‘The Long Holiday’
“Ye on holidays, love?” Curiosity is something you encounter when you’re a latte coloured nine year old with Diana Ross hair on the DART in 1993. We left New York when my mother married an Irishman whose year abroad became four. She wanted to raise us without the racial baggage she overcame arriving in the Bronx from Jamaica as a child in the late ‘60s. For the most part, her leap of faith paid off. Growing up, I didn’t experience the racism that was up 85% at the end of 2013 according to the Immigrant Council of Ireland. Nobody threw water at me as I walked up the road like they did a Nigerian friend last year. Until, three years ago in a bookshop, I overheard two mothers in pearls- they sent their children to Gaelscoil hoping there’d be none of those “dark people” there because “Sure, why would they want to learn Irish?”. They were disgusted to find otherwise. I stood nearby, too stunned to move. I had seen this in books and films– slavery was in my family tree but good luck made me naive. On my first day of school in Dublin, I searched desperately for translations in my new Irish textbook when a boy next to me took mercy on my visible panic and scribbled a few in the margins of my textbook. It took me three years to pass an Irish exam but I got there with help. At lunch the girls patted my sheep’s wool hair in wonder, commenting on the luck of my “permanent tan”. Years later, they hugged me when I ran out of class in tears on September 11th, 2001 trying to remember where in New York City my father worked. My fitting in centred on common ground- we were more alike than different. I was seen for who I was- woeful at sports but a cheerful baker of brownies.
In my experience, when we choose ignorance over human connection this idea of “less than human” happens. With that mentality, it doesn’t matter if you’re new and friendless; nobody extends a hand. It would be easy to chalk up the 142 racist incidents reported last year to national unrest. But perhaps, in light of the Department of Justice’s recently published annual review documenting last year’s 95,000 new visa applications (up 14% since 2011), 97,000 extended stay applications, and total of 30,000 assessed citizenship applications, there’s no better time to pause and take stock. I foresee two possible societies taking shape: one that, in a fit of national amnesia, could choose to mimic the worst of what Irish emigrants survived throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century as they escaped famine, poverty and then unemployment at home for foreign shores. It’s a scenario that has us forget, too, the twenty-first century Irish emigrants currently establishing lives in Australia, Canada, the US and the U.K. Then there’s the other society, the one I experienced when I moved here in 1993. The one that reinforces the smile of fond respect and admiration I observe abroad at the mention of Ireland. It’s that Ireland that understands how the idea of “less than human” creates fault lines in a society’s mantle that remain invisible until we discover what we’ve built on is prone to earthquakes. Today, 12% of the Irish population is non-Irish, predominantly of European origin with new applications submitted overwhelmingly by Indian, Russian and Chinese peoples. How we treat each other and what our children learn by example has never been more vital to defining a healthy modern Ireland. Twenty years on, despite my inability to drink stout, I’m Irish too. I’m also half Puerto Rican, half Jamaican, and still a New Yorker. Blood keeps your heart beating while identity is a choice. The fact that my colourful family exists at all, to me, is cause for optimism. It’s a reason to be grateful.
Being foreign and not white in Ireland. Topical, published in The Herald, Opinions section, January 2014.