So basically I’m a white guy and I’ve recently returned to live in Ireland after spending some years in Toronto.
It was only upon living in a place like Toronto and having lots of friends who are non-white that I fully understood problems like systemic racism, white privilege and micro-aggressions. The issues were just not on the table that often in Ireland. I have had to do a lot of learning in recent years.
Now that I’m back in Ireland I try to have these conversations with my white Irish friends who aren’t necessarily bad people, but they have blind spots. So far I’ve clumsily tried to apply the conversations from Canada and the US to here, but they don’t seem to fit, and that’s what I would like help with.
How can I have constructive conversations about race with Irish people? I want to have good answers because if you aren’t ready for ignorant people, they’ll dismiss everything you say the moment you are stumped on one thing.
I addressed half of this question last month, when I looked at how to have constructive conversations about race. But there’s two sides to what you asked, I know, the second being something along the lines of: “Does white Ireland have a responsibility to its migrant population, particularly since its supposed lack of involvement with the enslavement of people.”
You can guess, perhaps, where I’m headed with my “supposed” there. While Ireland might not have openly enslaved whole nations, its complicity through benefiting from whiteness is undeniable. It’s not solely about Ireland’s racialisation in diaspora settings, but about how Ireland creates and responds to its racial others.
But let’s consider its diaspora, first. Despite the Irish not always being seen as white, as evident from historian Noel Ignatiev’s writing on “how the Irish became white”, they have benefited in time from the wages of whiteness.
The othering of the Irish occurred on both sides of the Atlantic, where the Catholic Irish, though white, were portrayed negatively as a group that needed to be whitened. They occupied the lowest rung of Britain’s ethnic hierarchy; some political captives were sold into slavery while others offered themselves as indentured slaves in the United States.
Ignatiev has written about how, when the Irish at home in the 1840s and 1850s were willing to support enslaved Blacks in the US in their quest to abolish slavery, the Irish abroad were encountering colonised and aboriginal people in distinctly racist projects such as lynchings in their bid to escape the bottom of the hierarchy.
The Irish case presents a typical example of the influencing power of race and skin colour on positioning. They arrived in the US and Britain at the bottom of the economic ladder, as did the enslaved Black population. Both groups were targets of racist stereotypes that usually drew on a debased Darwinism. However, the Irish were able to transition and change their position.
In Britain, where the Irish were reported to have fared as badly as Blacks, particularly when it came to housing, signs such as “Room for rent: no Irish, no Coloureds, no dogs” hung on windows. But, with the passage of time the Irish diasporans became accepted as white – such that today they are not considered outsiders to the white privilege enjoyed by white Europeans, particularly when it comes to status and employment.
Consider the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962, a piece of legislation that substantially limited immigration for Blacks, but allowed the Irish freedom to move back and forth into the UK, a country that previously colonised them. While this special system is still in place today, none of the former Black African colonies of Britain is granted this access or free movement of persons or trade across its borders.
Historical evidence also suggests that the Irish were able to invoke whiteness and avoid the automatic positioning of “inferiorised groups” at the bottom of the racial and economic ladder both in the US and Britain. Their later representation and acceptance as white thus exempted them from the restrictive immigration legislation that defined certain groups as ethnic.
Without downplaying the differential and, oftentimes, harsh treatment of the Irish in the diaspora, we can see that a black-white dichotomy operated. In reality, the Irish are beneficiaries of the wages of whiteness, which located them some notches away from the bottom of the racial ladder, above Black Africans and non-English speaking Whites, a point that is usually omitted in the discourse.
Yes, on the one hand, it would appear that whiteness, when it came to the Irish, failed them initially, as it did not protect them from slavery at home or abroad, or provide them with a privileged status – making Irish whiteness and experience open to contestation.
However, the Irish were able to pitch camp with white America, and as Ignatiev notes, they demonstrated that they well understood they could achieve upward mobility on the US racial ladder not as Irishmen but as Whites. In other words, they moved from being racialised Irish men to becoming white men – with rights to vote, own enslaved Black people and appropriate land belonging to them.
The Irish today are not considered outsiders to the white privilege enjoyed by white Europeans, particularly when it comes to status and employment. And research shows racism against people of African descent in Ireland.
As a nation, we have shifted from out-migration to in-migration, from colonised to colonisers, from outsiders to participants in fortress Europe obsessed with keeping non-EU migrants outside of its borders. Without a doubt, being white in Ireland has currency. This signifies immense transformations in Irish history and identity, such that Ronit Lentin has argued that Ireland has created its own “racial inferiors”, particularly from how we treat some newcomers.
Denying our responsibility to newcomers who are transforming Ireland through their homemaking and civic habitation is a reflection of Ireland’s hegemonic relation with its own racial others within its national borders and across the sea. We have seen Ireland battling with handling its newcomers, suppressing its Travelling community, and struggling to re-imagine itself as part of the ruling class in Europe.
We also cannot forget the black-box collections for Black babies in Ireland, the liberty we took as a nation to name these babies, and how that shapes the image of Africans in the Irish domain; this one-sided aid model chosen by Ireland damaged the reputation of Africa and its people. Ireland deciding to band together with its geographical neighbours rather than its neighbours in suffering, both in the UK and the US, changed the course of these groups.
So no, we are key players in the enslavement and complicit in the extant racialisation of those we categorise as others. We might like to retell our stories and use a historical airbrush on the parts of our actions that do not fit with the narrative we want to tell about Ireland, but that does not make them go away.
The second point I raise is that how we treat others is a human-rights issue. How we treat people of migrant descent who have either sought to cross our borders or who we have for whatever reason or reasons “allowed” to stay in Ireland, we have a serious duty not only towards them but also to their next generations. We should think of how we are being treated in other parts of the world the Irish have migrated to. It is more positive than negative. We should do same here.
Do I dare mention the missionaries we sent to Africa and that not all of them carried out laudable acts? African culture and religious practices were disparaged while many missionaries lived privileged lives. They brought the white man’s form of education and denigrated the indigenes’ forms of education, government and ways of knowing.
In my Black Studies class, I have taught how in the Benin Empire in Nigeria, where houses were built in neat rows, they produced artefacts from natural minerals, their workers were skilled in herding and thrived, and scientific geniuses prepared poison arrows and embalmed bodies.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that the advancements that education as we know it in the Western world has brought has been great for the world, however, I can’t help but wonder where Africa and its people would have been today if their ways of producing knowledge were not interrupted, inferiorised and discarded.
Been pondering a question around race and identity in Ireland today? Send it in to Ebun for advice at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave it in the comments section below.