Ronit Lentin: Anti Racism and Lived Experience
Since the onset of the recession and the demise of the NCCRI and the cut in the budget of the Equality Authority and the Irish Commission on Human Rights, no one has been speaking much about racism. Most Irish people feel they have other priorities, as they try to make ends meet, get a bank loan, or secure their pensions.
Racism, however, has not disappeared. Migrants, Travellers and members of other ethnic minorities are reporting a marked increase in racist incidents, though, apart from CSO statistics on ‘racially motivated crimes’ (which don’t differentiate the experiences of Travellers, migrants or other racialised groups) there is little hard evidence.
It was therefore encouraging that the Equality Authority and the European Network against Racism organised a discussion forum on ‘Tackling racism and the impact of racist stereotypes’. The event, hosting academics, members of NGOs, some of whom were themselves migrants, Travellers and members of minorities, aimed to identify ‘best practices and tools to address racism including racism arising from stereotypes’.
However yet again, none of the speakers was a member of a migrant or minority group. The keynote speaker was Anastasia Crickley, a long time anti-racist campaigner for Traveller and minority rights, and chairperson of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (formerly the EU Monitoring Centre against Racism, Antisemitism and Xenophobia). She listed four reasons for addressing racism: charity, cohesion, economics and ethics, but she did not speak about the politics of antiracism, or about the role of the state in perpetrating racism. In the Equality Authority’s background document, ‘Living Together: European Citizenship against Racism and Xenophobia’ the best practices listed for Ireland mostly focused on cultural diversity, not antiracism.
Twelve years after the European Year Against Racism, racism is still spoken about in terms of cultural diversity. The EA’s event gave no space to the lived experiences or analysis of racism by the racialised.
The famous anti colonial fighter Frantz Fanon emphasised the lived experience of the black man. Yet contemporary academic preoccupation with ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ as the sole positions of the struggle of racialised people leads to the conflation of ‘identity politics’ with anti-racism and to the depoliticisation of the anti-racist struggle. However, one of the most important questions asked in relation to antiracism is ‘who speaks for whom, who says what and from where?’ Antiracism can be either generalised – intending to raise awareness among the population and reach a post-racial ‘racelessness’, or colour blindness. Or it can be self-representational, where the lived experience of the racialised informs the struggle. Generalist antiracism is anchored in universal values such as democracy, human rights, equality and tolerance; it reduces the importance of state racism and emphasises individual (or institutional) prejudice. In contrast, self organising antiracism stresses the role of the state, which focuses on notions of the race idea rooted in the political structure. The lived experience of the protagonists informs the struggle and names the state as the main culprit rather than stress individual prejudice, a way of depoliticising racism and antiracism.
Not privileging the experiences of the racialised means nothing much has changed. Antiracism in Ireland continues to be solidaristic, performed by well meaning white, settled, Christian Irish people, whose ‘best practices’ documents continue in the tradition of soft interculturalism and cultural diversity, while racism goes on.