Posted tagged ‘racism’

No place for racism

April 16, 2018

A recent survey carried out by The Student Room (an online resource) found that over half of all UK university students have witnessed racism in the course of their studies, with 10 per cent encountering racism on a daily basis. Equally significant are the forums on The Student Room, with contributions there showing that a number of contributors do not appear to be clear what does and does not constitute racism.

It is perhaps part of an alarming and growing ambivalence in our wider society about what racism is and why we need to combat it. This ambivalence is given oxygen by those, for example, who suggest that discussions about the history of the colonial age are just manifestations of excessive political correctness, or those who seem not to be able to recognise the evil nature of antisemitism.  This bleeds into the question of what we can legitimately discuss, as distinct from what we endorse.

The integrity of society is seriously at risk if we start to believe that racist attitudes can be domesticated by euphemisms or justified by apparently neutral concerns (such as concerns about housing, urban violence, and so forth) which are in fact focused on specific racial or migrant groups.

Universities must have a special responsibility to combat racism. They need to be places of civilised values and interpersonal respect. That is where we need to start and finish. Finding the right way of doing that is not easy. And as the Student Room survey has shown, we are not nearly there yet.


The politics of taking offence

October 17, 2016

Recently Jackie Walker, who was vice-chair of the Labour-aligned Momentum group, was first suspended from the Labour Party and then more recently was removed from her Momentum position because of remarks she made about Holocaust Memorial Day thought by many to be antisemitic. She had also indicated that she had never come across a definition of antisemitism that she ‘could work with’.

Amongst other things, these events prompted a very interesting discussion on Twitter between the journalist Iain Macwhirter and the President of NUS Scotland, Vonnie Sandlan. The issue in broad terms was how one could identify antisemitism and therefore address it through law and other appropriate means. Iain Macwhirter argued that this could not be done simply through ‘self-definition’ – i.e. by allowing members of a racial or other group to declare what offends them and what should therefore be out of bounds in open discourse. Vonnie Sandlan in turn argued that ‘I fundamentally believe that any action on racism or fascism should be led by, and defined by, those who experience it.’ If that latter approach were to hold, Macwhirter argued, the alleged victim of racism would always be right in their complaint.

In the context of a lot of recent debate about the rise of antisemitism in particular and experiences of oppression by various groups more generally (e.g. Islamophobia), and indeed of the extent or limits of debate where contributions are liable to offend someone, this has become a significant issue. It is a particularly complex question in universities, as it also involves discussion of what constitutes legitimate free speech and where we will constrain it because it creates offence. The battle lines in Britain have not yet been drawn to the same degree as in the United States, but there is little doubt that we will hear more about these matters over here too.

The race card

June 7, 2010

Much of the law and best practice that has been adopted in these islands relating to discrimination and diversity has its origins in the United States. American legislation, much of it adopted during the Lyndon B Johnson presidency, defined a fair amount of legal reform in this part of the world, and US pressure groups pushing for equal rights set the tone for others across the world. And yet, in some respects America also still has more people openly undermining equality and diversity than almost anywhere else.

The most recent example of this is to be found in political infighting in the US Republican party. In the developing election campaign for Governor of South Carolina, Republican candidate Nikki Haley – a woman of Sikh descent – has been criticised in extraordinary terms by a state senator from her own party, Jake Knotts. Here is what he has been reported as saying:

‘We already got one raghead in the White House; we don’t need a raghead in the governor’s mansion.’

What is amazing is that such overtly racist talk can be accepted as part of the rough and tumble of electoral politics, and that, apparently, no attempt is being made to prosecute Mr Knotts. For many people all over the world, the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency showed the growing political maturity of America and gave heart to the movement for equal rights. However, this is undermined to quite an extent by the extreme racist discourse of many of those on the right in US politics, in political debate and on the airwaves. There should be no tolerance for such talk. The last bit of growing up still remains to be completed.

And still on inappropriate humour…

September 26, 2009

It may seem that I don’t have much of a sense of humour, or that I am jumping on to every bandwagon that happens to come rolling along involving disapproval of someone trying desperately to be funny. Readers from outside Ireland may not be aware of this, but an Irish comedian, Tommy Tiernan, has come in for strong criticism for making anti-semitic remarks at the Electric Picnic  music festival recently.

If you want to make up your own mind, Tiernan has published the interview session where he made the remarks here – it is right at the end of the session. He has also argued that criticism of his comments has not taken account of the context in which they were made: he was making the point, he says, that comedy has to be edgy and take risks, and if necessary be offensive.

I have listened to the entire interview, and I’m afraid I cannot possibly repeat here what he said in the passage in question. The remarks are grossly offensive, playing on the Holocaust. I also could not help feeling that they did reveal a strong anti-semitic and racist message. But even if that was not intended, there must be some limit to what can be acceptable even in an apparently humorous context. I agree that it is right that comedy should challenge and take risks; but it has gone way beyond that when the ‘risk’ is the expression of cruelty and hatred.

I have seen other appearances by Tiernan and have found them funny. Not this one. And I could not help a sinking feeling when hearing that what he said was applauded by the audience.

Mind your language!

August 27, 2009

Last year I wrote a post on political correctness, and mentioned the occasional attempts to sanitise our language of all possible suspect associations. In fact, I should say that I am not against being sensitive with language and avoiding expressions that are clearly offensive, particularly terms that were once used to dismiss ethnic or racial groups. However, all this can be taken too far. At a recent meeting which was conducted in an atmosphere of considerable gloom because of current economic conditions one participant remarked that it was a ‘black day’. His neighbour suddenly perked up and delivered himself of a long speech about how it was ‘the very worst kind of racism’ to use such offensive language so carelessly. The offending original speaker was flustered and embarrassed but subdued. Certainly not a racist, he wasn’t sure how to respond without making matters worse. I came to his defence and suggested he had a track record of being opposed to racism, and after a little more shuffling around the meeting settled happily back into the appropriate gloom about matters economic.

As a recent report noted, this kind of over-the-top concern with identifying unacceptable expressions is not uncommon, and increasingly language commissars are active in stopping us from using terms that we should find offensive even when we don’t. This brings us to the sort of verbal gymnastics that results in renaming Manchester as Personchester.

I am absolutely of the view that the use of expressions that have a history of use in discrimination or oppression is unacceptable. But equally we should not drive this kind of thing too far, and above all should avoid contrived words that take us to almost comical lengths in order to avoid associations that nobody saw in the first place. In language as in much else, we should not let go entirely of common sense. So for me it is OK to talk about a ‘black day’ (though I wish we didn’t have any), as indeed I don’t see that an accusation of a ‘whitewash’ is reprehensible as anti-white racism. In other words, we should not amend our language on the basis of the assumption that good people ought to be offended, even when they manifestly are not. We should be sensitive with our language, but we should not allow the tyranny of a language police.

Ireland’s welcome

March 25, 2009

Last week the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Brian Cowen, announced that Ireland was willing to resettle a ‘small number’ of released prisoners from the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay. This immediately drew a warm welcome from both the Obama administration and from Amnesty International. And it should be seen as confirmation that Ireland continues to be a country that is open to migrants and refugees, within the limits of what is reasonably possible.

Of course, I have reason to feel this way. As I have mentioned before, I am myself a migrant. I was born in Germany, and lived there for the first few years of my life; my father’s family, going back a bit into history, had a Polish origin, while my mother’s family was German.  When I was seven years old we moved to Ireland, and I spent a good bit of my childhood and youth in County Westmeath. Back then, we must have been quite an exotic sight. My father was fond of dressing in traditional German clothes, Lederhosen and all, and when I walked down the streets of Mullingar with him so attired I was often amused to watch people’s reactions on seeing him. But he was very good at what we now call ‘networking’, and he fitted in just fine, and all of us were welcomed warmly. I became an Irish citizen myself, now more than 30 years ago.

But back then Ireland was not a multi-cultural country, and it was not until the Celtic Tiger arrived that any significant immigration of people who did not have an Irish origin or Irish roots. When migrants did start to arrive in large numbers, there were fears that Ireland’s tolerance and, generally, lack of racism and xenophobia might come under stress, but apart from generally quite isolated incidents this did not happen. And even now, with economic conditions worsening and unemployment rising, there are still no major signs of hostility to non-nationals.

About three years ago I gave an address at a graduation ceremony in which I suggested that immigration was important for Ireland’s future, both economically and culturally, and that we should be open to migration while, of course, maintaining many of the traditional values of Irish culture. My comments were widely picked up by the media. I did receive one letter in response to my comments, from a writer who denounced me for undermining the traditional culture and who declared that I was ‘wholly evil’ and should ‘go home’. But interestingly this anonymous letter had been stamped in London; in Ireland itself, the only sceptical comments I heard were from one or two people who thought I was unwise to raise the issue in case the discussion brought out some latent xenophobia. It never did.

Interestingly, the signs are that many of those who came to Ireland from other countries in the course of this decade are staying put. It appears that Ireland will stay a multicultural country. I believe that this will help us greatly when we come out of the recession, and when the availability of a willing and cosmopolitan workforce will again be an issue.

Of course we also need to value and keep alive Irish traditions and values; but these will be enhanced in the setting of an outward looking country at ease with its identity and inclusive in its approach.

Arrivals – the continuing story of immigration

August 16, 2008

This morning I was standing in the arrivals hall in Dublin airport, waiting for a friend who is visiting from the United States. It was the usual Dublin airport experience – big crowds, lots of commotion, a sense of excitement and occasionally of tension. My visitor’s flight was slightly delayed, and so I passed the time watching my fellow arrivals-waiters; and suddenly I realised that, at least where I was standing, almost nobody around me was speaking English (or Irish). Right next to me was a young Polish family, and next to them again what I think were Latvians; on my other side, two young Czech men, and then a young couple who were possibly Rumanians. And then another young family emerged from the customs hall, and my Polish neighbours greeted them with great excitement, with a loud ‘Céad Mile Fáilte!’ (Irish for ‘a hundred thousand welcomes’).

We have come a long way in Ireland. A long way from when my German family, with its part Polish roots, was something very very exotic in 1960s Mullingar. Now we have people from every part of the world, and we can experience their view of us and of themselves and their cultural perspective. And this has helped to turn Ireland into a citizen of the world, with on the whole an open and tolerant outlook. Not only that, the prosperity of recent years would have long evaporated without this migration, as companies would have ceased to invest in Ireland because of our rather small available labour force.

There has been some speculation that, with more challenging economic times, immigration would decrease or even cease and migrants would return home. Of course some will, whatever the economic climate. But many won’t, and on today’s rather anecdotal evidence, backed up by some statistics released this week, we will continue to have immigration, and we will continue to need it.

Most countries that have experienced sudden surges of immigration have also experienced various social problems – but so far, on the whole, that has not happened here. The cancer of racism, while not totally absent, has not been widespread, and equally we have done reasonably well integrating immigrant communities (though not always, as some of the school admissions stories told us last year).

But this is now one of the vital national priorities – to ensure that manageable levels of immigration continue so that we remain a viable location for foreign direct investment; and to ensure that we provide a viable social and cultural home for the migrants, and a welcoming indigenous community that does not fear that either its economic prospects or its culture are being excessively corroded. None of this is easy, but there are few things more important for us if we are to prosper in the times ahead.