Racism - a slip of the tongue?

 Racism. Photo: iStock.com/Devenorr Photo: iStock.com/Devenorr

To say that I was surprised by the racist tweet of a well-known radio presenter depicting the royal child of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as an animal would be an understatement. It was deeply offensive not just to the royal child and his parents but to the general sensitivity of a decent public on its guard against this kind of demeaning, dehumanising aberration.

There are many who are shocked by this kind of aberration attributing such comments as knee jerk, out of the blue, isolated and unwitting as if racism is confined to ignorant individuals who know no better.

European history is pock-marked with the consequences of a racist culture which justified centuries of invasion, domination and oppression of those who were not deemed worthy to be described as equally human by European standards.

Racism is not just confined to individuals picked up accidentally in social intercourse at school, on the street or in the workplace. It is an embedded system of socialisation handed on without question from one generation to the next over centuries.

It is as if European heritage sponges are predisposed to adapt it as normal just like other social and interpersonal attitudes of everyday life. As such it has been condoned, largely left unchallenged, passed off as poking fun at those who are different, implying and equating deficit, less than what is ideally fully human.

Of all the caricatures this man could have used in his tweet why was this particular one so close to the surface? This is not a bad man. We all need to examine ourselves.

Surely, the European mindset, even half aware of recent past atrocities like the Holocaust or the Balkan War, ought to be on continuous guard about how the “other” is treated. The Holocaust wasn’t an isolated incident as some would like to see it.

It was the convergence of atrocities committed abroad against different cultures by invasion, conquest and colonisation brought home and used against an unprotected defenceless minority in the heart of what was promoted as a civilised Europe. It would seem that European nations and Europeans need those who were different to define themselves rather than what they liked about themselves.

The shock effects of casual racism and the responses by decent-minded people and government leaders is not an adequate antidote to eradicating this toxic social poison. Racism reminds one of the ragwort weed seen on farmland year after year. It is dormant for parts of the year only to reappear like a virus when the atmosphere warms. Like racism, its roots run deep.

However, the denigration of the royal child is not the only racist incident reported in the newspaper that day. The plight of Jews in Belgium under a headline states - 'In Belgian public schools the biggest insult is ‘Jew’.' (The Guardian May 10, 2019)

It goes on to quote the Kantor Centre report on global antisemitism which states- “apart from France, Jews do not experience (elsewhere) in the EU as much hostility on the streets as they do in Belgium.

Ariella Woitchik, director of public affairs at the European Jewish Congress, based in Brussels stated - “people cannot walk in the streets in Brussels with a kippa on the head.” She also said, “In the public schools in Belgium the biggest insult and the most widespread insult is ‘Jew’.

Equally, Muslims are the target of increased racism and exclusion as are other minorities like the Roma, refugees and immigrants generally. The message sent out by governments refusing ships and boats carrying fleeing immigrants in the Mediterranean to dock is reminiscent of the St Louis, a ship carrying Jewish people fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939, being turned away from Havana, the United States and Canada.

Those fleeing persecution and seeking a better life are treated as non-people. It is the wrong message from political leaders, but not a new one. It is as if imprinting in the general mindset an indelible image of minorities irrespective of the reality of their miserable lives.

It is a shocking contradiction of modernity when a safe passage and follow-up can be guaranteed for a shrimp shipped from Mayo to a table in Shanghai while a human person cannot be accorded the dignity of safety.

Unfortunately, in many instances nationally and internationally, there is a leadership deficit regarding the dignity of the human person. Hostile environments, walls, barriers and patrols will not stop human movement or decrease incidents of racism. Is the only certainty we learn from history that we learn nothing from history? If the oceans were not barriers in the past for people fleeing Europe what hope is there for walls? Racism, extremism, hostility and exclusion are not virtues. Silence undermines democracy and feeds extremism.

"A society that truly lived its values of equality and human rights at home and abroad would have another benefit too. It would rob terrorists of what has always been their greatest recruitment tool, racism". (Naomi Klein)

Columban Fr Bobby Gilmore lives and works in Ireland. 

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