Saturday 7 December 2019

Bill Linnane: 'It will take a generation or three to eradicate casual racism, but my kids will live in a better Ireland'


My kids live in a brighter and better place, a country that is growing up, and they won't be scared with boogeyman stories about Isis, trotted out by politicians who seem to forget that we had our own homegrown, bearded fundamentalists trying to blow stuff up in the Eighties
My kids live in a brighter and better place, a country that is growing up, and they won't be scared with boogeyman stories about Isis, trotted out by politicians who seem to forget that we had our own homegrown, bearded fundamentalists trying to blow stuff up in the Eighties
Irish Independent columnist Bill Linnane
Bill Linnane

Bill Linnane

I was strolling through my hometown. A school pal screeched up alongside me on his bike. Something big was happening, he was practically jabbering - a family of people who were not Caucasian were up at the town fair. He said we should go up and look.

I duly walked up to the town green and, lo and behold, there were some people who were not white. We trailed them around the fair for a bit, until there was a gaggle of about six of us following this family as they looked at tractors, dirty sheep and badly-iced cakes. It was 1987 and that was the first time I saw someone who wasn't white in real life.

By the time my kids started school, they were in a class with kids whose parents came from other countries, other continents. When I was in school, we all looked the same, now school was a lot more interesting. My daughter came home from school one day and told me her friend had eaten snails. Not just any kind, but giant land snails.

I asked where the classmate was from, and my daughter said Aghada. I said, no, I mean where are they from originally? She said she thought they were from Youghal, but couldn't be sure.

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Eventually I just asked where their parents were from. Dublin was the answer. At this point I had to come to terms with the realisation that I am, at the very least, casually racist.

I had detected a whiff of difference about some random child and was grilling my eight-year-old daughter to get to the bottom of this snail lark. My daughter, on the other hand, thought it was interesting that someone ate snails, and that was it.

I still think about that interaction, and wonder how many others there were over the years that subliminally sent the message to my kids that there is a Them and there is an Us.

In national school, she had many friends who were the children of immigrants.

But everyone was from east Cork, and colour made no difference - we all had the same flat accents and we all got annoyed at the self-service checkouts in Tesco. The kids all played together and all was well.

By the time she reached secondary school, divisions had formed. The children of immigrants started to hang around with each other, largely in groups defined by whatever country their parents came from. For a while, skin colour didn't matter, and then it did.

Having a parent like me doesn't help, with my stupid questions about snails, obsessing about difference. There may be a point where the infectious bigotry of my generation has faded from this country, but it isn't coming any time soon.

Like the domestication of a cat, it will probably take a generation or three to erase those lines we draw in our minds about who belongs and who does not.

The Ireland I grew up in was grim - everyone looked like a peeled potato, there was mass unemployment and a general joylessness about it all.

My kids live in a brighter and better place, a country that is growing up, and they won't be scared with boogeyman stories about Isis, trotted out by politicians who seem to forget that we had our own homegrown, bearded fundamentalists trying to blow stuff up in the Eighties.

If I can atone for my casual racism, it will be to teach my daughter to be better than I am, less obsessed with colour and creed, and to embrace life's rich banquet, up to and including giant tree snails.

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