Rights vs Racism

With the much-discussed undercurrent of racism said to be inflicting Irish culture, Natalie Voorheis investigates the matter

Racism has been proven time and time again to be inherently ingrained in the Irish psyche. Our decision to join the European Union and the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger naturally brought with it an influx of immigrants. At its height, the country took in over 10,000 immigrants a year – not counting those from other European Union countries. Now the destabilisation of our economy has brought destabilisation to the lives of immigrants, while the Irish have become less tolerant and wary to extend the hand of friendship.

Evidence of racism, not simply in the form of direct violence, can be seen everywhere in Ireland. One UCD student, who did not wish to be identified, recalls how in her south Dublin school, racist phrases and slurs were commonplace among classmates on a regular basis while joking around with friends. These phrases were never corrected by anyone and were considered normal and funny.

Even members of our government have, on many occasions, been found to consider racist comments to be perfectly acceptable. For example, in January 2006 when Seanad leader Mary O’Rourke thanked her campaign helpers, describing them as having worked “like blacks”.

The European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey published in December 2009 highlighted the problem with discrimination amongst people of power in Ireland. The report highlighted the role of Gardaí in the continuation and validation of a racist mindset. It also found that sub-Saharan Africans are twice as likely to be subjected to police stops than other members of the general public.

What is most disturbing about the Irish psyche with regard to racism is the quick way Irish nationals, and in particular members of our government, sweep the matter aside and fail to engage with it.

Our lax attitudes towards racism were exemplified in the government’s statements regarding the murder of a 15-year-old Nigerian boy, Toyosi Shittabey, who was stabbed to death at Tyrrelstown in April of this year. Directly after Shittabey’s murder, the official response of government and church was that although the murder had a racially motivated element, this was not representative of Ireland’s climate regarding race in general. Clearly these remarks demonstrate the wishful thinking of a government in denial about the reality of its people.

Despite this undeniable and prevalent negativity, there is a vision held by many championing organisations that support an intercultural Ireland. Since July 1997, the Sport Against Racism Ireland organisation (or SARI as it is usually termed) has been championing the advancement of social inclusion and tackling the growth of racially motivated hatred within Irish communities through the inclusive appeal of sport at all levels.

The success of SARI’s work becomes apparent when they bring communities that are traditionally riddled by division and intolerance together. This is achieved through sport and it operates on a grassroots level, bringing more than 50,000 people together since its conception and encouraging them to play Gaelic football, tennis, soccer, boxing, cricket, basketball and other sports.

In achieving its lofty ambitions, the organisation facilitates the creation of friendships that last, as they are based on positivity, respect and trust. SARI’s work with communities had been based on the desire to share commonalities and value difference.

In SARI’s strategy plan document encompassing 2008-2010, it is stressed that integration is not something that will naturally happen by itself, but is something that we all have a fundamental obligation and responsibility to facilitate and work towards. A discussion highlighting the perils of racism is something that should be on the agenda of every social and cultural body of Ireland including schools, churches, the media and the government.

SARI are not, however, the only beacons of hope for this country. Despite the rain cloud of economic depression over recent times and the negative effect this has had on the relationship between nationals and non-nationals regarding the job market, there have been movements to challenge this tension and create social inclusion. Recently, the Dublin City Council Office for Integration and the Institute for Minority Entrepreneurship DIT hosted a seminar as part of Dublin City Council’s Innovation Dublin Week entitled ‘The Immigrant Community as a Source of Entrepreneurship and Innovation’.

The seminar’s aim was to examine opportunities to release the full economic potential of the immigrant community in Ireland and their contribution to Ireland’s economic recovery based on research suggesting that throughout our country’s history, ethnic and immigrant entrepreneurs have proven to be a source of economic growth. This would constitute a refreshing approach providing a stark contrast to the pathetic moaning of many of the disillusioned Irish, who all too often turn to blame the foreign communities within Ireland as the source of all economic hardships.

Carl Lusby, UCD’s International and Medicine Student Advisor from the International Office deals with many of the concerns of the large number of international students who come to UCD each year. The University Observer spoke to Lusby with regard to incidents of racism on campus.

Lusby is very positive in her response, expressing her belief that within the educated environment of UCD, racism is not something that international students under her care were regularly subjected to.

“I don’t think international students experience much racism in UCD,” she says. “I haven’t been advised of any racist incidents on campus in this semester, for example, but that could mean either there were none or else that I just wasn’t advised of them.”

She adds: “I think generally most students are accepting of each other and don’t discriminate because of colour or ethnicity. Irish students nowadays travel far more than Irish people did in the past and they are more open to experiencing different cultures and mixing with students from different countries.”

Lusby stresses that above the difficulties one might expect an international student to experience upon arrival in Ireland such as adjustments to culture, weather and educational methods, “most international students settle in very well and have a positive experience of both UCD and Ireland”.

Despite this positivity, it is clear that the International Office have made great efforts to establish a protocol should a racist incident occur. Lusby describes how “the International Office staff are concerned that all international students have a good experience while in UCD. Should an international student experience any form of racism, whether within UCD or off campus, we would wish to be advised about this.

“Our advice/response would be dependent on the nature of the racist incident, but could range from being a listening ear for the student, through advising them on the provisions of the UCD Policy on Dignity and Respect, to supporting them in bringing the matter to the attention of UCD Services staff and/or the Gardaí.”

Lusby finished by vowing to aid all international students in UCD whenever necessary, promising that the International Office “will endeavour to support you in the manner most appropriate to your circumstances” should a racist incident occur.

Professor John Baker, head of the UCD School of Social Justice, describes the role UCD plays in challenging racism in Ireland. He explains how the UCD School of Social Justice plays a part in education and research regarding racism, from undergraduate to PhD level.

“In the UCD School of Social Justice, we think university education and research can play an important role in creating a more equal Ireland and a more equal world,” he says. “In our undergraduate modules such as Inequality in Irish Society and Social Justice Movements, we help students understand racism and other oppressive social structures and how to change them.

“Our masters programmes include a module on Racism and Anti-Racism, and racism is a core theme in a lot of our other teaching. Several of our PhD students are also working in this area – for example, Nicholas Tsri, who is Ghanaian, is researching the ways that the idea of ‘blackness’ helps to sustain racist attitudes and practices.”

Professor Baker says that one of the most prevalent types of racism in Ireland is anti-Traveller racism and explained that the School of Social Justice in UCD has worked on numerous occasions with Traveller organisations in an effort to address this problem. The UCD School of Social Justice is committed to the facilitation of equality not only by education of students in its department, but also by reaching out to the wider UCD community.

Professor Baker explains: “We also try to facilitate the students’ Equality Society, which welcomes members from all over the university and has been involved in a number of campaigns on campus. In all these ways, we are trying to make UCD a more inclusive university where diversity is valued and where members of the dominant ethnic majority are forced to question their own assumptions.”

It is safe to ascertain that the advancement of social inclusion and the diminishment of racist attitudes are crucial in enhancing the overall quality of life in Ireland. Throughout history, the integration of different ethnicities has never been a smooth one and it is the obligation of every member of society – be they national or non-national – to hold this issue as an agenda in order to ensure that an inclusive Ireland is born.