#icantbreathe: Race Relations in Ireland

We can't breathe picture #icantbreathe

Sumi Nadarajah shares her perspectives on racial issues in Ireland in relation to the BlackLivesMatter movement in her opinion piece.

2020 has seen COVID-19 causing global chaos. Economies crippled in a matter of weeks, families torn apart by travel restrictions, the elderly and vulnerable terrorised by an unseen and vicious killer. The one universally known fact about this virus is that it attacks the lungs, thereby restricting our breathing. One would, therefore, be excused for assuming the #icantbreathe hashtag refers to the unfortunate victims of the pandemic. In fact, going back over the past couple of years, a young Swedish lady called Greta Thunberg took the world by storm, gaining international recognition for promoting the view that humanity is facing an existential crisis arising from climate change. Heatwaves, wildfires and increased carbon emissions are now destroying our planet. Again, the #icantbreathe hashtag would be entirely appropriate for Greta’s environmental agenda. As such, it is incomprehensible that “I can’t breathe” is today the slogan associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. The phrase is derived from the last words uttered by 2 separate African-American men who died of asphyxiation during their respective arrests in 2014 and 2020 (just last week, actually), as a result of police brutality. In a world that is facing an existential crisis on the scale that we currently find ourselves in  – it makes no sense that we humans are still attacking one another!

The author Sumi Nadarajah #icantbreath

The author Sumi Nadarajah has lived in Ireland for more than 20 years.

By way of background, I hail from Malaysia. I often think of Malaysia as the “United States of Asia” as it is populated by multiple ethnic groups  unlike most other countries in South-east Asia which are primarily mono-cultural. In Malaysia, racial division is constitutionalised. There are three major ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indians. I, unfortunately, fall within a category called “The Others” – one that is outside of the 3 major groups and consequently, I have no political voice.    In a nutshell, the Malaysian system gives special privileges to the Malay majority, whilst the rest are perceived as second or third class citizens and treated as such for civil service jobs, university entrance, or entitlement to most State-funded enterprise. It is unsurprising, therefore, that I have great sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement. For me, I would personally prefer to see this as the Lives Matter movement – that would give coverage to ALL minority groups. Even people like myself who have never seriously experienced the type of racism that has sparked this movement nor been subject to the intolerance often complained of by minority ethnic groups, do completely understand being the “odd ones out”.

I spent my entire life being on the outside. In fact, this certainly was one of the factors that prompted my move to Ireland. The ideal was that I could live comfortably as a minority in a country which did NOT constitutionalise racism and actually had laws to prevent this! And truly, it turned out to be the best decision I have ever made! 20 years later, I live in a country which is led by a half Indian Prime Minister (ok not elected but still with the support of his political party) who is gay!! I mean, if that does not tick serious “minority group” boxes, I don’t know what does.

Truth be told Malaysians, as a race, are terribly guilty of casual racism. It is fodder for Malaysian comedians and in that context, not malicious. The Irish too, I now know, have perfected the art of laughing at themselves – they are, after all, the authors of the world renowned “Irishmen” jokes. Interestingly, the Irish have also suffered ill-treatment as migrants to other countries so you would expect them to be especially sensitive to racism. My belief is that the migrant Irish probably do have this increased sensitivity. It is unrealistic to expect those who remained in this country, who have never lived abroad (except for their annual summer stint in Spain/Greece/etc) to appreciate any level of the indignities suffered by their fellow countrymen who left this island for greener pastures (pun intended).

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I am thus quite tolerant of the inevitable question,  “So where are you from?” to which Cabinteely, apparently, is never the correct answer. “Ah yes, but where are you REALLY from?” My children, on the other hand, are bemused by this line of questioning. They were born and bred in Ireland, brought up by Irish childminders from young and attending schools in a country which is predominantly mono-cultural. they believe themselves to be Irish – not just by nationality but also by identity. Hot on foot is the next question, “How long have you been in Ireland?”. This seemingly innocuous curiosity about one’s background (most usually displayed by Dublin taxi drivers) does, I have discovered, sometimes carry with it an unspoken judgement. The unuttered question is,  “And when are you going back to where you came from?” 20 years ago, it would not be surprising to be actually asked that question too. Nowadays, I find that saying, “I’ve been here for 20 years” elicits the most positive response you can hope to get, which is, “Sure you’re almost Irish now”! My favourite one is still, “Goodness, you speak really good English” (clearly that sentence can only be completed by, “for a non-white person”). I only ever say, “Thank You.

Is there any point in sharing the real interesting bits about my background –  that I was brought up by a family of Anglophiles (we still religiously have “afternoon tea” back home in Malaysia) so English is my first language (despite not being white) or that I was educated in the UK where I qualified as a Barrister. These are instances of what I term as “casual racism”. People of colour often deal with comments or actions which are based on assumptions about race and nationality. Interestingly, one coping mechanism is for the non-Irish to make every effort to sound Irish by using local phrases and imitating the accent wherever possible. This, to a person of colour, is the ultimate act of demonstrating willing. The willingness to give up one’s old identity to embrace the new. To show that we will do everything possible to be “one of you”. I have now learnt that these acts are completely futile in the context of this country. For the Irish, we are always going to be perceived as “blow-ins”. Frankly, that’s only a step-up from being referred to as “aliens” – which, by the way, was the official term for non-nationals in Ireland when I first arrived in this country 20 years ago!

Despite my musings above, I can categorically state that in Ireland, I have never once experienced nor heard of any treatment which calls for a Black Lives Matter-style movement. We live quite harmoniously alongside our Irish brethren who despite any misgivings are by-and-large unfailingly civil, compassionate and most of all, friendly. The non-Irish in this country do not have a deep-seated fear of police brutality. We are not subject to particularly harsh treatment by any State-sanctioned body for the “misfortune” of being non-Irish. This is a completely different tale to what we hear from the people of African-American ancestry in the United States. It is clear that the Black community in the US believe that their lives are systematically targeted negatively in their country of birth. The underlying sentiment is that lack of political engagement and poor policy choices prevent middle class African-Americans from enjoying the full benefits of their material success and continue to marginalise the poor within the Black Community. The Community feels that they do not have a voice or the platform to be heard or fairly represented. Unfortunately even the symbolic and inspirational aspects of having Barack Obama, a black man speaking from the authoritative platform of the presidency, has not managed to counter the black-white disparity in the US. This is, indeed, a sad indictment of the Land of the Free.

So why now? Why George Floyd? What has finally tipped the scales, opening the eyes of the world to the inequality suffered by many based on their race? Some of the “awareness” could possibly be attributed to the dearth of news of a world in lockdown. It could also be the need for the world to feel united against a common enemy (intolerance) in a time of such fear and uncertainty. Whatever the reason, I very much hope that there will be a real turn in the tide this time round. That social media can do its magic, and properly unite the world against a very real enemy – fear and suspicion of the unknown. One aspect of this narrative which particularly bothers me – and should bother all right thinking people – is the piece on police brutality. The police are, by definition, empowered by a State to enforce the law. Their jobs are first and foremost to ensure the safety, health and possessions of citizens, and to prevent crime and civil disorder. Their role is not to dispense justice based on colour or creed but simply to protect. And by and large, that’s what the police force in every single nation does. They are our first line of defence – the original frontliners. These are the guys we go to when seeking protection from danger; it is therefore beyond frightening to hear stories like George Floyd’s – where the police were the “bad guys”.

The Floyd Saga has certainly highlighted some very sensitive issues surrounding racism – which every nation in the world struggles with to some extent. In short, where one group of people are prejudiced or discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity, this does not bode well for the entire nation, Tensions will always be present which will ultimately threaten the peace and prosperity of all the citizenry. This is why the Black Lives Matter movement should matter to all of us – black, brown, yellow or white – this impacts each and every one of us. If we pay attention to the issues now, and work towards a long term resolution, we can all breathe easy.   I can only conclude by thanking my lucky stars that I chose, all those years ago, to move to Ireland  where I am free to express these views with no fear of repercussion. In a couple of generations from now, my descendants will hopefully no longer be considered blow-ins. More importantly, my dearest hope is that they NEVER need a Black Lives Matter movement in this wonderful country that I now consider home.

About the author

Sumi Nadarajah

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