An Cailín Rua
Last week, my colleague Áine Ryan wrote about the monumental challenges faced by the US in light of the current civil rights protests. The Black Lives Matter movement takes place against the background of a country reeling from the social and economic fallout of the pandemic, and four years of a highly divisive presidency.
It is in fact miraculous given the tensions being stoked by Trump that the protests have not yielded more violence, and it is interesting that already the protests appear to be effecting change, with the announcement in Minneapolis this week that the city council is to defund the police force in favour of a more socially responsible and community-led form of policing.
Closer to home, however, we have our own uncomfortable realities to confront.
Amidst the almost blanket coverage of the protests in the US, black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) have taken to the airwaves and to social media to tell their own stories. And Ireland, for the most part, has for the first time I can ever recall, stopped talking and started listening.
We have heard stories from young black people growing up in predominantly white communities, and the overt and covert racism they have experienced, ranging from casual (often unintentionally hurtful) remarks, to verbal abuse, to full-on racially motivated assault.
We have stories of people experiencing racist abuse as children. We have heard how people of colour are underrepresented in the media and in our government and other places of decision making. We have heard stories of dreadful and unbearable conditions within Direct Provision centres, where the physical safety, mental wellbeing and autonomy of asylum seekers is nonexistent (and despite what you may think, there is often no viable alternative).
It is also important to acknowledge that we have also heard uplifting stories of welcome and acceptance and love; and the enrichment of communities who have welcomed new members.
However, like it or not, racism does exist in Ireland. Anecdotes tell us so much, but a 2019 report by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, ‘Being Black in the EU’, found ‘worrying patterns’ of behaviour, with a third of those surveyed experiencing discrimination because of their skin colour, compared to one in eight across the EU. We can do better.
It should not be hard to acknowledge that at the very least, black lives matter. A common rebuttal is “All lives matter!”; but to protest that at this point is akin to crying “What about my house?” when your neighbour’s house is the one on fire. The phrase is designed to dismiss and diminish the real, lived experiences of people that live in our country and call it home. Many of whom were born here and are Irish – not that this should matter. This is not about ‘us’.
We need to respectfully continue listening. For many, this may be uncomfortable. We may be presented with examples of our own behaviour that we may not have realised were hurtful or harmful. But instead of being defensive, we need to ask ourselves instead if we can learn anything. We can also start to call out racist comments in our own conversations – a small but meaningful move.
And we ourselves have a big job to do in confronting our own attitudes towards members of the Traveller Community. The Traveller population of Mayo in the last Census stood at just over 1,300, or under 1 percent of the population. Ballina has the fourteenth highest number of Travellers of all towns and cities in the country. They are very much a part of our community yet are frequently excluded and denounced, with little effort made to understand or acknowledge their own unique heritage or its place in our shared history.
It is easy to point to anti-social behaviour as a justification, but less convenient to ignore the fact that just like in the settled community, bad behaviours are perpetrated by an overwhelming minority.
In recent years, Ireland has proven itself at the ballot box to be a kind and compassionate country; instigating social change and rejecting fascism. Let us now vote with our feet in our own communities to show a little more understanding, kindness and openness to the people who live alongside us in our towns and villages.
An Cailín Rua