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Dublin: 16 °C Monday 1 September, 2014

Column: National pride or bald-faced bigotry? Maybe neither, or both.

Being proud to be Irish is sometime looked on as a social gaffe, writes Lisa McInerney, but that’s not always fair… and it’s not always the best way to figure out who really is racist…

Lisa McInerney

IT’S FUNNY HOW noting someone’s personal preferences often tells you more about them than might actually be true.

Look at Glasgow Celtic jerseys, for example. If you come across an Irish man wearing a Celtic jersey, you probably won’t stop at assuming he’s a fan of the Hoops. You might also think he’s a staunch republican, or that he’s at least handy for Wolfe Tones singalongs in early-hours lock-ins. You might even assume that he’s a classless scoundrel with a grá for cheap beer and no fashion sense. This, of course, would be saying more about your prejudices than his preferences.

Look at the taxi driver who wants to display an Irish flag or little green light on his vehicle. You might not stop at assuming he’s just very happy to be Irish. You might also think that he’s a staunch republican who’ll regale you with rebel ditties as he drives you past pertinent monuments. You might even assume he’s trying to prove a point, that his pride in his heritage is just a front for inherent racism, that he’s proud to be Irish because he thinks that makes him better than someone who’s not. Maybe he’ll even wear a Celtic jersey. That would really hammer it home.

Because Celtic jerseys (and obviously, Irish flags displayed in one’s car for no apparent reason) have long been associated with pride in Irish ancestry and identity. Which has almost just as long been associated with ugly bias, narrow-mindedness, and low social stature.

Why? It probably has something to do with the history of mud-flinging across the white bar of the Irish flag, in truth, but that doesn’t make it any less perplexing. Being proud to be Irish is often looked on as some sort of heinous social gaffe. It’s unfortunate, but there’s a reason for it.

“There’s not a thing wrong with belonging to any particular nation”

We shouldn’t assume that there’s a dark underbelly to having pride in one’s nationality. Even those ideologically opposed to the concept of nationality will have an accent that pins them to a particular corner of the globe, a way of looking at the world that’s been influenced by their community, countrymen and government. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Cultural homogenisation is used in dystopic fantasy for a reason – it’s an utterly terrifying concept. Imagine if we all looked and spoke and thought the same! It’d be like some sort of global Westlife reunion!

So while there might be plenty wrong with belonging to a particular political party, cult or boy band, there’s not a thing wrong with belonging to any particular nation. Being proud to be Irish, or British, or Ugandan or Argentinean is not a personal flaw. Obviously, some countries have terrible histories of occupation or oppression, or current failures in human rights, but there’s always more good than bad in shared cultural identity.

In Ireland, we have soft, pleasant accents, an absurd sense of humour, and a wickedly funny propensity for hyperbole. We’re generally fun to be around. We’re chatty and open. We’re fond of embellishing stories and weaving nonsense because we love to be the centre of attention; Irish comedians often joke about how you don’t listen in Ireland, you simply wait for a rival to stop talking so you can launch your own yarn. These are all positive traits.

Hell, I’m even quite enamoured of some of our less positive traits: our tendency to swear without due thought, our horrible timekeeping, our hard partying. Yeah, they’re not the most responsible national peculiarities, but there’s something comforting about knowing you’re not alone with your dirty mouth, lackadaisical schedule and reluctance to go home at closing time (It’s great that you can blame your national identity for your personal failings.)

The handy conclusion here would be that there’s nothing wrong with being happy to be Irish. That a man in a Celtic jersey might be proud of his ancestry without feeling the need to detest everyone else’s. That a taxi driver displaying a flag or a green light might just be happy to be Irish, or making sure that non-national visitors know he’s available for hire.

“Ireland is anecdotally racist”

Handy, but simplified. We shouldn’t feel we have to assume that there’s a dark underbelly to having pride in one’s nationality, but it is there, and it’s hijacking a noble quality.

Ireland is anecdotally racist. We hear racism, we see racism, but it’s usually something dreamed up and implemented under that same current of hyperbolic yarn-spinning that’s a national positive. We all know someone who tells racist jokes, or has a friend-of-a-friend story about some anonymous foreigner being unpleasantly foreign, or once heard an African being loud in a shop and is now intent on warning everyone about the possibility of perforated eardrums.

Most of the time, this kind of racism is quietly shelved when the offender is actually faced with a non-national who turns out to be a pretty normal human being. We’re masters of cowardly racism, where truth is sacrificed for an exaggerated story, where prejudice is packaged in urban legend and hidden behind concern. The worst kind is where racism is spinelessly hidden behind pride in one’s heritage – where “proud to be Irish!” heavily implies “… because there’s something wrong with everyone else.”

That’s not to say that all of Ireland’s racists don’t really mean what they say, because every culture has damaged individuals convinced that The Other is out to get them. But the majority of Irish “racists” are as prone to sixpence turns as a floundering politician – to put it simply, they’re full of it. That desperation to be the centre of attention often means a misjudgement of one’s audience. Tell a racist joke in a bar full of strangers? You’re likely to get your ears boxed.

“You’d be utterly insane to complain about immigrant labour when we’re emigrating so fast we’re leaving skid marks on the runway”

And you’d be utterly insane to complain about immigrant labour when we’re emigrating so fast we’re leaving skid marks on the runway. Racism exists, and it’s a shameful problem. But the average joker in Ireland is just not as dedicated to it as that taxi driver cliché suggests.

We’re left with a vicious circle here. We assume the Celtic fans and nationalist taxi drivers are boors and blaggards because Irish racism usually hides behind concern or native humour. We assume that being proud to be Irish is the same as thinking that other nations are inferior. People who are genuinely proud of their nationality are then lumped in with bigots, to which an understandable response is anger and disillusionment. The oft-wailed point about “political correctness gone mad” goes up a decibel. And suddenly you’ve got a lot more in common than Nick Griffin than you ever wanted and you’re afraid to wear your Ireland jersey in case someone rolls their eyes at you on the street.

No one wants racism to become an inherent part of our national identity. So what can we do about it? Well, we could give the benefit of the doubt to those flashing the emerald, and not scream “Bigot!” at the first sign of an Irish flag. But more importantly, we must decide the extent we wish to give that benefit. I’m suggesting “pretty miniscule”. We can continue to box the ears of the attention-seeking gobshites that tell racist jokes. And we can certainly refuse to give our business to any taxi driver who genuinely assumes having dark skin is an impediment to urban navigation.

Read previous columns by Lisa McInerney>

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