I am furious. I don’t get overly passionate about too many things. But furious I am about the police brutality that killed George Floyd, whose murder has come to represent the visceral, violent, deathly intent behind racism. His is one story which is not an anomaly. A racism, an anti-black racism, that is not only person to person, but police force to ethnicity, which is systemic and structural, which is foundational to the form of American sovereignty being enacted right now by Donald Trump.
It isn’t new, not even Trump’s fascism is new. It’s recycled and deep-rooted hatred, and it is the voices of those who have encountered and write about it who must be heard, more than that of a privileged white man like me. This list of anti-racist texts by black authors is one place to begin and there are many other fantastic recommendations being talked about on social media.
Ireland is not immune. The voices of black Irish people as well as non-resident black family members, tourists, business people, students… who spend time in Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as the testimony of other POC and Irish Travellers paint a horrifying picture. Again, not just face to face vitriol, but micro-aggressions, systemic exclusion, reminders of otherness.
I struggle to know how to respond; how to honour black voices and take personal actions. Yes, I can and have signed petitions to ensure that together we create a wave of change, of forcing change to the top of the political agenda. I can contribute to change. But I can also check in to my own white privilege and the astonishing endemic racism in my own town of Newry.
I was appalled about my own ignorance of a particular statue and place-name legacy right here in Newry. The Irish nationalist, John Mitchel, is celebrated with a large statue and a plaza called John Mitchel Place. I’ve never known a single thing about it. I read on Twitter today a message from a fellow Jonesboro-man, Sean Fearon, alerting me to this information. Mitchel is lauded in many corners for his writing, ideation and activity around Irish Republicanism. There are clear reasons why. However, Mitchel went to the American South and became rabidly pro-slavery and pro-Confederacy and he used his knowledge, editorship of a newspaper and privilege to advocate for the continuation and amplification of black slavery as a marker of Americanism. You can read the Wikipedia entry here.
I am appalled that I am so ignorant. I read people who are probably doing their best to say, can we not laud Mitchel’s republicanism but excoriate his racism. Not just with Mitchel, but with any racist, there is no going past the racist part. That’s the position of the apologist. That statue needs to come down and I want to be part of that. If republicanism is your perspective, there are hundreds and thousands of exemplary men and women who fought for their perspective of freedom without bowing to advocating the most disgusting of racist positions.
Let me be clear. This is not a story of simply historical racism. It’s here today, wherever you are. Hidden or transparent. Personal, structural, political, exclusionary.
When people ask me about my university work, I might talk a little about Brexit or the Irish border. But what it’s really about is finding out who and what is ‘erased’ when the state intervenes in everyday life. The hidden stories, the people who don’t get to count all that much. This is what I’m passionate about. When you hear the voices of those who have experienced erasure, it must make you passionate to destroy the system, or it’s you creating violence through silence.
Hope you’re well,