Sunday, 2 March 2014

On Irishness, white privilege, and Being Different.

I have thought about writing a post on this for a while. A long time, actually, but never knew how to approach it. I didn't know how to make sense of the mess of thoughts and feelings in my head, never mind how to articulate them. But then I read an incredible piece by a wonderful woman I know that was verbalising the essence of what I've been trying to verbalise for months. As it obviously related directly to her life experience it was different, but the idea behind it was the same. So I'm going to get out what I've been wanting to get out for a long time.

When I was little, I was so ashamed to be Irish. Mostly, my voice. My voice and my name. My voice and my accent and the accents of anyone from Northern Ireland on television, on the radio. It sounded so horrible. I spent all of my time playing games where I would adopt English or American accents, and I wouldn't have to be me, I was able to be someone else. On television, no one had Irish accents. The only time I heard them was on the news. Everyone else spoke so well, so beautifully, their voices didn't send pangs of shame and embarrassment up my spine. I longed for a name that people wouldn't ever have to ask how to pronounce, for a name that wouldn't make it so clear that I was Irish and therefore Different. I planned to change my name once I was old enough to. For my confirmation, I took the name Lucy, because I liked it and it was normal and no one ever had to ask how to pronounce Lucy. I thought that once I went to university, I might tell people my name was Lucy and finally carve out the identity I had always wanted for myself. 

I had a stutter as a child, and I still have it now. That probably didn't help much. I sang in school and in choirs, because when you sang you didn't stutter, and you could hide your accent enough to make it sound like you were English. Like you had a Nice Voice. The kind that people would enjoy listening to. You could hide a stutter and an Irish accent when you sang. 

Fast forward fifteen years. I started getting involved with NUS and visiting England relatively regularly. At one of my first conferences, we all had name badges, and a lot of people didn't know how to pronounce my name. When they asked, I told them. And that was usually the end of it. But then a woman told me that that wasn't how my name was pronounced. She laughed, like it was obvious to everyone but me. I told her that it was Irish, it was a different language. The language didn't operate by the same rules that English did. That was the reason it was pronounced the way it was. But she refused to accept it, and kept telling me I was wrong. That has stuck with me for a year, and it is something I often think about. I have never told the woman involved how hurtful it was. I was too scared to. But I suddenly became aware of how much I stuck out, the minute I opened my mouth. The Irish jokes came thick and fast throughout the conference. I smiled, but inside I wanted to cry. 

I got further involved with NUS, and was flying out to meetings or conferences every few weeks. I became so much more aware, again, of how different I was. I felt like I was six years old again. People constantly told me to slow down. People made jokes about Irish stereotypes and the food that we ate and how much alcohol we drank and thought it was the most original, hilarious thing ever. I smiled weakly, rarely having the courage to tell them to fuck off. But I found it hurtful and patronising and the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. 

I did not speak about this with anyone for a long time. I did not know how to approach it. It wasn't racism, and it wasn't xenophobia. It was something inbetween. 

Let it be clear, I have white privilege. I am Very Very White. I carry with me every single privilege that comes with having white skin. I am not stopped and searched because I am white. Shop attendants do not follow me around thinking I might steal something. There are a magnitude of hair and beauty products in shops that are tailored to my skin tone and my hair. 107 of the 108 politicians sitting in Stormont reflect my skin colour. Northern Ireland is full of white people being represented on every possible platform, I see people who look like me on television and in plays and when I walk down the street. I have white privilege. I will be moving to England in a few months, and even there I will be the Good Kind of immigrant. Because I am white and educated and middle class and can pass for being heterosexual and don't have visible disabilities and have been socialised with many British cultural norms. I will blend in easily, because I look like everyone else and I am not Different. I will blend in easier than those from the south of Ireland, because of the magical world of borders and partition and jurisdictions. People will tell me that I am British, that I am Like Them, and will not accept it when I tell them I am not. 

Eventually, I pluck up the courage to talk about this with a few excellent women I know. Who gave me the courage to announce to my committee at the training event that I was at that I was sick of jokes and comments and laughter and piss-taking of the fact I am Irish, and didn't want it anymore. And so I did, and some friends apologised for their part in it. It helped.

I have tried to be proud. I have tried to be proud of my culture and my heritage, and I am. I am thankful both my forename and surname reflect my background, even though inevitably it shows that it is clear I am a Catholic, went to Catholic schools, and probably define as an Irish nationalist. I am angry at what has happened to my ancestors at the hands of the British state. I am sick of having to defend this anger to people who think that because they were not directly involved, I should be polite and respectful to them while they disrespect and desecrate the memory of my family and the people who fought in defence of my country, labelling them as scumbag terrorists who deserve everything they got. I am Irish and I am working on trying to stop letting the rest of the world make me ashamed to be so. 

I don't quite know the point of this post, or what I am hoping to get out of it. It is the first time I have written about this, and the first time I will ever open up to a relatively large audience about this aspect of my identity and its influence on my life. It feels strange. 

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Young Labour National Conference

Below is a copy of the email I sent to every member of the Young Labour Committee. I pretty much talk about what went wrong last weekend at the conference, and figured rather than writing a separate post, it would be just as easy to post a copy of the email for anyone who was interested in finding out what problems I had with it. TW for discussion of panic attacks & mental health.

Hi all,
My name is Aisling Gallagher, and last weekend I was one of the Northern Ireland CLP delegates to the Young Labour Conference. It was my first conference, and the first conference of the other delegates from my CLP. I'd mentioned to a few committee members that I was planning to email you all to talk about how last weekend went, and I thought I should email the entire committee rather than just a few people. I'd rather have the issues I'm bringing up brought up to everyone so it's as open and transparent as possible. 
No one needs me to tell them that there were a lot of problems with the way last weekend went. I think it's easiest/most accessible if I set it all out in a list rather than a massive block of text.
1. Access in the venue. The main room had chairs packed quite closely together, and as the weekend went on the room got progressively more inaccessible, with stuff lying around and chairs moved around, particularly for anyone who might need to use mobility equipment to help them get around. As Simon mentioned in one of the caucuses, it was also an incredibly difficult room to chair in. 
2. Arrangements before the conference. Not being told where the venue was or being sent the agenda far enough in advance is incredibly bad for access (anxiety issues, people who need to plan far in advance schedules, etc.), and where possible should be sent out at least a fortnight before the conference. 
3. As a general rule it's a good idea to have a quick ten minutes on accessibility at the start of a conference. I got involved in YL through being involved with NUS, and it's done at the beginning of every NUS event. It sets out clearly what accessibility is (because i don't expect everyone to come to a conference knowing liberation inside out and I'm sure none of you do, either), what behaviours are and are not acceptable, and provides a point of contact and a safeguarding number in case anyone needs it (for instance; no whooping, no clapping while someone is speaking, that kind of thing- understandably members can be confused over this because at Labour Conference we're encouraged to clap while people speak, at NUS events we only clap once people are finished speaking, and at other groups and meetings sometimes the only clapping done is the sign language gesture for it, so it's good to have a general rule and stick to it). 
It means that everyone in the room is at least on the same page to some degree when it comes to how to conduct themselves at the conference. It doesn't solve every problem but it is generally a good thing to programme in. It also usually informs people where the safe space room is. The fact there was no safe space room and no safe guarding number is nothing short of a disgrace. I don't know who's to blame for it, but there was a safe space room at Labour Students (as far as I'm aware?), and so the excuse that I've heard ('there wasn't an available room for it') really doesn't stand up to much. I sincerely hope this won't be repeated at any future YL event, and unfortunately what happened last weekend showed how necessary these things are to have in place for every single event.
4. *That* debate. Since conference I've spoken to more people and found out more about the way Young Labour operates. I still can't really get my head around the fact that there isn't a constitution or a set of standing orders. This was talked about in a caucus, and whilst it seems whoever were the main organisers wanted the atmosphere to be a little more relaxed and informal seeing as there weren't elections (bar women's officer), this entirely backfired. You will never have an accessible debate if there are no rules governing how the debate is conducted
At the time I didn't know there were no standing orders, and so my anxiety/panic attack was probably brought on by the fact I just thought people were being purposely obtuse, but now I know it wasn't as simple as that. I'm not defending the actions of people (on all sides of the debate, not that it matters), but I do have some sympathy with the view that they felt there was no option but to heckle because they weren't being listened to, felt completely powerless, and the chair had complete power over how the debate was conducted. I don't know what people think about this, but I (and many others I spoke to at the conference, particularly first time delegates) think it is crucial YL write up some standing orders for how debates are conducted. It isn't an unreasonable request, and I still don't understand how YL has managed to get by for so long without any. There are plenty of hacks, both within and outside the committee, who I'm sure would be more than willing to help draw up a draft standing orders document. 
That space on Saturday was the most toxic environment I have ever been in, caused the first panic attack I'd had in months, and many disabled people including myself then had to run and hide in disabled bathrooms afterwards because there wasn't a safe space room. I left conference soon after, and didn't come back until the next day. The only reason I came back was because I wanted to go to disabled members' caucus, and my CLP had spent a considerable amount of money sending me over, but I do know of many people who left and didn't come back. I'm only sending this email now because I've been almost bedbound all week, in all likelihood as the effect the weekend has taken on my mental health. I don't believe the debate would've gotten as out of hand as it did if there were rules governing how it was to be conducted, with proper processes in place (like having the ability to challenge the chair, or propose a motion to vote in secret ballot or whatever). 
I don't believe this was the intention of anyone on the committee or anyone who organised it all, but this is the reality that these situations bring. Putting 200 Labour Party members into a room and asking them to debate a contentious topic with no rules governing how it's to be done is a recipe for disaster. Access isn't a buzzword and it isn't something I throw about lightly. I don't care how you voted and I don't care if you're a Blairite or a Bennite or you're a trot or a closet Tory; this isn't about the topic of the debate or factionalism or any of that bullshit. I haven't been involved for very long and I'm on no 'side'. But I do believe our political spaces must be as accessible as possible if they are to be inclusive, and it would worry me if the committee did not share this belief.  
5. The factional in-fighting and arguing all over the internet after the aforementioned debate didn't help either, but I also know it's not something anyone can individually tackle. But I was really disappointed to see so many people, on both sides and of all political persuasions, throwing about access as a political tool and/or as a piss-take of its importance. Ditto people speaking over/ignoring women when they were chairing, or people generally just disrespecting them in a way that definitely would not have happened if they were men. Again, not anything you can do, but if people could take this back to their relevant "camps" that would be appreciated. Because, unsurprisingly, I know they won't listen to me if I tell them this because I am just some mouthy Irish woman with a lot to say (any time I tried to bring up anything about access or anything even remotely related, it was largely ignored). If men want to be good allies to feminism, never mind wanting to call yourself feminists, then please get your houses in order. 
6. I also can't get my head around the fact out of an entire weekend there were only two hours dedicated to debating policy. The requirement of ten signatories to submit a motion isn't great either, but it isn't anywhere near as bad as the fact you can only put your name to one motion. I understand it stops factionalising as much, but it makes it significantly harder for people in less well known areas or those who don't have connections to submit policy. 
7. No one has really taken responsibility for the agenda, either. Every committee member I've spoken to so far has said they didn't see it before it was published. That doesn't seem to make sense either. It'd be good to know who was responsible for setting out the agenda, because there were a number of problems with it and I would like to have a commitment that there will be an effort to ensure this doesn't happen again.  
This email is long, and I'm not really sorry, because all of these things need to be said, and I'm sure a lot of people who feel the same are very burnt out now and so probably haven't gotten round to emailing in feedback on how it went. On a positive note, the fact every chair always went out of their way to see if women wanted to speak in plenary sessions/debates/etc was very very welcome, and I definitely haven't seen it done to the extent it was done at the weekend before. 
Feel free to get back to me individually or however you wish to if you want to talk about this further, with the understanding that it might take me a while to respond because I'm dealing with bad health at the minute along with NUS conference season and a dissertation. At times during the weekend I swore to myself that I wasn't going to come back or get involved again, so I'm sending this because I do believe YL can and should be doing better, and I want to help make sure this happens, particularly because I'll be moving to England in a few months and want to take a more active role in the party. But we need to get our shit together if we want people to want​ to come back and get involved.