Are you Irish, or are you not? Unless you’re a migrant or the child of immigrants, the question is a simple one. For people of a migrant descent, the question inevitably leads you to ask: where is home? Is Ireland home? If this is not home, why am I here? If I go somewhere else, will that be home? Will I belong there? Do I belong here?
When people ask you, “where are you from?”, they often add the word “really”. Maybe it is useful in starting a conversation, or in deciding whether or not to engage in conversation at all. Institutionally, it is used to determine whether the individual is best fit for the Job, or if the individual is an appropriate tenant.
The harm caused by these types of questions is often unintentional and unfamiliar to Irish people, ‘regionalism’ and ‘placement’ often mapping the routes to friendly conversations, “O’Donoghue? A Galway man is it?” Yet the harm exists. Small as they may appear, they can lead to cognitive dissonance, acculturative dissonance, and in the extreme, race dissonance, the extent of which slowly eradicates social integration whilst promoting segregation.
Cognitive dissonance refers to the mental discomfort experienced when one’s thoughts, beliefs and feelings conflict with one’s actions, reactions, or inactions.
In the aftermath of the brutal murder of George Floyd in the United States, many began to question their own actions and inactions in allowing racism to perpetuate. Indeed, those who feel any discomfort (awkwardness, nervousness, anxiety, etc.) when talking about a race-related issue to a person of that race is at that moment experiencing cognitive dissonance. Many will remedy that discomfort by justifying their actions: I’m not a racist, therefore I can engage in racist behaviour or discussion by preceding the sentence with a “but”.
Ireland reacted to the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in a different way than those countries with a history of large-scale immigration. No statues were beheaded, no riots ensued, and our protests were peaceful. We gave young black people an opportunity to have their voice heard on national media, and our Taoiseach called racism a virus. Yet, some justified their lack of engagement with the Black Lives Movement by saying “at least it’s not as bad as the USA”, or by completely removing themselves from conversations on race by saying “there is no racism in Ireland”, or worse, by saying nothing at all. Others, those anti-racists, chose to change their action in battling their cognitive dissonance and social injustice at the same time, rather than ignoring the issue, or being defensive about their (in)action. We should all strive to be anti-racists or at least change the way we engage with race, not only because it is the most helpful in dealing with cognitive dissonance, but because it has the double effect of effecting social change.
Acculturative dissonance is not much different from cognitive dissonance. Acculturation refers to the process of changes in beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviours as a result of contact with another culture. Immigrant youth’s acculturation is influenced by both the parents’ level of acculturation and their own unique personal experiences and interactions with others. When the home culture (the parent’s culture) and the host culture (the Irish culture) clash, this leads to a conflict of identities that can only be remedied in the three ways described above. If one’s home culture is that of a Muslim tradition for example, the Irish culture of alcohol consumption will conflict with the Muslim culture of not consuming alcohol. The Muslim youth, if s/he is to integrate into the Irish society, will either choose to ignore either the Muslim culture or the Irish culture, but either choice will need self-justification in order to rid oneself of the dissonance experienced, or the backlash from members of the rejected culture. This often results in an identity crisis.
The cause and effect of acculturative dissonance remain unrecorded here in Ireland, and it represents an area that requires further research, but a brief documentary analysis of media content reveals an emerging increase of dissonance caused by a lack of social acceptance amongst second migrant generations in Ireland. Persons who do not address their acculturative dissonance lose the ability to assign themselves to a particular group. Or worse, they assign themselves to a group most dissimilar to them which can then lead to race dissonance.
The effects of acculturative dissonance are grave. In the United States, reports have correlated acculturative dissonance with youth delinquency, youth violence and an increase in the population of juvenile detention centres. These reports are not too distant from the realities of the so-called youth driven “race-wars” that occur here in Ireland. The reasons for such delinquency appear logical; if one is constantly asked where one is really from throughout one’s lifetime, despite that lifetime being spent on Irish soil, one is moulded into believing that one is not really from here. One removes oneself from society and finds commonality with others like oneself, those perceived as not belonging. Yet some have argued that the “where are you really from” question has no harmful intentions. What then about those questions intentionally designed to cause harm: “why don’t you go back home to your own country?”
A much larger question exists, the socio-political question of “are they really one of us?” To a certain degree, what often comes to realisation is that the individual, to whom the question is referred, will be asking themselves the same question: “am I really one of them?” Being Irish, or being a citizen, extends far beyond the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy; it involves and revolves around the “self”. This severe level of cognitive dissonance that orbits a young migrant further intensifies when complicated questions of state loyalty are implied; if one has two passports, with which state does one’s loyalty lie? In a hypothetical situation where Ireland proclaims war with Nigeria, Am I Nigerian, or am I Irish?, section 19 of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1956, indicates that you can’t be both.
By race dissonance I mean ambivalence, antagonism or lack of empathy for one’s racial group. This often occurs when a person of colour chooses (or is forced to choose, depending on your perspective) to adopt a white culture. This too is undiscussed in Ireland, but it exists and is problematic, not just for the State but for the individual concerned. The most visible examples are those people of colour who propose anti-immigration laws as a tactic to enter politics, or those people of colour who oppose notions of racism by saying that they’ve never experienced racism in Ireland. Or worse, those who actively choose not to engage in discussions on race, or vehemently oppose or reject black culture.
Whilst this is not to say that people of colour cannot have conservative views, it is virtually impossible to be a black person in Ireland and not to have experienced racism. A person of colour who says they have never experienced it here is either misguided, misinformed or self-deceived. Take for example black children living in Irish foster homes who have little access to their black culture other than via UK or American media, social media and maybe if they have black friends in school or neighbourhoods. Those for example in rural Ireland with limited access to people who look like them may grow up with Irish values and ideologies, including potentially the idea that racism does not exist in Ireland, or that it’s not as bad as elsewhere. These groups of people, which include mixed-race people who identify solely as white, experience racism without knowing, or knowing but ignoring it, because they have little to no support in engaging with the abundance of dissonance.
These children attend schools that sometimes teach us to classify racial abuse as mere bullying, that it is acceptable to use racial slurs and rhetoric if they appear in an academic text, if a black person is present for those discussions, or better yet if you have a “black friend”. Then they grow up, despite their attained Irish identity (in terms of values and principles), to be told that you are not Irish because you are not white, that you can’t get jobs because your name doesn’t sound Irish, you can’t get a house because how you sounded on the phone is not how you appear in reality, and that you can’t be in a high level position or be successful because your only aspiration is to be the “first black” or “only black” something in Ireland.
When success and a peaceful life are represented by whiteness, one rejects one’s blackness and the culture that comes with it because we are taught that unless you excel in sports or art, or inspire to be the “first black” something, your chances of a well-balanced life are highly restricted. The only option is to forego your natural hair in favour of westernised hair standards, you accept the term black friend and laugh at racial slurs and discussions disguised as banter and craic, you denounce or ignore the existence of racism or evade such discussions for fear of awkwardness, or worse, you ignore racial discrimination in the workplace for fear of demotion or loss of employment.
Much of the discussion in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder suggests that a large majority of the Irish people are beginning to engage with their cognitive dissonance when dealing with race. Yet beyond the discussions on race and institutional racism are the individuals who in 2020 have to protest that their lives matter. Their cry of “I can’t breathe”, echoing the last words of George Floyd, is symbolic, not just in terms of the racial injustice that displays itself in the form of Direct Provision centres, but a literal cry, not just to talk, but to be heard and listened to.
The Black Lives Matter protest that we witnessed throughout the month of June was largely orchestrated by youths. They can’t breathe because a metaphorical knee is pressed against their neck anytime they display their true selves, whether mixed-race, or black, whether or not that blackness is hyphenated by the word Irish. The media chokes them by calling them gangs instead of teenagers, as their white counterparts are termed. Employers choke their potential by excluding them from senior positions. The State chokes their livelihood by saying at least you have food and shelter, and society chokes them by suggesting that their experiences of racism are unfounded. In all instances the rhetoric of silence is the preferred solution in dealing with our cognitive dissonance in relation to race.
Yet dissonance is something people of colour have had to deal with throughout their lives here in Ireland. All of which they contend with without any mental health support from the State. Racial experiences can be so traumatic that they lead to mental health issues, and, in some cases, suicide. On the other end, such experiences may lead to numbness, or worse, race dissonance.
Thus if you’re reading this in hope of better understanding how you should deal with racism, you need to become an anti-racist. To get there, you need to engage with your discomfort when discussing race.
*** If you have witnessed or been a victim of racism, please visit www.ireport.ie
Bashir Otukoya lectures in EU Law & International Asylum and Immigration Law. He is a PhD student in the UCD Sutherland School of Law and in the UCD School of Politics & International Relations. He holds a BAL and an LLB, as well as an LLM in Public Law. His current research focuses on citizenship, exploring the politico-legal process of becoming an Irish citizen (by naturalisation), and its influence on the sociological idea of being Irish and a citizen of the European Union. He has been a lecturer of law of the European Union and international asylum and immigration law at Griffith College Dublin since 2018. He is a member of the Irish Refugee Council and was recently made a member of the newly formed independent anti-racism committee.