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Contemplations

Racism and the ‘Silent Other’

Photo by Nicole De Khors from Burst

by GARN Member

A week ago


When you think of racism, who comes to your mind? For me, it is people of colour. From the newspapers, to the radio, to conversations with friends and work colleagues, I hear about stories of racial slurs, harassment and violence every day. Galway may be the city of culture for 2020, and our population may have become more ethnically diverse, but it is by no means a truly multicultural place. As a member of GARN, I am naturally more aware of the racist and increasingly fascist attitudes and behaviours that people of ethnic minorities face. It is also thanks to GARN that I have learned something else very important about racism. Cast your mind back to the question I asked you in the beginning of this piece. What came to your mind when you were invited to think about racism? Were you like me? Did you think about the ‘foreign other’ or did you think about Travellers? Maybe you are a Traveller, a person of colour or another ethnic minority who has experienced racism. Our background and ideology, among other things, are relevant. I am a privileged white Irish woman. Why does this matter, you may ask? It matters because my thinking concerning racism is problematic to say the least.
Galway may be the city of culture for 2020, and our population may have become more ethnically diverse, but it is by no means a truly multicultural place. 

So, why is this the case? After all, the Irish Traveller community were recognised as an ethnic minority in 2017, an acknowledgement that Travellers have a distinct cultural identity and, unfortunately, experience widespread discrimination and racism. Moreover, prior to this recognition by the government, I was fully aware of this inequality. I would, of course, like to believe that the reason I did not initially think of Travellers involves the fact that they are also Irish, because racism is usually reserved for those who are considered ‘other’. However, many people of colour are also Irish, for example. I must therefore confront the uncomfortable truth. Travellers are another kind of ‘other’, an almost ‘silent other’. Discrimination against Travellers is so ingrained in the very fabric of our society that it often goes unnoticed. Indeed, anti-Traveller sentiments have become so common that when expressed in our social media, they are often viewed as factual statements.
Recently, Councillor Declan McDonnell, chairperson of the Galway City Council Strategic Policy Committee on Housing, incited anti-Traveller sentiments in his article of July 6th, published in the Galway City Tribune. Even though his claims were completely unfounded and contradictory, they were given a platform in a paper that is circulated in hard copy and online. GARN supports the Galway Traveller Movement’s call for Councillor McDonnell’s resignation and their allies recently gathered outside Galway City Council Offices in a peaceful protest. However, the wider community remained silent and Councillor McDonnell has yet to respond. Why was there not uproar? Imagine if similar sentiments were expressed about people of colour. I think it is fair to say that the societal response would have been more robust.
 GARN supports the Galway Traveller Movement’s call for Councillor McDonnell’s resignation and their allies recently gathered outside Galway City Council Offices in a peaceful protest. However, the wider community remained silent and Councillor McDonnell has yet to respond.
  The same is true for racial slurs. For the most part, it is currently unacceptable in Ireland to use the ‘N’ word. This is a great thing. However, derogatory terms for Travellers are used with a worrying frequency, as they often go unchallenged. Recently, I learned that a young man used one of these derogatory terms quite loudly in a café. When he was challenged by a Traveller man, he claimed to be joking about something else. Only one person supported this challenge and the staff member on duty, who is not from Ireland, was unaware of the term’s derogatory meaning. Thankfully, the café owner was made aware of the situation and has begun providing training to staff members to raise their awareness of how to address this type of racism.
It is good that the staff member didn’t know the derogatory term, you may say. However, it is incumbent on each of us to be aware of anti-Traveller terms and of the racism Travellers face on a regular basis. Do you know the various derogatory terms used against Travellers? What would you have done if you were in that café? What do you do when you witness racism against Travellers? Nelson Mandela once admitted to having racist thoughts about people of colour as a result of social conditioning. If this great man could acknowledge such thoughts, then so can we. Having these thoughts is not the problem. Not questioning them and acting upon them is. For those of you who are not Travellers, I ask you to acknowledge your privilege and interrogate the beliefs you have in relation to Travellers. Where do they come from? How many Travellers do you actually know? People often quote bad experiences they have had with members of the Traveller community, effectively erasing the negative experiences they have had with others. If some settled people can do wrong without tarnishing the reputation of all settled people, then the same thinking should be applied to Travellers. As the recently departed Kofi Annan once said:


Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity. Racism can, will, and must be defeated.

 

Caroline Forde

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