The complicated racial position of the Irish

Well well, Gerry Adams has us all in a tizz this week, doesn’t he? Did he use the N-word ironically? Does it matter? Is it better or worse than when Enda Kenny did it for a joke and then tried to shush it up?  Who should be offended? And who shouldn’t?

The national conversation on racism, if there is one, in Ireland, is always complicated by the fact that we have a certain sympathy with the experience of being racialised as inferior. That sympathy has shown itself in a wide variety of responses including friendship, welcome, support, charity, aid, patronage, patronising behaviours and even denunciation of the African-American experience as no worse than that of the Irish (see the ‘Irish slave’ myth). Along that continuum there are many representations of the ‘white man’s burden’, and many misrepresentations of ‘race’ and racism, even within genuine heartfelt efforts to address the problem of global racisms and the legacy of colonialism.

Our understanding of racism and our desire to rid the world of it does not necessarily, however, preclude us acting in a racialising way (i.e. reacting based on assumed racial identity).  That might be acting out of kindness (offering directions to someone who looks foreign and lost ? guilty.) or awkwardness (drawing attention to someone’s racialised identity) or sense of duty (speaking up for someone else), or it might, on the other hand, be about simple discrimination (assuming or implying someone is inferior because of their racialised identity), or unkindness (using racial epithets to demean someone). All of these, regardless of intent, can involve racialising behaviour if we act with or from a position of white privilege. We get so caught up in assigning what is ‘racist’ and what is not, that it is easy to forget that benevolent racism exists too, and can be highly damaging. Racialising behaviour, however it is intended or meant, is tied up with systems of privilege.

Being aware of White privilege is important. As Irish people today (if you’re white, and sometimes if you’re not), we benefit from White privilege in a multitude of ways – in our membership of the EU, easy travel and visas worldwide (relative to other countries), easy acceptance in many countries, recognition of our national traits as being (on the whole) positive, and our country being seen as somewhere ‘nice’ and worth visiting. Regardless of our historical experience of being positioned as white-not-White, we now benefit vastly, as a nation and as individuals, from White privilege. (Of course, not everybody who is white and Irish benefits from that privilege, as Irish Travellers know well, unless they deny their Traveller identity and assimilate into the settled population).

White privilege is often used to excuse racist behaviours. “If Black people can do it, why can’t I?”, “Black people are just as racist against Whites”…. and so on. There are some great recent articles (for general audience) about this kind of behaviour here and here.  White privilege is used to defend ourselves against accusations of racism when we feel that we personally have been injured by the accusation. We are unable to remove ourselves from the system of White oppression which we benefit from. (Guilty: in my early days of activism, I  felt hurt at being excluded from a meeting of Black activist friends – until I was gently reminded by a colleague that I was a benefactor of all the systems that oppressed my colleagues, and it was not a problem to be excluded now and then!) White privilege makes it uncomfortable for us to be faced with the reality of the oppression we benefit from. If we are to be real allies to racialised groups, we have to be able to make the space to hear about that oppression, and disregard our own discomfort, and we have to ensure that we do not silence, diminish or deny the experiences and perspectives of racialised groups.

Arkansas 57 Ardoyne 01 It’s Black and White! Mural at Ardoyne Road.

So when Gerry says he’s not a racist, okay. There are good reasons to give him the benefit of the doubt (hear me out). He has more anti-racist credentials than most politicians the length and breadth of Ireland, but, on the the other hand, is embedded in a deeply sectarian politics. Sectarianism, by the way, is considered by many scholars to be a form of (not the same as) racism. So it is unsurprising that a politician who spends much of his time talking about the ‘Other’ side, and whose Northern supporters have been drawing strength from the US Civil Rights movement for decades would draw a crude comparison between Catholics in NI and African American slaves. In a political system that routinely essentialises cultural identities and discriminates for and against both ‘sides’, denying the possiblity of middle ground for integration and reconciliation, there is little room for subtlety.

What’s interesting is Gerry’s explanation that he doesn’t really see himself as White. Does he not benefit from Whiteness when he travels, when he speaks, when he acts? Is his position as an Irish Catholic in Northern Ireland (either in the past or today) so removed from the White experience elsewhere as to decentre his idea of what it is to feel White?  There are ways to understand both his White privilege and his sense of dissonance with Whiteness.

Nonetheless, it is right to call him out for his justifications as much as his original use of the N-word.  His explanation that his use of the word was ironic is no excuse. His comment that “If anyone should be offended, it should be the people of Ballymurphy” denies any right to be offended to people racialised as Black (a routine use of White privilege), and, contrary to the explanation which implies the N-word isn’t that bad, reminds us of how offensive the term really is.  Engaging with the discomfort that people racialised as Black feel when they see this kind of comment coming from a supposed ally is important. Nothing he has offered up in apology detracts from the awfulness of the term he used or the inappropriateness of the comparison. Nothing could. Gerry’s challenge is to make sure his anti-racist work outweighs this serious error of judgement.

There is no test to see who is racist. There is plenty of evidence of the harms that racisms do, and no excuse in ignorance. There is, importantly, a challenge to ourselves to remain vigilant on our ab/use of White privilege, particularly when we are invested heavily in our Irish identity as genuine, friendly, sympathetic, and supportive, and, most importantly, as fighters for civil rights everywhere. If there’s a lesson in this for Gerry and the rest of us who would like to call ourselves ‘not racist’, let that be it.


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