Opinion: being Irish in the context of racism gives an opportunity to build ways to counter racism in and outside Ireland

By Rahul Sambaraju, TCD

'Are Irish people racist?' ‘Is there racism in Ireland?’ ‘How can we be racist?’. These and similar questions are currently the focus of public discussion about racism in Ireland. The concerns seem to be around whether people, because they are Irish, can be racist.

Social psychological research on two sets of topics offers significant insights on these matters. Research shows that identities, such as being Irish or British, are relevant for understanding our actions and behaviour in terms of racism or others. Researchers also find that racism is routinely suppressed and denied in a variety of ways. We are aware of and act in accordance with the ‘norm against prejudice’ as we do not want to be coming across as openly endorsing or acting in prejudiced ways. Overly negative or unfavourable statements about minorities when made run the risk of being seen as arising out of prejudice or bigotry.

Research shows that suppression of racism routinely takes place through denials and disclaimers. The former denies the relevance of racism in cases where minority group members are targets of unfavourable behaviour. The latter routinely takes the shape of 'I'm not a racist, but…’ and allows for the production of unfavourable characterisation of targeted individuals or groups. Together, these point to the possibility that identities can perhaps be used to suppress racism.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, Dr Ebun Joseph on the discussion around racism in Ireland

Do the above discussions about racism in Ireland amount to similar consequences of suppressing racism? At first glance, such questions indicate a close association with an identity of being ‘Irish’. Some research context might help us understand the importance of an Irish identity here. The majority of research findings about denials and suppression of racism are from the United Kingdom, Spain, Argentina, The Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. These countries are characterised by both histories of colonial oppression and occupation and consistent inward migration over the last century (or more).

The Irish context is unique in two respects. One, Irish people themselves were subject to colonisation and oppression. They were and continue to be targets of racism and discrimination or mockery in various other parts of the World. Second, inward migration in Ireland, which has a long history, is only recently taking over from emigration.

In the context of racism, being ‘Irish’ then does not readily lend itself to implications of being an oppressor or unfavourably disposed to migrants. Rather, it carries the obverse implication: Irish people as victims were oppressed and subject to racism. This type of identity, then, is unique to contexts such as Ireland, but also identified in contexts such as India, where racism against Black people is deeply problematic.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline, a discussion on racism in Ireland

The use of these claims confers a unique categorisation of Irish people as victims. A notable property of categories is that these carry commonly held knowledge about those categorised, irrespective of whether this is indeed true for any specific individual. For example, doctors are understood to be knowledgeable, irrespective of whether it is true of any individual doctor.

Categorising Irish people as victims implies that they are aware of what racism is, have resisted it, and in turn that their actions cannot easily be understood as racist. While this may or may not be the case for any single individual, the victim identity can be used to this effect. Indeed, this is what we see routinely. The upshot then is that treating Irish people as victims of racism can in practice be used to suppress and deny racism in Ireland.

We can also ask if there is an upside to this. One possibility emerges, which again turns on treating Irish people as victims and that is solidarity. It is not farfetched that victims are also expected to have empathy and solidarity with fellow victims. As victims of racism and oppression, Irish people can similarly be held to the expectations of empathy and solidarity with those who are now being targeted and victimised. For this to happen, questions and discussions should focus on what can be done to address racism, than ask whether Irish peoples are racist. Irish people can offer empathy and develop a common identification with current targets. Indeed, this has been taken up by several activists and organisers in leading discussions on racism in Ireland.

Imelda May's You Don't Get To Be Racist and Irish

Being Irish in the context of racism gives an opportunity to build ways to counter racism in and outside Ireland. Racism then is not any more or less unique to being ‘Irish’, but when poets say that ‘you don’t get to be Irish and racist’, it is this latter implication of being Irish as victims of racism that is perhaps being identified.

Dr Rahul Sambaraju is Assistant Professor in Psychology at TCD

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ