White People: know when to LISTEN and when to SPEAK... by Fiona O'Kearney
Since the BLM movement has landed in Ireland there’s been a trend of white Irish people inserting themselves into the conversation, often expressing how their mental health has been negatively affected by “it all”. But, quite frankly, our feelings during this time are irrelevant as we have the privilege to take a break and remove ourselves from the reality of racism. Black people cannot “check out” of being black. It is not in their best interest to hear how difficult this social change has been on white people. We need to understand when it is time to listen, and when it is time to speak up.
White people have remained ignorant to the realities of racism for centuries. As Bulelami Mfaco said during the online lecture “Racism & Anti-Racism in Ireland” we don’t often stop to think about how the “other” lives in our country. We have our ideas about how they live, but we rarely stop to ponder on the things they have to be aware of during daily life. An example he gave was how Muslim people are often stopped in airports for questioning, delaying their travels for hours on end. This reality is something white people don’t worry about, instead we get to make playful jokes while we saunter off to our gate. Which is why our feelings are irrelevant – we’ve rarely stopped to think to really think how racism would affect us. White people do have a place in the conversation though, as Bulelami said, “it’s not up to black people who are victims of racism to call it out” continuing on to say it’s up to white people who hold the power in racial structures to speak out on racism. While our role is mostly about listening, we should take on what we hear and speak out in racist settings. Instead of feeling bad when we hear these stories, we need to think about what we can do to help the issues.
Therein lies a huge issue in Irish society – “banter”. I can’t count how many times I’ve called out individual racism only to be told “Ah, it’s just a bit of banter” or accused of stirring the pot. This is problematic because it allows system racism to grow. You may not see yourself as racist, but it’s undeniable that white people have benefitted from racism, whether consciously or not. Whether it was by being able to ignore your black peer having racial slurs thrown at them because it meant the bullying wasn't aimed at you or by allowing your colleague to go on a racist rant about immigrants because you don’t want to be labelled the office wet blanket. Instead of feeling guilty for what we did or allowed in the past, we need to end that willful ignorance, stop worrying about being uncomfortable and speak up. Susie Wokoma, as Edith in Enola Holmes, said, “You have no interest in changing a world that suits you so well”. A lot of us are unwilling to use our power for change, because the world suits us just fine, willful ignorance seems to be the sweet spot for a lot of white people and that’s unacceptable.
I’ve called out colleagues and gone to management over racist incidents in a job and though it caused friction that led to me quitting, I don’t regret it. I refuse to work in a place that allows racism to slide and I refuse to work alongside racists. I’ve cut off friends over their negative or centrist views around BLM which has surrounded me with the most wonderful people and helped me realize the things I shouldn’t have let slide in the past. No longer tolerating racism in our community is in everyone’s best interest. Life can only improve when we refuse to accept hatred. We should call out every instance of racism we see and report them to faculty/management in school/work, only then can we challenge the racism that black students and employees experience. Holding on to the popularity that comes with remaining silent is choosing to be ignorant towards racism. We also need to stop with the apolitical mess and research our local politicians to ensure people willing to pass racist legislation don’t come into government. Finally, we need to remember that though this was caused by our people, this is not about us, this is about Unsilencing Black Voices and working towards social change.