- 16 Dec 21
First, we need to acknowledge racism. Then we need to understand it. And finally, we need to create the conditions where it – and the base and malevolent instincts it feeds – are defused and rendered redundant. That’s easier if you recognise that there is really nothing to fear – and that the rational response is to see the beauty in our differences.
Some come, some go, I went.
With me went whatever it was my parents, family, school, church, culture and society had inculcated. All those elements had made me what we understand to be Irish. Or at least whatever it was being Irish was in the middle of the 20th century.
Anyway I certainly couldn’t help it. I was and am Irish. So a version of Ireland goes with me wherever I go. And so, too, a version of whoever you are, wherever you’re from, goes with you too. And so what?
Am I glad that it was Ireland that made me as opposed to elsewhere? Never thought about it really but on balance – yeah.
But then again I’d have probably felt exactly the same had I hailed from Italy, France, Norway, Lichtenstein, Swaziland or Outer fucking Mongolia. That’s how people roll.
But I was lucky. I went to England in the No Blacks, No Irish, No dogs era. Never bothered me, they could fuck off. Nor did it ever impede me. But here’s the thing. I’m the “right” colour and spoke the same language. And besides, the name “Robert Geldof” is hardly an Irish giveaway when applying for a job!
No, I could hide in plain sight. It was only when I’d open my mouth that I gave the game away.
But in truth I never met anyone who actively or vocally took against me or hindered what I wished to do, say or be, because I was from a different place. And later I was famous – so skin colour and accent tend to evaporate in the great global Access All Areas pass that is celebrity.
But that was not true of all Irish people in the U.K. Especially in the years of murder, bombs and horror. Then, the accent, once perhaps patronisingly considered benign and “charming” became freighted with the possibility of harm, and so an understandable but misguided fear of the Irish crept into public and often private life.
Whilst the “politics” – the “why” – of the disgusting, shame-inducing terror were vaguely understood as a background noise to the screams of the wounded, and the sobbing of the innocent bereaved, the reality for the millions of Irish living in the U.K. came to be seen by many as a lurking presence who were all potentially hiding or harbouring lethal killers if not actual unspoken intent to do harm to the home culture. An entire people became suspect. An entire culture helplessly reduced to the barbaric. All the vast and obvious economic and cultural benefits that the Irish population had brought to the U.K. were now forgotten or ignored or unacknowledged. All that was left was misunderstanding and fear.
Although we were bound by centuries of neighbourly dispute. Although we understood each other and were ever-dismayed by our differences, we had bumbled along joined eternally by proximity and separated forever by distance. And then we became aliens.
Then we were suddenly threatening. All of us.
It was awful.
PREJUDICE DRESSED UP
Lucky for us our names were Paddy and Mick and not Mohammed or Ali and those old, mostly well-intentioned “jokes” centred around those emblematic Irish names took on a different tone. A bitter, disparaging note. Why wouldn’t they?
All of this is also true for some British people who have come to live in Ireland. Even if they’ve been here for centuries. Or just arrived. They get the old “700 years of oppression” shite hurled at them as the closing time witching hour crawls nigh and the high spirits curdle to low primitive muttering. But luckily for them too their names are George or Charles and not Mohammed or Berhane or Vladimir or any of the other emblematic names of the myriad of new people who’ve come for a better life and love it here, and want to stay and join in on the great national adventure of the 21st century.
Fear of the alien, the stranger, the different, the new is inherent in almost everyone. It’s a fear that lies somewhere in the sump of the gut and tickles away uneasily when challenged by consciousness of change. It is primitive and it is stupid and it is also entirely understandable. But being understandable it does not make it less primitive or less stupid.
In Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s new masterful play about ethnicity and racism as lived through a Jewish family in Vienna, Stoppard quotes Freud , that quintessential Viennese Jew: “Irrationality will always defeat Reason and Barbarism always destroy Culture.” Quite.
How many of us picked-on the different boy or girl in school? Or the one with the holes in the jumper or the orange hair or the glasses – especially those with the Sellotape holding up the arm of the broken spectacles? Or the stammer or the lisp? Or who prefers a different football club or band or is of a different sexuality and on and on and on, in our silly, embarrassing lower selves that makes for lesser lives. What difference does difference make? Who fucking cares?
In the end, how deep does racism actually go in the human psyche. In my experience not very. It seems to be an easily accessible tool for foul political/cultural purpose that never stands up even under the slightest scrutiny. It is a ready excuse for one’s own and more importantly the State’s failings.
I loathe Nationalism. Samuel Johnson was wrong and right about many things, but the grumpy old genius was never more right, but also more wrong, when he held forth that’ “patriotism sir is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Perhaps in the 18th century patriotism was a synonym for nationalism, in which case he was right. A sense of belonging. A sense of “being of a place” and therefore “being of a people” is entirely normal. It is however the person of ill-intent who would curdle that utterly natural, that entirely decent sense of belonging, into a base political ideology and imagine it a philosophy and call it Nationalism.
It is not. It is merely prejudice dressed up in the shabby moth-eaten clothes of the fairground political populist. And it is the engine that, in a globalised world, where the arbitrary nature of frontiers evaporate in the wars of assertive identity control, the digital free-for-all and “just-in-time” supply chains, exposes us all to confusing ideas of identity, difference, gender and culture.
Oh, but how we know that in this country.
Indeed we do. And how the Americans struggle existentially with it in their own increasingly Banana Republic, how the English have so recently humiliated themselves, how the Germans still cannot understand how they fell for its wildly off-key siren bellowing, and how every mad fuck from Russia to Brazil vis China, Turkey, Iran, and on and on, justify their freedom-denying, brass-neck bullying bollox.
And how does Nationalism work? Stir the always boiling emotional pot of national pride. Hold up the “unique” culture that makes us “special”. As if no-one else has written great books and music and art, or thought amazing things and invented miraculous advances. Everyone’s “The Chosen People”. The joke is no-one is. Chosen for what? Specialness? Oh, spare me.
People’s physical appearances are self-evidently different. And also self-evidently, differing cultures form one’s own individual thought and outlook rather like say my Irishness. Your Englishness. Or whatever. But those functions are fluid and ever-changing and expansive when exposed to broader worlds. But racism and it’s near cousin Nationalism take the superficiality of the outward appearance in order to denigrate the mind within. “Barbarism defeats Culture”. Racism is a barbarism of thought. Basic. Unthinking. Crude. Irrational. Vulgar and deeply stupid. And very, very dangerous. Blame the stranger. ‘Specially the ones who stand out. Who don’t look like us. Blame difference.
Well obvious innit. THEY. Don’t. Look. Talk. Smell. Cook. Think. Walk. Dress. Believe. Fucking ACT like us ffs!! They don’t BELONG here!
Cos it’s not THEIR country it’s OURS! Stands to reason, mate. I mean, don’t get me wrong, mate. I’ve nothing ‘gainst them per fahking se, but why can’t they fahk awf back to their own country?
Er… cos they came here for a better life?
Wha? And take our jobs/health/housing/education etc…
Now all of these arguments must be, and can be, addressed and defused of potential social disharmony by proper politics. But there is an extra vehemence to the irrationality, in that the argument is one that is mostly a felt expressed emotion. And it is never good to make a decision in the moment of emotional heat.
We say things we don’t mean. We behave embarrassingly. We are for the moment unbalanced. But the emotion that is most felt with a common knee-jerk racism is most likely triggered by that awful little defensive worm wriggling around our gut from somewhere in our deep primitive past. The probably necessarily ingrained fear of the stranger. And that stranger is easily identified as such by their appearance. Their difference. Their downright otherness.
I have travelled a lot. I have never been anywhere, where one lot of people are not deeply suspicious of primarily a neighbour but more generally an unknown group. Where the marriage between groups is not viewed save with grave misgivings if not outright hostility. The “other” may take your precious resources which must be jealously guarded by the possessors. Thus the land (and or water, women or any other “resource” etc) provides and is holy as such. Being sacred therefore the group must be yet another “chosen people” to have such bounty that all others need and are jealous of. Or in our 21st century equivalence the hard-fought, hard-taxed Health. Jobs. Housing. Education etc..
Politically some of this is true and of proper concern and must be recognised as such, openly discussed and assimilated into policy. None of it however, no matter how deeply felt, is necessarily threatening or even existential. But it does make it easy for some vote-hungry populist or neighbourhood loudmouth or pub bully boy to trigger the primal emotion that makes it seem so.
Because the British wrongly assumed that as the EU of necessity expanded rapidly eastward to absorb the newly-freed post-Soviet nations, only a certain amount of migrants would arrive in the U.K. many FELT overwhelmed and profoundly uneasy when the figures turned out to be vastly more than they had allowed for and kept coming. The economy however was easily able to handle this annual influx. In fact it expanded to meet the demand and more jobs became available. But what was of benefit to the economy was less so to the national cultural sense.
INTIMIDATION AND TERROR
I have read – and I haven’t checked this, so it may be wrong though it strikes me as correct – that as soon as a migrant population achieves 10% of a community then the local population feel threatened and react accordingly. One can see this currently in France, for example, where the Muslim population, although from many different countries, is currently about 10% of the national population. The rise of foul if banal political extremism in France will be the dominant factor in their Presidential elections next year.
The number of migrants make themselves “felt” and visible through their customary habits and clothing but also – and this is where things turn nasty – when their new and seemingly sudden presence begins to affect the former pre-arrival lives of the host community. It IS true that it becomes harder for the pre-existing population to get doctors appointments, or school places, or affordable housing. Up to the arrival of the migrant most local change had occurred gradually over time. Economic shocks could be absorbed and their affect ameliorated if not softened throughout the community, save where they are existential such as the demise of a community built upon an out-moded industry. Viz. the mining villages of North England or steel manufacture in Pittsburgh etc.
The danger is that the political structures either pretend it is not happening, or remain quiet, or seek to excuse it or worst deny it. Rather these sudden changes must be openly and immediately addressed and measures taken to ameliorate what are mostly empirical, economic/political problems and before they become cultural ones. Should the “resources” be more than ample to spread evenly throughout, then cultural tensions abate and over time the “other” becomes the “same as”. Or as was constantly drummed into our schoolboy heads re Vikings, Normans etc “more Irish than the Irish themselves”! Exactly.
The key seems to be numbers. Most studies suggest that If the school easily accommodates the new kids, if there’s no new delay in the doctors waiting room, if new arrivals can get a flat or house without inconveniencing the previously waiting applicant then the unthreatening cultural differences can appear exotic rather than threatening or at least tolerated until Mrs. Miggins asks Mrs. Patel could she keep an eye on the dog for a half-hour while she pops out and human stuff begins to sort itself out.
When this is not done, when new arrivals from anywhere – even from different parts of the same country – appear in such relative numbers then they seem “invasive” and the door is open for the political scoundrel to turn the emotional screw and point to and blame the obvious outward different appearance of the “stranger in our midst” stealing our “resources.” This is racism. And when that rhetoric of wholly illogical hate becomes commonplace then mad, awful prejudice against individuals and families takes the form of threat and violence, intimidation and terror upon other human beings innocent save for wanting a better life for themselves and their children.
That somehow a physical difference delineates a comparative inherent cultural or intellectual inferiority and because they are “here” looking for work and not back “at home in their own country” that that place “must be” less than “ours”. That that place must be somehow culturally inferior becomes “clearly evident”. That the fact that the jobs they “take from us” are menial implies intellectual impairment on their part. “Not fit for anything else”.
Just as well that never happened to the millions and millions of Irish who left then eh?
REGIME OF TERROR
We must be very careful here in Ireland now. Of course the old bromide of “Well, it’s our turn now: we asked the world to take us in and now we owe it to them to pay back the favour” – that’s all true, but it does nothing to stop people feeling threatened, or resentful, or “hardly recognising the country I grew up in at all.” We have, however, luckily become involved in a genius political construct that sought to finally end the 600 years of almost continual European war by allowing for all the national economic boats of our continent to rise to a level where we no longer needed to fight with each other for the better bits of the cake we imagined the other lot had.
It saved us. The experiment that is the EU may or may not survive. It is by no means a given. It must be constantly struggled for. And that struggle should be no more hard fought for than by Ireland. Because prior to our joining the EU we took our place “amongst the nations of the world” as migrants. Shamefully we could not provide an economic future for our own children and so they went. Today that place amongst the nations is taken as a viable, mature, coherent and peaceful State. Though the latter must also be constantly struggled for against the fools of History.
When I was thirteen years of age, I read Cry the Beloved Country, published in 1948 and written by Alan Paton about pre-Apartheid life in South Africa. Save of course in photographs or films, I had never seen, much less encountered a black person. I had no prejudice because I had no experience that allowed for such. Lucky me. So I could never get my head around the idea that – simply because a person had something as facile as a different coloured skin – they would be discriminated against.
Now hold on, let’s just repeat that thought – only because your skin happens to be a different colour! Your skin!!!?? One could construct an entire political system of oppression based on that mad, properly bonkers observation. Yea dude. Whoops, soz. Yea different colour skin, mate, so… the old de-humanisation for you pal. De-humanisation, de-legitimisation, de-personalisation, beaten-up, beaten-down, put upon, put down, and on and on to infinities of base human brutalities. It literally made no sense whatsoever to the 13 year old boy from Dun Laoire.
And I haven’t changed. I still do not get it. Different? Who cares? Actually y’know what… different? Great!
How African-Americans tolerate another single second of the vast regime of oppression so overtly and obviously targeted at them, I have simply no idea. Perhaps because their culture is so immense it allows for grace. Who knows?
I will end by saying this, to all of us, in Ireland: we must be on our guard against such anti-human, anti-person stupidities. If we go that way, it will destroy our souls. It will debase us. As a country and as a people and as individuals. It will humiliate us. It will drag us down to that awful sump of spite, meanness, cynicism, cruelty and violence that is so tangibly within everyone, if we allow our baser, more self-centred, narrow-minded, and bigoted, tribal instincts to prevail.
We must not allow that to happen. We need reason. We need to be tolerant. We need to be kind.
We will be.
A musician, songwriter and activist, Bob Geldof is lead singer with The Boomtown Rats and a founder of Live Aid.
Read Part 2 of 100 Voices: #AllAgainstRacism in the current issue of Hot Press: