I am an Eastern European
current location: Home in Newcastle
current mood: sad
Words fail me. I have been staring alternately at my screen and keyboard for the last two hours in complete and utter paralysis, while inside I am raging. At one point I actually genuinely broke down in tears and great heaving sobs.
I have been watching BigotGate unfold - mostly on Twitter, a bit on LJ, a bit in mainstream media - since around lunchtime. Oh, I thought initially, finally someone's made a gaffe in this election campaign - just what the media have been wanting. Then I actually went and watched the clip - first the short version on the Channel 4 News website which only has the last 30 seconds of the PM's conversation with Gillian Duffy and his comments in the car; then I watched the full thing, which included Mrs. Duffy's comments on the flocking Eastern Europeans.
Then I watched the comments on Twitter. Some were mocking Gordon Brown for the slip-up. (
Simon and Julia Indelicate, I'm looking at you. Simon and Julia have both contacted me - see below - and for the record I never thought or meant to imply that they were racists. I really appreciate them getting in touch and publicly standing up to be counted on the anti-bigotry side of this whole mess.) vampwillow said "I don't believe what Gordon Brown says either. I am therefore also a #bigotedwoman by his standards. Good! #election2010". I started feeling ever so slightly nauseous. A part of me knew from the start that what Gillian Duffy had said was unacceptable, it was directed against me and people like me, and it just wasn't right. But reading my Twitter feed I thought, surely if it was that bad someone there would pick up on her actual comments, and not just go for Gordon Brown. Maybe I was being oversensitive.
I did eventually pluck up the courage to tweet a shy, self-deprecating "Flocking eastern European here. Just sayin'." No reaction. Sod it, I thought, maybe I am just overreacting. Comments about immigration are inevitable, especially in an election campaign, someone will always make them. Just grow a thicker skin, Mili.
I follow about 90 mostly left-wing fluffy liberal people on Twitter and have another 60-odd LJ friends. Given overlaps, people I don't know terribly well, inactive accounts, minor celebrities, and people in foreign lands, there are maybe 50 people there whom I could legitimately expect to say something in defence of us flocking Eastern Europeans. It took six hours for one person to step forward and say that yes, Gillian Duffy was a bigoted woman and Gordon Brown has been right to call her that. One person. Out of 50. In six hours. That person has my heartfelt gratitude. (I am aware that I have named and shamed above, and now I'm not giving credit by name, but it was a locked post and they're a public figure. If the person in question would like me to identify them, I very happily will.)
At that point I completely lost it. I'm not sure I can explain how this whole sordid affair makes me feel, but let me try.
Anger. Anger at Gillian Duffy, anger at all the people who weren't willing to stand up to her.
Shame. Shame at the realisation that I had only allowed myself to feel this anger after I had been "given permission" by the comment from the native British person who stood up for me. Blaming myself for not standing up for myself earlier, more forcefully.
A desperate need to justify myself. I pay higher-rate income tax. I contribute to the UK economy, I contribute to UK society. I probably pay into the tax system more than I get back out of it. Extending that justification to other immigrants - parts of the UK economy probably would collapse without immigrant labour; I wonder how much immigrants contribute in total to the economy; we all come here to work, and we work damn hard. A range of other economic arguments, all around contribution, all around this incredibly Tory notion of my money being the only thing that entitles me to anything like decent treatment from this society.
More anger. This time at being disempowered and disenfranchised; at being a cheap target for political point scoring because Gillian Duffy and the 60 million people like her have a vote, and I and the couple of hundred thousand people like me don't, and therefore she will always get a grovelling apology from the Prime Minister, and we won't.
A desperate attempt to reclaim power, to find some leverage: I wonder if I can stop paying taxes, if I can get some sort of campaign going for all immigrants to stop paying taxes - I bet they'd notice us then. Oh, I wonder if I can challenge Gillian Duffy to take the citizenship test.
The slow, sad realisation that the political culture in the UK is such that no politician has any choice but to grovel to the bigots. Because standing up and explaining to them instead that immigrants make a massive contribution to the economy, let alone that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of nationality, citizenship or contribution, would be political suicide.
And finally a profound sense of isolation, hurt, and being alone. Tears and huge heaving sobs. I've not cried like that in about five years.
That's how Gillian Duffy has made me feel today. What did I ever do to her?
I am writing this because realistically it's the only way that I can get any leverage on the situation without landing myself in jail. I'm also writing this because you need to know. Yes, you. All of you with the British passports and the huge sense of entitlement. Regardless of whether you support the Tories or LibDems or Labour or any of the other parties - none of you covered yourselves in glory today, bar one single person. And maybe making a personal connection with an immigrant, understanding how they feel, and how they see the world will help you stand up and act like a decent human being next time this happens.
So here's what I want you to do. I can guarantee you that you know an immigrant: they might be a close friend, they might be the girl who makes your decaf skinny latte in the coffee shop, they might be a colleague. I want you to go up to that person and ask them what it's like being an immigrant in the UK. Even if you think you know them really well already, you probably have never thought or talked to them about these things. How does it feel to be so far away from home? To leave your life behind and start again from scratch? To be in the middle of a general election where you have no voice? Why did they come here? What do and don't they like about Britain? What's it like where they come from? Be nice and polite, approach them carefully, explain that you are trying to educate yourself, to understand and to become a better person. Listen. Don't judge. Maybe you'll learn something.