Irish Independent - Weekend Magazine - - Column -

We have all, now, been rec­om­mended to ex­am­ine our con­sciences and ask our­selves: “Am I a racist? Do I have sub­con­scious racist at­ti­tudes?” It’s quite prob­a­ble that if we are hon­est, we will some­times come up with the an­swer “yes”. Since Black Lives Mat­ter hit the head­lines, I’ve heard con­ver­sa­tions start­ing like this: “When I think back on some of the things my mother said… even some of the things I thought, or came out with…” We con­sider, ap­palled, some of the ca­sual at­ti­tudes of yes­ter­year, which are still in the sub­stra­tum of our con­scious­ness.

Black peo­ple can re­count a litany of in­sults they have suf­fered through the years and the decades, from foot­ball crowds mak­ing mon­key noises to peo­ple in­sis­tently ask­ing, “But where are you re­ally from?” when they are born and bred in these is­lands.

Bul­ly­ing, ver­bal cru­elty or taunt­ing to any­one is un­ac­cept­able be­hav­iour. It’s not an ex­cuse, but maybe an ex­pla­na­tion, to point out that mock­ery about “dif­fer­ence” has al­ways gone on, for one rea­son or an­other. My late pal Stan Gébler Davies grew up in a richly mixed-faith fam­ily — Catholic, Protes­tant and Jewish — and he claimed he was mocked, some­times beaten up, by Catholic kids for be­ing a “Prod”, by Protes­tant kids for be­ing a “Teague”, and by both for be­ing a “Yid”.

We live in more sen­si­tive times, and we are more alert to abuse, but it is still prob­a­bly true to say that most so­ci­eties are at some level racist. It is even claimed by an­thro­pol­o­gists that racism is in­born: ba­bies as young as six months al­ready have “racist” at­ti­tudes, in that they show dis­like for peo­ple or faces who seem strange or dif­fer­ent to them. The neo-Dar­win­ists claim that a de­fen­sive guile was a nec­es­sary el­e­ment of sur­vival, and that xeno­pho­bia — fear of for­eign­ers — helped the hu­man species to be wary of the un­known.

The cur­rent guru of anti-racism, Ibram X Kendi, au­thor of How to Be an An­tiracist, agrees with the idea that racism is so deep, it’s in­born. He claims that “we are all racist, sex­ist ho­mo­phobes”. But that’s all the more rea­son why we must strive to over­come these in­ner evils within us. It is not enough not to be racist: we must be ac­tively anti-racist.

It’s un­de­ni­able that racism is found in many so­ci­eties, al­though some­times in dif­fer­ent ways. My sis­ter had a won­der­ful ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship with a Ja­panese lawyer and he wanted to marry her. She went to Ja­pan on an ex­tended stay, and al­though she greatly ap­pre­ci­ated Ja­panese cul­ture, she con­cluded that she would never re­ally be ac­cepted as a Ja­panese wife: she would never fit in. The Ja­panese have a word for for­eign­ers — “gai-jin” — and it is not par­tic­u­larly com­pli­men­tary. It’s not just about skin colour, ei­ther: Korean peo­ple have long been treated as in­fe­rior. Ja­pan is chang­ing like ev­ery­where else, but many Ja­panese would still say that the sta­bil­ity of their so­ci­ety is based on its ho­mo­gene­ity.

Or con­sider Fin­land. Refugees from Viet­nam — known as the Viet­namese boat peo­ple — were seek­ing asy­lum in Europe up to the 1990s. I was in Hel­sinki when a Fin­nish politi­cian was asked if Fin­land would ac­cept her quo­tient of such refugees. “Yes,” he said, “if they look like Finns.” Fin­land is a pro­gres­sive coun­try, and its present prime min­is­ter, the young Sanna Marin, is un­likely to ex­press such views, but Fin­nish so­ci­ety was un­til re­cently quite proud of the unique­ness of eth­nic Fin­nish­ness, and proud that the Fin­nish lan­guage is so in­ac­ces­si­ble to for­eign­ers. Black so­ci­eties, too, can have their own dis­crim­i­na­tion. In French-speak­ing Sene­gal, more sta­tus has been be­stowed on Sene­galese who are “clair” — light-skinned. Within black cul­ture, this is known as “shadeism”: dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion be­tween shades of skin colour. Kendi calls this “col­orism” and de­plores the fact that, in Amer­ica, “Light” peo­ple of colour have more ad­van­tages than “Dark”. Pi­ti­fully, “Light” chil­dren are more quickly adopted than “Dark”.

Black peo­ple have been the most egre­gious vic­tims of racism, and it’s right that we should ex­am­ine our at­ti­tudes, and cor­rect them, wher­ever we iden­tify prej­u­dice. Some­times that’s con­fus­ing be­cause the goal­posts seem to have moved. For ex­am­ple, sto­ries like Un­cle Tom’s Cabin, which we once thought com­pas­sion­ate tales il­lu­mi­nat­ing the suf­fer­ing of Amer­i­can slaves, are now con­sid­ered pa­tro­n­is­ing and an en­abler of “white priv­i­lege”. Some of us were brought up to ven­er­ate Blessed (now Saint) Martin de Por­res, whose stat­uette nod­ded “thank you” each time we dropped a coin in a box for the ed­u­ca­tion of “the black ba­bies”. Martin was a good man who cared for the poor, started a hos­pi­tal for chil­dren and was kind to an­i­mals. But I won­der, now, if that might be con­sid­ered a con­de­scend­ing as­pect of white priv­i­lege?

We live in a more sen­si­tive age, but we are also more aware of walk­ing on eggshells.

Maybe bet­ter than top­pling stat­ues or go­ing on marches is an hon­est ques­tion to our­selves — if we have ever, even un­think­ingly, en­ter­tained per­sonal racism. And how we can change that.

‘We live in more sen­si­tive times, and we are more alert to abuse, but it is still prob­a­bly true to say that most so­ci­eties are at some level racist’

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