As statues commemorating humans who dehumanised other humans for profit begin their international topple, spurred by that historic moment where a slave trader statue was chucked in Bristol harbour, and brown leaders, from Leo Varadkar to the mayor of London, talk about other statues that need to go, the Black Lives Matter movement has finally gone into #MeToo territory. It’s no longer niche.
As a white Irish person, unless you are racist, you probably view this international awakening as long overdue. Of course you do. You’re a good person who cares about people. You haven’t got a racist bone in your body. But is thinking nice thoughts enough? Is wishing people of colour all the best from a distance going to make any difference to anybody, other than how you view yourself as a nice person? No. It’s not. Not by a long shot.
The key word to emerge from the death of George Floyd in police custody is ‘systemic’. White people tend to view racism as violent neo-Nazis using the N-word — but that’s just basic hate, lumpen and unsubtle. Here is African American writer and poet Scott Woods, from a 2014 essay, on systemic racism:
“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not.
“Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It’s so insidious it doesn’t care that you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you.
“Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on.
“So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into.
“It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socio-economic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world.”
While once Irish people abroad had to contend with No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs, modern Ireland remains a racist place for people of colour — even the taoiseach, despite his privilege, experienced it. I would not have wanted my brown children to have grown up in Ireland, no matter how many Eight Amendments have been repealed, no matter how equal our marriage laws.
Ireland, despite being full of good white people who care about others, still has a hell of a long way to go; more white action is needed. Just ask the mother of Mia O’Neill, the 16-year-old Limerick girl who killed herself after years of racist abuse.
This column is dedicated to her memory.