When I started teaching race and racism about twenty years ago, students’ response was brutal: ‘how can you, a foreigner, say that Ireland is racist? We are a friendly, welcoming people. And anyway, Irish people were victimised by the British – how can they possibly be racist?’ And my favourite: ‘There was no racism in Ireland until “these people” came’ – as if immigrants carry racism powder in their luggage.
It was the ‘as a foreigner’ bit that puzzled me. I was teaching a course that my colleague and co-author Robbie McVeigh had taught before me but there was no objection to him – a Northern Protestant – as there was to me, despite my personal experiences of antisemitism in ‘friendly’ Ireland. Perhaps I was telling it too bluntly. My first students in Trinity were teachers – I shudder to remember how opposed they were to accepting that Ireland is racist, wondering how they were going to deal with black Irish, Traveller, ‘foreign’ children? I do hope this has changed since.
And the denial continues. The ‘I am not a racist but…’ brigade keeps claiming that ‘it is not really’ racism; that it’s ignorance, personal prejudice, ‘bad apples’; that Irish immigration, asylum, direct provision and deportation policies are not ‘really’ racist’ – after all, don’t ‘we’ have the right to determine how many immigrants we let in?
But then in November 2013 you read about the treatment of members of ‘Call to Action Mixed Race Irish’ in state care in the 1950s and 1960s. As Evo Brennan says: ‘you weren’t held because of your colour. When you are held the carers wear gloves because you are contamination. You are the colour of excrement…’ She was told ‘your mother is a whore, your father’s a savage, you’re treated as a robot, as an object, as a monkey.’ Many of these mixed race people had fled to England where they could get lost in the crowd, yet they were and still are part of Ireland’s history, long before ‘these people came’.
And also in November, as the Al-Minnah Foods outlet in Tallaght was ransacked, the raiders also daubed racist graffiti: ‘Pakis out’, and ‘Niggers out’ on the white walls of the shop. And a couple of months earlier, racist posters were placed on the offices of the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) in St. Andrew’s Street Dublin while anti-Semitic graffiti was sprayed on the former Anglo building on North Wall Quay and a home in Dublin was also scrawled with racist graffiti. Racism, it seems, always alive and well, was hidden for a while during the ‘politically correct’ Celtic Tiger days when ‘interculturalism’ was the buzz word. But the recession has removed the pretence: we are interculturalist no more, integration is no longer the name of the game.
And what about me? I continue to go on about racism, sometimes feeling like a broken record. Students no longer castigate me – an old Cassandra whose prophecies seem to always come true. But the vilification has instead gone viral in YouTube videos and other online postings, chiding me for supporting immigrants and opposing racism in Ireland, while ‘in my own country’ anti-Palestinian and anti-African policies continue apace (as if I don’t harp about these too). Every time one of these appear I swallow hard, my skin long thickened by the racist slurs. But when I think about Mohammed Djellal of Al-Minnah Foods, about deportable asylum seekers languishing in direct provision holding camps, and about Evon Brennan nursing her painful memories of ‘friendly’ Ireland, I have no choice but to carry on.