This column runs at the end of the 'upfront' section of Weekend magazine, and I try to remember that every time I sit down to write it. This page is not where people go to be lectured. I think of it like the grand foyer of a hotel, where the bellhop cordially says “we hope you enjoyed your stay” before you leave, tipping his hat after he helps you put your bags into the car. “He seems like a nice young man,” you think, and then hopefully you leave with a smile on your face and a pleasant memory of the hotel. I am the bellhop. The newspaper is the hotel. The best case scenario for this column is that you leave with a smile on your face.
This has been tricky in the last few months, when life has been so radically unpleasant, and so many of us have suffered so much. But I’ve kept at it: kept doffing my cap, kept loading the boot of the car. This has remained possible because even though the coronavirus has been hard on everyone, we have all essentially been going through it together – to a different extent, and with different privileges, but all together. It is hard to be the happy bellhop this week, when so many people who read this column will be digesting the news so differently. Too hard, I think, to even really try.
Like you, I’ve been reading about the American protests by black Americans in response to the police brutality that has ended the lives of so many. I have been reading about how this is about the police, but about so much more than the police: how institutional poverty, draconian prison sentences and a broken healthcare system have colluded to disproportionately harm the black community.
I support the protests, in as much as an Irish woman living in England can support it, which is to say, I support it ideologically and I support it financially. I am trying to read and listen as much as I can, and I am trying to interrogate the ways in which I can help. I am trying to find integrity in the ways I support Black Lives Matter: not as a hashtag or a social media post, but as a fundamental statement, as a principle of being alive.
You don’t need to live in America to know you live in a racist society; you don’t need to do racist things in order to benefit from racism. Ireland is racist, just as England is racist, just as America is racist.
They are racist in different ways, with different histories, but if you can look at the inequalities that exist in every white-dominant society and say “well – that’s just because they haven’t tried hard enough”, then you are the successful end product of that racism.
This can be a hard conversation to have when you’re Irish. I have met many white Irish people who believe that they are immune from having to interrogate their own racism because Irish people have historically suffered from prejudice. It is, unfortunately, where lots of discussion about race in Ireland fall apart.
The fact is, Irish people are able to fold into any society they want because every ‘melting pot’ is truly just a bleaching pot, with the little clumps of white flour sitting happily at the top of the stew. The fact is, Irish immigrants are mostly white. Social mobility is available to us in less than one generation. We need to acknowledge how frequently the success of Irish people internationally is used as a scapegoat for racism, and we need to buck it where possible. We can’t allow ourselves to be a case study that legitimises racism.
In my own case, as an immigrant in England, I know that the experience I have had is vastly different to those of other immigrants here. The Windrush scandal alone – where thousands of immigrants from Commonwealth countries, many of them elderly and vulnerable, were threatened with deportation after decades spent in the UK – is a chilling reminder of the things I will simply never have to worry about.
Despite the IRA’s history in the UK, despite the fact that many ‘undesirable’ immigrants come with skills that would benefit this society far more than my writing would, I’m still the one who gets to work and live here without intervention.
There is no one person to blame for this: like in America, there are thousands of contributing factors, all of them unfair, all of them stemmed from a society-wide belief that white people are just supposed to have things better. And white people benefit from this. I benefit from this. We are all marinating in this, all the time, and it’s our individual responsibility to do something about it.
There’s a limit to how much we can help the people protesting in American cities, but there is a lot more we can do for the inequalities that are happening in our own back gardens. Like a lot of people, I volunteer when I can, but mostly just when it suits me. Maybe it’s time to amp that up.
There are plenty of charities, for example, where you sit in the library and do homework with children who either need the extra help or who can’t do it at home. There are the Girl Guides; there are plenty of opportunities to teach creative writing to kids who otherwise wouldn’t get to. There are prison reform programmes that stop young men from re-offending. There are countless small things you can do that may contribute to a person not being swallowed up by a depressing statistic.
If the protests in America are leading a global change, then let the change be this: that we all take more responsibility for the world we are faced with.