How do you define someone’s Irishness? Is it by their accent, their passport, their residence, their parents, their birthplace, or is it their appearance? I recently took part in a social experiment by Una Kavanagh to capture images of those of us who are Irish, but don’t look Irish, and are regularly asked “where are you really from?”.
Growing up as one of the three “brown” families in our small town, I shrugged off the looks, the “exotic” compliments, and the curiosity as to my origins as simply Irish people not being used to diversity. As I got older, I would laugh it off as one of Ireland’s quirks – harmlessly, casually, mildly racist! No harm meant!
Moving to the UK – particularly the diverse melting pot of London – I felt a significant difference in the way I was treated. Here, when people asked where I was from, and I replied with “Ireland”, they just accepted my answer. That was it. Of course if I was willing to go further and talk about my cultural heritage, being born in Malaysia to an Irish mother and an Indian father, moving to Ireland when I was two, then they would listen, but I didn’t need to prove my Irishness. My accent, and the fact I said so, was enough.
However, when I met Irish people in the UK, it was not so simple. They would see my face, and hear my voice, and struggle to hear an Irish accent. It was as if it didn’t compute. I felt I had to exaggerate my Irishness – making my accent stronger, dropping colloquialisms knowingly into sentences, trying to prove that I was indeed Irish, just like them. Then I would see their incredulous faces when I eventually would say that I was actually Irish too, their reactions appearing to challenge me to explain myself and my background. I could almost hear the question on the tip of their tongue – “yeah but where are you really from?”
That may not seem like much – it may seem like an inquisitive question. A mild curiosity. But to me it says – you don’t belong here. You’re not one of us. Explain yourself. I think it may actually be a microaggression, to coin a phrase I’ve only recently realised I might be allowed to use.
We don’t think we’re a racist country. We look at America and think we’re better than them. We think we’ve always been the underdogs, we’ve always been hard done by, and we’ve never hurt a soul. We need to stop pretending.
Reading this article in the Irish Times a few years ago shattered the rose-tinted glasses I had felt about Ireland’s proud history. Then, reading about Direct Provision (the sanitised name for the inhuman imprisonment of asylum seekers), and the plight of Ibrahim Halawa (and the responses to articles about him on social media!), not to mention the myriad of ways the Catholic Church has been allowed to run riot, has made me ashamed to publicly declare pride in my Irish heritage. But this is not the answer.
Rather than distancing myself from my Irishness, or avoiding the topic of racism – casual, overt or otherwise – we need to start talking about it more. Initiatives like Una’s help start these conversations – and flush out the racist beliefs inside us. These conversations are far from easy – it is distinctly uncomfortable to mention race, or otherness, or the potential for any of our white friends to consider that they may have a more privileged position than their non-white friends. But it is only by talking about this, and learning from each other’s experiences, that we can indeed say we know what it truly means to be Irish.
You can follow the conversation on Twitter here – #WeAreIrish – get involved and spread the word.