www.theguardian.com/business/2010/mar/08/florida-property-slump-british-expats) Can you imagine the outcry if anyone attempted such behaviour in the UK?

I can’t even begin to describe the callous treatment and hateful language surrounding other families who have left their home countries. They didn’t just decide to leave, they were forced out. The next time you listen to David Cameron, Donald Trump or Tony Abbott,  I invite you to remember your Uncle James who now lives in Toronto, or your cousin Sharon in Melbourne. They aren’t vermin and neither are the people in Calais.

Post Script

This isn’t an original concept. There are many articles pointing out that white people are ‘expats’ while people of colour are ‘immigrants’. However, these articles are far outnumbered by those spewing hate. I invite anyone who has either lived abroad or has relatives who live elsewhere to tell their immigrant stories. Highlighting our shared humanity is the absolute least we can do for those who risk so much and ask for so little.

Being a White Immigrant

Sugartits – Addressing harassment

“There you go, love.”

“Thanks, sugartits.”

It’s becoming a regular exchange but none of the men that R has called ‘Sugartits’ has even appeared to notice her campaign against being called ‘love’ or ‘darling’. Each time I hold my breath, but nothing happens.

I asked her why she had to go all the way to sugartits. Love and darling aren’t really on the same scale. She said that if she went with anything more gentle, they’d think it was a come-on. I saw her point.

I also see her point about love and darling. The terms that men use for other men bestow either equal or greater status; ‘boss’ or ‘mate’ or ‘bro’. The terms they use for women place us in an intimate, sexual or at least affectionate relationship; it is a verbal bonding to a complete stranger.

R also has strong views on people who harass or make comments to her. “They are just bullies, they want you to feel uncomfortable or afraid and they rely on the fact that you won’t say anything. So I just say the worst thing I can think of.” I won’t tell you the things she says. She can think of some pretty horrible stuff. When she starts she doesn’t stop until she has won. She calls it the ‘shock and awe approach’.

The strange thing is that when there are other people around, they seem to accept whatever the man has said, no matter how sexist or racist it might have been. At least, nobody bats an eye nor do they step in. What makes them stare is R’s response. It appears that harassing a Black woman is standard, generally accepted behaviour but a Black woman standing up for herself is just plain shocking.

“There was this one guy who clearly spent his whole life in the gym. He had something to say about me being fat so I said that just because he’d been a fat kid and nobody loved him didn’t give him the right to fuck with me. He looked like he was going to cry.”

The exchange highlights the abuse of the initial comment. R has been asked why she is being so mean, she says “Well, you were mean to me first and I have nothing to do with you. Why were you talking to me?”

What R is doing is increasing the risk for men who think that women are just going to accept their harassment. For many men, the silence of the women they harass and the men who witness their behaviour is approval. R makes them feel what she feels; abused and attacked. What she does is risky and brave and I love her for it.

So while I won’t be using the term ‘sugartits’ myself, I am going to stop pretending to be selectively deaf when men make comments. It’s not just for me; it’s for all of us.

Postscript

This course of action might not be for everybody. Men with dented egos are nasty and unpredictable, I wouldn’t grudge anyone who decided to opt out of the encounter.

If you are a man and you happen to overhear a woman being harassed, you stepping in is much more powerful and much safer for you than her standing up for herself. Two simple questions “Do you know her? Then why are you talking to her?” can be very effective. It’s crap, but that is the way power works. When you stay silent, you tell everyone that you agree with what is happening.

Sugartits – Addressing harassment

Coming Out Late

I knew I was a lesbian as soon as I knew what a lesbian was, which, due to the sheltered nature of my childhood, wasn’t until I was 16 and we studied Mrs Dalloway. So why did it take me until I was 30 to come out?

People stay in the closet for so many reasons. Some of mine were fairly standard, like family and religion. Others were a bit more complex.

Family is fairly easy to explain. I had tested the water by making jokes about bringing home a girlfriend. My dad’s face turned stone still and he said “We don’t even make jokes about that”. So I had my answer. I knew that coming out could cost me my relationship with my parents and I just wasn’t ready to pay that price until I reached the point where their love simply wasn’t enough.

Religion also played a major role, not really in the ‘gays burn in hell’ kind of way. I had already decided that God probably wasn’t that serious about hating gays or He would have made more of a fuss about it. It was more that religion had taught me to ignore my own desires. It never even occurred to me to question what I did or did not want in a partner.

Once I worked out that what I wanted was girls, other factors came into play. All the lesbians I knew fell into one of two groups; far too cool to be interested in me, or so weird I had no desire to be associated with them. Clearly the ‘too cool’ category were the ones I was attracted to, but lacked the self esteem to do anything about it.

Later, in my twenties, I let myself be persuaded by the narrative surrounding lesbian relationships, that they burn out because there is no ‘growth’ and no development ie no children. I didn’t know anything about LGBT families and didn’t know any lesbian couples. I wanted a family, so I thought the only option was a husband. I know now that this narrative is a lie. LGBT relationships are just as deep and lasting as heterosexual ones. Not only do we have kids, the studies show that our kids do just as well, if not better than the heterosexuals’.

I also didn’t want to end up dating someone just because we were both lesbians, even though I ended up doing that for a while. Again, this was lack of experience. None of the lesbians I had met shared any of my interests and I didn’t share theirs. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t dismiss all lesbians on the basis of knowing 6 of them by name.

Finally, I thought that my lack of experience was an issue. I think I imagined that if I walked into a gay club, I would set off some kind of sensor and be forcibly ejected by the bouncers. I had no idea what to do with a girl if I got one and was so naive that I thought it would matter (when I did come out I bought a very helpful manual and read it cover to cover – I made sure I had the theory down way before I had my first girlfriend).

I’m sure that some people still think that if I had met the right man, I never would have come out. In some senses they’re right. But then, there never would have been the right man and people have a way of spotting it when they are not what you really want. I tried, really I did, but it never worked out.

So I got to 30, so lonely and so depressed that I was frightened to drink in case I did something stupid. When my therapist asked me “Do you think you might be lesbian or bisexual?” it was like being given permission to act on all the thoughts and feelings I had buried for so long. Everything changed. I came alive and I have not looked back since.

Footnote:

The thing everyone wants to know is how you can have sex with men if you are a lesbian. It’s very much like TV. You can watch a black and white set and you’ll see the same show but a colour set makes it come alive. That’s all I’m saying.

Coming Out Late

Blackness interpreted as aggression

The case of the Chelsea racism on the Paris Metro continues to be typical of British responses.

The former policeman, Richard Barklie, who shoved Souleyman Sylla off the train in Paris now claims that Sylla was “using aggression” and that was why he pushed him. Re-watching the video, Sylla steps on to the train. He does not, as I have seen in London, use his bag as a battering ram, or hold on to the bar while he kicks a place clear for his feet. He simply steps on to the train.

Crucially, though, he steps on to the train while Black. 

Blackness is perceived as aggression in so many instances. I won’t go through the American cases again, you know about Trayvon Martin and his aggressive Skittle purchasing and Renisha McBride and her aggressive car troubles.

Here’s how it plays out in the UK. R once had an office assistant who told everyone, including HR, that R had threatened her life. Some people in R’s office still believe it. R regularly stays up past midnight to make sure that everyone gets a homemade birthday cake, she remembers the names of people’s grandkids and always knows who has had a haircut. People believed that this person would make a woman who worked for her “fear for her life”.

R had to correct an employee and she did so, but she did it while Black; that is why the woman feared her and that is why people were so willing to believe her story. If R was white, what would the story have been?

I suspect that there are people watching the film from the Paris Metro and saying to themselves “Well he did try and push his way on to the train, he was pretty aggressive”. Try this. Try picturing the same action performed by a white man. Does he look aggressive now or does he look like a man who trying to get to work?

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jul/16/paris-metro-racism-case-i-was-reacting-to-aggression-chelsea-fan-tells-court

Blackness interpreted as aggression

Tory-Proof Your Kids’ Education – You don’t have to go private!

Let’s dispel a few myths. The teaching in private schools is worse than the teaching in state schools. Having taught in private schools, I can promise you, I would never send my kids there for the teaching. There is a ridiculous amount of “Turn to page 34 and answer all the questions”. You pay for the other kids, not the teacher; so if your child can zone out Billy who has ADHD, he or she will do better in a state school.

Kidulthood was a work of fiction not a documentary. Your child is perfectly safe in an inner city London school, or at least, just as safe as she would be in any other school. Private schools have a nasty habit of not acting on sexual abuse and covering up their bullying problems. Their reputations matter more to them than your child’s safety.

You do not need to pay for private tuition either. It’s only going to be more of the same, so your kid will be bored, not enlightened. If your child needs more attention, give it to her yourself. You might not understand calculus, but you can ask “And what did the teacher do next?” and “Have you checked those answers by working the problem backwards?” or “Explain the whole Archduke Ferdinand thing to me”.

Your kid will have a better chance at getting into university if you follow these steps. They can be implemented at any stage:

  1. Not the kid, you. They will do what you do and if you only want to watch TV, that’s what they will do. Let them see you read and talk about the book you are reading. The more they read, the wider their frame of reference and the better they do across the board.
  2. Enrol them in some kind of club, Scouts, Guides, Cadets, Duke of Edinburgh, whatever. They will meet different people and have opportunities that you can’t provide. Plus it looks great on uni applications.
  3. Do free stuff with them. Walks, forests, galleries and beaches are all free (for the moment). Do something once a month. Again, it widens their frame of reference and gives them confidence.
  4. Encourage them to volunteer. Once again, it looks great on a uni application, but it will also increase their sense of self-worth
  5. If you are going to pay for stuff, make it amateur dramatics or sports. At least they are fun, healthy and give new skills.

If your kid is in 6th form, you need to start campaigning. The Tories have already made massive cuts to 6th form funding and are set to cut even more. This means bigger class sizes and fewer subjects. The government is hoping you won’t make a fuss. Don’t accept it. If your kid can’t choose the subjects she wants at the school she wants to attend, write to the papers, your MP, Nicky Morgan, everybody. Get together with other parents and raise hell – it’s the only way to make sure that everyone has access to a quality education.

Your local school will probably have to cut out pretty much all of its teaching assistants with the budget cuts, so it might be good to volunteer if you have time, and it’s definitely a good idea to stand for the board of governors so that you can keep an eye on things.

Ask about teacher workloads; a tired, over worked and stressed out teacher is not going to give your child the best education. If your child has a different teacher every five minutes, it means that the school has a problem. Ask what they are doing to improve teacher retention.

Boycott the SATS and the baseline tests. Testing your child at 4 is not in her benefit, it is just so a computer can make predictions about what GCSEs she should get. Keep a close eye on the school before testing time; if all they do is stuff for the SATS, your child is missing out on her education. Complain.

Don’t get caught up in the hype. Teachers work hard, they are trained and can be trusted; they are the ones who have a relationship with your child and care about her. School leaders, politicians and newspapers only see your child as a statistic, so they don’t care. Politicians and reporters are not educators, remember, they have no qualifications or training and they don’t know what is best for your child.

Tory-Proof Your Kids’ Education – You don’t have to go private!

Marriage Rites

Weddings, like births and deaths, are one of the key times that LGBT people are made aware that we aren’t equal yet. Even if the Supreme Court of the United Sates rules in favour of same sex marriage, weddings will still be a point where families and societies have the most power to make their disapproval clear, to wound, shame and exclude.

When equal marriage was introduced in the UK, a survey suggested that 1 in 5 people would refuse to come to a same sex wedding. A guy on BBC news asked me about it, I laughed it off and said that we aren’t that scary, people don’t have to be afraid of us.

I was deliberately misunderstanding the point, there was no way I was going to go on national TV and add to the sense of power that straight people have. Refusing to come to our weddings is one of the many ways that families can punish their LGBT relatives and it turns what should be a joyous event into an emotional Russian roulette.

Of course, LGBT couples are not the only ones whose families refuse to attend their weddings. Couples who cross lines of colour, religion or nationality are also punished.

My sister’s wedding remains one of the best examples of what a wedding should be in my mind. Her friends travelled from all over the country (one couple cycled down from Scotland) and all of them contributed to the day; they gathered boughs and made garlands for the marquee, they helped to cook, they mowed fields and laid paths. Throughout the preceding days and on the day itself there was a strong sense that this union was much more than just two people, that it was a union of two families and the communities which surround them.

I wish R and I had had that.

Marriage Rites

When good people say bad things

Saying something racist or homophobic is a bit like taking your eyes off the road for a second when you are driving and clipping a pedestrian.

When you are driving there are no free passes. If you hurt someone, it doesn’t matter how careful you have always been or how slowly you usually drive. Nothing in the past changes the fact that right now, here, you have made a mistake. You didn’t mean to do it, but the damage is done. You can’t claim that you are in a relationship with a pedestrian so you know what hurts them and what doesn’t or that the pedestrian that you ran over last week didn’t mind.

Lots of drivers get angry at the pedestrians they hurt. They get angry that the pedestrian is in their way, or blame pedestrians for being so squishy. Some pedestrians pretend they haven’t been hurt just to avoid this kind of response. It’s even been known for drivers to run over a pedestrian they have clipped because they are so angry. Sometimes I think it is because anger is a much more comfortable emotion than shame. It is easier to blame the pedestrian for getting hurt than to admit that you did something wrong and you are horrified at yourself.

Fortunately, metaphorical car accidents are much more easily solved than real ones. If you can get over the shame and not let it move into anger, you can apologise. You can resolve to do better. You can think about the underlying attitudes that prompted the mistake and start laying down new thought processes.

Having to watch out for pedestrians and cyclists and motorbike riders is annoying when you are driving a nice sports car, but remember you are having a much more comfortable ride. Cars are great, you just have to be careful with them.

When good people say bad things