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. 

1 comment:

  1. Whatever your reason, let it be that sometimes a voice tells us to write, and for that I am grateful as I took an awful lot from this piece xxx