I recently attended the launch of a report: “Afrophobia in Ireland: Racism against people of African descent” in the Mansion House, Dublin where Dr. Lucy Michael presented her research findings on racism in Ireland. The report findings revealed the unpleasant racist encounters and discrimination that people of African descent experience in Ireland. The report indicated that the urgency for action is vital. During this event, many Africans living in Ireland spoke of their experience of racism. This was one of the first such events that I have attended where racism and issues surround it were discussed openly in a manner that places the experience of people at the centre. In any case, what caught my attention was the quantification of racist incidents.
“I have encountered 17 incidents of racism in the last 9 years”, one attendee elaborated. It is difficult not to empathize with this individual’s experience of racism. However, I cannot help but wonder what exactly was being counted as an incident of racism. Is it legitimate to call it racism if one’s questions/inputs are not taken seriously during a meeting/classroom while those same questions/inputs are received with great enthusiasm when made by someone else? What if the person is not given a chance to speak at all? Does the fact that they were ignored imply that their inputs are regarded as not worthy of everyone else’s time and hence an incident of racism? Can the way (unfriendly look, disparaging tone, for example) one is spoken to be identified as a racist incident? How about being looked down on or seen as weird or unusual for the way they approach certain issues or the kind of food they eat? Is it an incident of racism if an African descent fails to get hired despite his/her skills and experiences being well suited for the position and better qualified than his/her non-African descent counterparts?
It was noted by one of the attendees during the event that for those of African descent who have been living in Ireland for most of their lives and regard themselves as Irish, comments such as “where are you from?” or “do you like it here?” have the connotation that regardless of one’s effort to integrate and see themselves as Irish they may never fully belong to the society and that they will be seen as an outsider. Such comments are often well intentioned and people do not see them as incidents of racism (if racist at all). Should the fact that they are well intentioned matter? How about the kind of person such comments come from? Is it as a racist incident if one’s experiences are discarded as unusual and weird by a colleague compared to when such comments comes from a complete stranger? Does it have the same effect if that complete stranger is well educated/regarded compared to an uneducated young person on the street?
There was consensus among the panellists and attendees during the launch of the report that there has been report after report with similar findings, and that the time for action is now. There is an urgent need for legislation against hate crimes. Surely, this is a logical and positive move. If nothing else, I think it will heighten awareness that racism is an issue in Ireland. However, racism is not always explicit. In fact it could be argued that this type of implicit racism is more dangerous than the more explicit one where no interpretations of actions or behaviours are necessary. Implicit racism has the potential to inflict self-doubt, especially when racist comments/acts (knowingly or unknowingly) come from those held in high regard. It has the potential to make the person question whether it really is a racist remark or his/her incompetence. This not only questions the legitimacy of one’s experience, it also invalidates it.
I don’t have the answers to the questions raised above and I am highly skeptical of any attempts to provide a simple answer to this very fuzzy and complex matter of what exactly counts as a racist incident. Accounting for such issues in relation to drafting hate crime legislation is bound to be extremely tricky, if at all possible. I do however believe that the better we are aware of the subtle and different forms that racism can take, the better positioned we are to recognize and possibly reduce its occurrence.