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2003-02-04 Racism in the land of saints and scholars

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries, asylum from persecution".

 

One of the many negative side effects of "9/11" (September 11th) has been a growing distrust of certain races and cultures. Historically, Ireland has been a society of emigration, and Irish history has not prepared us for immigration. With the growth of the infamous "Celtic Tiger" our countrys unexpected prosperity suddenly became very attractive to foreigners, but there was no preparation time and no time allowed for gradual adjustment.

Our mono-cultural society suddenly became multi-cultural, but was it a mono-cultural society in the first place? Did we have only "one" Irish culture? We had the Viking, Spanish and Norman influences, the Protestant and Catholic differences, the rural and urban divide, the Gaeltacht areas, the "Travelling Community" and a whole host of other rich ingredients blended together to make up our culture, so we may have been more prepared than we thought.

Many inner-city residents have long had a poor self-esteem and it is easy to use these seeming "intruders" from abroad as scapegoats. "Racism" is often used as a simple explanation to complex social problems and housing shortages and unemployment may often be blamed on immigrants . Some people still assume someone with an African appearance is automatically an asylum-seeker. Only a few centuries ago, there was a popular perception that slavery was sanctioned by God. Anti-Semitism was sanctioned by religious doctrine. Much of Islamic extremism is also supported by the teachings of its religious leaders.

Sadly also, anti-Traveller racism has long been a staple of local politics in Ireland. Racism in our country is a situation which is still a very difficult one, but not insoluble. Awareness is surely the first step in overcoming racism. In 2001, "Know Racism" was launched by the Irish government in order to educate public opinion and to cultivate positive attitudes towards a multi-racial, multi-religious and inter-cultural society.

Our challenge is still to reject racism in all its forms and to embrace these new communities as equals.

Being a refugee or an asylum-seeker has been described as being like having the pause button pressed on the recording of your life and you are stuck as the years roll by until that pause button is released.

Assimilation is not the way forward, as that in itself is racist, implying that our culture is in some way superior. Integration is the only way, as in that way the identity of both cultures ought to be able to survive. We should respect each others cultural differences but that doesnt mean we have to adopt all the beliefs on, for example, male domination, gender inequality, arranged marriages, female genital mutilation or whatever.

My total abhorrance of extremism, and in particular racism, began a long time ago in my history lessons as I learned about centuries of colonising, and was ingrained further by the worldwide racist practices such as the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and Rwanda, the KK Clan in the American South, the BNP in England, the Neo-Nazi revival, my visit to a Holocaust memorial, the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict, the Unionist and Republican divide in our own country, the Black Supremists, the false image many English still have of us Irish as being a nation of alcoholics, and our driver in London putting on a hideously insulting stage-Irish accent to recite his favourite "Paddy" jokes every time we arrive at Heathrow! I have been guilty of telling "Kerryman" jokes in the past, and now I publicly apologise.

Racism is still sadly in our midst, but at least if we are aware we can educate people, and not judge others for their skin pigmentation, or for where they come from. At least try to remember that we Irish have long been refugees and an ethnic minority in the US, the UK, Australia and elsewhere, and even though we were not always treated very well in these places, we still have no right to be intolerant of others in the same position in our land.

If we are a land of saints and scholars, then why are we not all saintly and educated? And if we are a land of 100,000 welcomes, can we not spare a few extra?