Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Bigots and Imigrants and Reporters, Oh My!

We're all up to our eyeballs in general election campaigning here and as usual the printed and televised media in the UK has charged head first into its 'duty' to 'guide' us plebs through the storm.
 This is a general election of firsts; we have the first televised leaders debates (with the independent Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly notoriously under-represented) and the first general election held when the 'new media' of the internet being utilised with facebook, blogs and twitter making all election news almost instantaneous.
So when Gordon Brown was caught with his microphone still on after an encounter with pensioner and some-time Labour voter Gillian Duffy, his resulting gaff was picked up by press and public alike almost instantly. I watched the video footage of Brown's conversation with Duffy in full, followed by the subtitled footage of Brown's car driving away while he still had his mic on saying that it was 'a disaster' that he got stuck talking to Duffy in front of the cameras. He goes on to say that she was a 'bigoted woman' as way of explanation. I was disappointed, if not surprised when I watched the footage. Having long ago learned to make up my own mind before seeing the media spin on a story, I watched it knowing that certain newspapers and broadcasting networks would be outraged at Brown speaking ill of a UK citizen at the expense of 'scrounging imigrants', but I was horrified to discover that it was Gordon Brown who was being blasted for his comment almost universally. I know I'm a pretty liberal person and that my reaction to things is often very different to our relativly conservative (with small c) media, but I was astonished to find so much jumping on the slightly racist, definitely xenophobic, bandwagon.
Milena Popova, writer for The Guardian discussed her anger at the incident and the way it was portrayed by the media in an article online. She eloquently describes what it is that I find so repugnant about Gillian Duffy's throw away comment on Eastern European immigrants, with the added dimension of what it feels like to be one of the Eastern European immigrants Duffy is so incensed about. At the end of her article, Popova charges us UK citizens to speak to an immigrant we know, whether they are a good friend or the girl who serves us coffee in the morning, and ask them about their life as an immigrant to Britain. I had two very good friends to choose from for this, both of whom would have very different experiences from the other. Neither of them are from eastern Europe, so that wasn't a factor. I chose Rachel, mainly because she emailed me just after I read the article and she reads my blog, so understood the ins and outs of my impromptu interview.
It did occur to me that I'd never explicitly asked her about living in a different country to the one where she grew up, although we have had conversations which meant us talking about family and where we lived before we moved to the north east of Scotland. So here's my impromptu interview with her, based on the questions from Popova's article, and Gordon Brown's 'bigot' comment and the subsequent media storm.
Kar: How does it feel to be so far away from home?

Rachel: Because I moved to Britain in my early 30s, the experience has been quite different for me than it would have been for younger overseas students. I had already spent nearly ten years living far away from my family (I moved to Denver after University, which is a 20 hour drive away from my family in Louisiana). So, while it is a bit disappointing at times – such as when I miss family celebrations like my nephew’s 21 birthday party, and I can’t be there to help with my aging father – it isn’t a daily struggle of homesickness as it may have been if I were younger.

The other problem of living so far away from the US is that when I am home, I feel like I’m rushed off my feet. I am trying to see all of my family and all of my friends who still live in Louisiana. Plus, a lot of my friends live all over the US, so I don’t necessarily get to see them when I go home. But things are different than maybe fifteen years ago. With email and facebook, I probably keep in touch with friends and family in the States more than I would if I were there.

With all this said, Scotland is now my home. So, the question ‘How does it feel to be so far away from home?’ is not really applicable, because I am home.

Kar: What's it like being in the middle of a general election you have no say on, particularly since you work in/with press people who are very excited about it all?

Rachel: I am a politically minded person, so I can’t help but be aware of what is going on. Plus, I think, as a ‘foreigner’, I am more acute of how politics can affect me. I get terribly annoyed at people who say ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, all politicians are the same’ or ‘It doesn’t really affect me.’ (This is annoys me in any culture, not just Britain.) What a government does can and will change a person’s life, even if it’s in the long term. Yet, while the policies of the next government do, and will, affect my life, I cannot vote. Therefore, I try to not to get too obsessed. If I find myself yelling at the telly during a debate, I’ll just turn it off. It may affect me, but I can’t make a change through voting. So, I just try to take a laissez-faire attitude with it.

Kar: Why did you move to Scotland?

Rachel: I came here for to do my MLitt in Creative Writing. I had been wanting to go back to Uni for sometime, and I had been thinking about immigrating for a while. So, since an MLitt is only a year, I used it as a trial for postgraduate education and living in the UK. That year went fairly well (despite the usual getting used to a new country foibles and having no money due to being a student) so I stayed.

A little note is that I seriously considered moving to France. I had been studying the language for some time at that point, and was/am quite the francophone. But the fear of doing a postgraduate degree in another language scared me.

Kar: What do and don't you like about Britain?

Rachel: What I don’t like about Britain: I think the British can be far too repressed. There is a constant social fear amongst the British of being awkward, wrong, too loud, too confident, too emotional, or too happy. Therefore, the culture represses the showing of positive emotions (unless drunk, then the Brits are aloud to express positive emotion). I would love to see British people realize how lucky they are. This is a wonderful country, full of fabulous people and beautiful things. Embrace it, enjoy it, and be proud and happy about it.

What do I like about Britain: I love the countryside. I love that it’s small, and you’re never really too far from the sea or a green field. I like that there are still town centres. I love that green grocers, butchers and fish mongers still exist. I love, love, love British television. (The real telly – comedy, drama, documentaries – not reality shows.) And British people are a hard group, they don’t let you into their circles very easily, but once you’re in they are some of the friendliest people in the world.

Kar: What's it like where you come from?

Rachel: I was raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and lived there until I was 23. It’s hot, humid, full of bugs the size of your hand, it’s greener than you can imagine, and it when it rains it’s like a bucked of water has been dumped on your head. The people are very friendly, if not very strange. Louisiana reminds me a lot of Scotland: a very poor place, with a long history of subjugation. Unlike Scotland, it is a society rooted in varying cultures, ethnicities, races and beliefs, and because of this it’s a place that’s a strange mixture of so many things. It’s weird and also very welcoming.

But I also spent much of my adult life in Denver – a place very different to Louisiana. It’s got a strong Hispanic culture, and a huge emphasis on the outdoors. It’s a very healthy place, where everyone seems to be outside skiing, hiking, biking, etc. It’s at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and an incredibly beautiful city: clean, safe, and takes huge pride in the arts and theatre community. This is where I learned to be ‘involved’ in the arts, as there are flourishing theatre (you could literally see a different play every day for a year), arts (on the first Friday of every month a free bus takes people around the city to the different art galleries) and music (the summer is packed with music festivals) communities. In Denver, there is always something to do.

Kar: So what about 'bigotgate'? Did you hear about it? What did you think about the media's reaction to it?

Rachel: Of course I’ve heard about it. She was being a bigot, and being a pensioner does not allow someone to be xenophobic. What makes me the most angry, is not necessarily the media reaction or the situation, but the resurgence of bigotry that has resurfaced due to the scandal. Regularly, people will oddly complain to me about ‘those foreigners’. Reminding them that I am one of ‘those foreigners’, I am told that ‘there are different levels of immigrants’, and that I am a ‘good immigrant’. This to me is as insulting as being completely anti-immigration. What this is saying is that ‘if you are white and speak English as a first language, it’s okay to live here. If you are easily spotted in a crowd of Brits, fuck off home.’

Immediately after ‘bigotgate’ the Scottish Sun and the Scottish Mail used this as a chance to spread xenophobic propaganda by publishing statistics on the numbers of immigrants entering Scotland. What it didn’t state was that despite the rise in immigrant numbers, Scotland still has a negative population growth, its local people have a higher mortality rate than its immigrant population, its local people have a higher teenage pregnancy rate as well as produce more children than its immigrant population, and that those in the figures are legal immigrants. These Sun and Mail articles insinuated that the immigrant population was over running the local population, which simply is not true. It also did not take into account the number of, especially Eastern European, immigrants who only live in Britain for a few years before returning home. It did not take into account the millions of pounds immigrants bring into the country through University fees, business they set up, and purchases and spending. It also does not take into account the hundreds of thousands of Scottish people who leave for England, and the hundreds of thousands of British people who move abroad every year.

What this article did do is it rallied up bigoted feelings in certain people I know. It made them complain to me about ‘those foreigners’, and they ranted about ‘Broken Britain’ and ‘that OAP woman wasn’t a bigot.’

Perhaps, it’s easy for me. Not only am I one of ‘those foreigners’, I was raised in a place where racism, of any kind, was dangerous. It spread hatred and historically led to murder, injustice and a lack of basic human rights. I was also raised in an ethnically diverse part of the world. However, what Britains must remember is that the world is no longer filled with isolated nations. People move across the planet; we are a nomadic species, and the world has become mobile. So instead of fearing the inevitable change, embrace the fact that to meet an Indian you don’t have to travel to Mumbai, you just need to talk to your neighbour. Or to eat Polish food you don’t need to fly to Warsaw, you can just take a trip up the Perth Road. Or to learn Chinese you just need to take a class around the corner. For centuries the United Kingdom traveled the globe, settling (and often subjugating) foreign lands. Now those foreign lands have come to the UK. I think that’s brilliant and beautiful, and I think it is an excitingly good future for the UK.

Many thanks to @ninadouglas for tweeting the Guardian article.

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