The recent tragic killing of Toyosi Shittabey behooves us all to critically reflect upon, and engage in national dialogue about, the true scale and nature of racism in Irish society today. The pervasiveness of racism in Irish society is a reality that a number of young people in the Tyrellstown area—where Toyosi was killed—have eloquently articulated. As reported in the Irish Times on April 5th, one young person, Patrick Kabangu, is quoted as saying:
“Racism is hiding everywhere. It is in the schools. Everywhere in Ireland is racist, it is just being hidden. This country is crazy.”
The failure to acknowledge the true nature and extent of racism in Irish society—whether hidden or blatant—tragically means that racially motivated attacks are likely to re-occur, unless we face up to, and overcome, the contradiction between official rhetoric about inclusion and anti-racism in Irish society and the ugly reality that young people like Patrick Kabangu and Toyosi Shittabey experience on a daily basis. Equally urgent is the need to move away from explaining racism in terms of ignorance and a lack of understanding of other cultures, and to acknowledge the role of Celtic and post-Celtic Tiger era political and economic arrangements in fueling anti-racist sentiment in Ireland.
Anti-racism scholars such as Ronit Lentin and Robbie McVeigh point out that different forms of racism have long existed in Ireland in the guise of Anti-semitism, anti-Traveller racism, anti-Black racism and so on; in more recent times, this has been compounded by new forms of racism against so-called ‘newcomers’ to Ireland—including migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, students and tourists.
These newer forms of racism evolved, not during a period of economic downturn—but rather during a period of intense economic boom. Recent research conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute suggests that successive Eurobarometer polls carried out between 1997 and 2003 are indicative of rising levels of concern about the presence of migrant groups in Ireland during that period coinciding with increased immigration to Ireland, while within schools, there is evidence to suggest that immigrant students are more likely to have experienced bullying than their non-immigrant counterparts. As the boom years of the Celtic Tiger have given way to a new post-Celtic Tiger era, characterised by skyrocketing levels of unemployment, substantial salary cuts, increasing public debt, and forced migration due to a lack of employment opportunities, there is evidence to suggest that racism against indigenous and exogenous ‘Others’ is intensifying once more. Under such circumstances, the response to migrants or indigenous minorities, who are often portrayed as unproductive and undeserving of the state’s perceived generosity, is likely to depend on the extent to which dominant cultural groups feel that their jobs, living standards, or economic and cultural privilege are threatened, or secure.
Despite these broader social, political and economic trends, there is still a widespread tendency for racism to be portrayed and perceived as an individual, psychological phenomenon that resides in people’s heads or in their hearts. Official anti-racism policies and initiatives have tended to explain racism in Irish society in terms of fear and ignorance of the cultural norms or customs of particular racial groups, and imply that racism is perpetrated by a few ‘bad apples’ within a society which otherwise welcomes, embraces and celebrates its ‘newfound’ cultural diversity. Moreover, individual-level explanations tend to be accompanied by accounts of racism as comprising isolated or exceptional incidents perpetrated by these ‘bad apple racists’, which serves to present the Irish nation as one that is largely antithetical to racism, thereby absolving the state of any role in creating or maintaining racial tension.
Government-led ‘anti-racist’ and intercultural interventions seek to foster positive emotional responses to diversity and to facilitate greater contact, ‘integration’ or understanding among different cultural groups.
What these kinds of interventions rarely acknowledge is that major changes in the way society is organised are necessary if racism is to be effectively challenged. Political and economic arrangements implemented during the Celtic Tiger and more recently post-Celtic tiger era, have produced new economic vulnerabilities and insecurities which get projected onto groups who have been inaccurately portrayed by tabloid journalists and some political figures as being (undeservedly) disproportionately in receipt of diminishing national resources. It should not take an alleged racially-motivated murder like that of Toyosi Shittabey for the government to abandon its under-resourced and ineffective approach to interculturalism and racism which merely serves to deflect attention from its own role in fueling racial tension and sentiment. What is needed is wide-ranging and radical political-economic reform that will promote greater levels of equity, not greater levels of economic disparity and insecurity, if we are to avoid further projection of hostility onto groups like migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.
Audrey Bryan teaches sociology in St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. Her research focuses on racism, anti-racism and intercultural education in an Irish context.
Latest posts by Audrey Bryan (see all)
- The Murder of Toyosi Shittabey and Racism in Irish Society - April 8, 2010