There was a time not all that long ago when it was common enough, especially in London, to see on guesthouses and bedsits a sign stating, ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ or job vacancies advertised with the added acronym, ‘INNA’ – Irish Need Not Apply. In the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s the Irish community in Britain faced at times intense discrimination. Memories of the Punch magazine cartoons from the 19th Century of Irish imbeciles, close to animals, perhaps still fresh in people’s minds.
Of course move on to the 1970s and 1980s and this discrimination took a turn to the dark side. With an increase in IRA paramilitary activity so came an increase in discrimination towards the Irish. To be a builder in those days in London, especially a builder with a van, was to put you under instant suspicion. When you speak to the Irish community from this period, they talk about feeling like just being Irish tarred them with the IRA brush.
Even in my era of the early 2000s in London, this fear of terrorism although far more subtle, still existed. An old flatmate’s boyfriend was a Metropolitan detective, she was Irish. One day he told her that because of a terrorist threat the police had been made aware of, all Irish people in the UK if they had any dealings with the police were to be referred to Scotland Yard. Now I would understand if this was because they had a run in with the law but this detective purported that it even stood if you were a victim of crime for example if you were raped. Whether what he said was true, I have no idea. I do believe however that even into the 2000s Irish people when it came to dealing with the police were considered somewhat suspicious.
Today, this is no longer a problem. The IRA are not as active so the fear of Irish terrorism has subsided and the outward discrimination the Irish experienced in the 1960s is considered absolutely unacceptable by nearly all if not all of society in the UK.
My question then is, why have we not learnt from the experiences of the Irish community in the UK? Why have we not learnt that tarring everyone from a particular group of people as terrorists or potential terrorists is to do an incredible disservice to the individuals within this group?
A friend I trained to be a teacher with who now lives in Qatar, a British citizen with British children, recently posted on Facebook that she worried about the safety of her children if she returned to Britain without the power of such racists parties as the BNP and UKIP being controlled. She wondered why everyone tarred everyone in her ethnic, religious group a terrorist or dangerous to British society.
She suggested that if everyone consciously thought through the obvious, they would realise that for 99% if not more of the Muslim community in Britain they live boring, everyday lives. People buy houses, marry, have children, send children to school, work, save for old age, retire, their children marry, they get sick and eventually die in a way that is not remarkable different from the very group of people who attack them. For most Muslims, just like most White British, life is unremarkable.
Of course there are some bad apples in every barrel. Of course there are some members of the British Muslim community who are involved in preparing barbaric acts of terrorism, just like in the 1970s and 1980s there were Irish people living in Britain who did the same. Of course there are men who beat their wives – there are in every community. Of course being Muslim is a different culture to that of the people who fear and attack them but that doesn’t mean these people are dangerous – they are partly just different.
I remember distinctly last year being at one of my best friend’s weddings. After she got married there was a group shot of her family. I remember looking at all her sisters and their partners, their children, her dad, her aunts and uncles and thinking that is what Britain should be like. This is a prime example of why we should be open to all cultural influences in this country. In the photo was her Muslim dad and his sisters, born in the Middle East; her Caribbean aunts and uncles, born in St. Kitts; her 6 sisters, all born in the UK but of mixed ethnicity; their husbands and boyfriends – some French, some African, some British among just some nationalities; and her new White British husband and his brother.
All are accepted as part of her family, they do not question whether whatever new culture joins their family is going to do harm – they look to see whether that person loves the person they are marrying, will they take care of them when times get hard. Each new ethnicity / nationality is seen as adding to the wonderful pot of cultures that makes them a family. This family could not exist if each member hadn’t realised that a different culture is only different until you get to know and understand it.
Once I heard a friend tell a story that saddened and angered me deeply. Her father, the most open and caring man you could meet, had a brother in New York. Reasonably often he flew to New York to see him. Nothing unusual there. His seven wonderful daughters bought him a present – flights to New York. Not long after receiving the present September 11th happened. Her father, a British citizen and an active member of society in his home town, a business owner and employer suddenly felt worried. A single man with a Muslim name travelling to New York might be suspicious. He therefore asked his best friend to travel with him – only his best friend is white with a British name. Was he over-reacting – we will never know but the very fact that the Muslim community had been tarred as terrorists stopped somebody who has only done good for his community and brought up the most amazing family from simply getting on with his everyday, unremarkable life.
My friend, who now lives in Qatar, suggested that perhaps the silent majority of British Muslims with their everyday, unremarkable lives need to speak up more about just how boring and unremarkable their lives are. I suggested that perhaps the silent majority of everyone else, who sees the racism the Muslim community in the UK suffer, should also speak up about their disgust towards these attitudes.
I live in a very white community in Stratford-upon-Avon. One could not begin to claim that it is a multiethnic community. Resident within the town are a limited number of non-white families. I try, when I can, to always smile or when appropriate say ‘Good Afternoon’ to these residents, more so perhaps than I do the white community. Perhaps this action in itself is racist, surely so, as it is me clearly differentiating my behaviour when interacting with different groups in society. In my own naive, innocent way, I hope to make a small dent in the hatred and fear that many people feel towards communities that don’t look or maybe sound like their own. I want that one person for the split second we interact to know that I don’t hate or fear them which is ironic in itself as most are probably British citizens living in their own country while I am Irish and officially an emigrant living in a foreign country .
The silent majority in this country are unlikely to ever get the headlines needed to ensure that people realise that different ethnic groupings are in reality no different to each other. I can’t see the headline, ‘One person finds nothing to fear in another person.’ It won’t sell papers and so won’t be heard. Therefore, it is perhaps just through our simply actions that we can make it clear that we understand that most families, irrespective of background, are just as boring and everyday as our own.
Check out my other blog about being an M.E. patient What Will Happen to M.E.?