I can’t say how often I’ve had to walk away from talks on race in queer spaces because I felt so personally unsafe by the dialogue.
It as if the conversants had never read, or choose to ignore, Edward Zaid, Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall and Homi Bhabha who all point out that an understanding of colonialism begins with the Irish.
But no, time and time again I’ve had queer sisters and brothers (and let’s be honest, it’s been queer sisters and brothers of color) come up to me and do to me exactly what they claim is done to them. Judge me only on my skin tone (and usually gender) with no consideration of my culture.
I’ve had to leave a queer squat party in Hackney to get away from a Nigerian law student who was screaming at me that I was failing to take on board my ancestors’ “complicity in racial murder” (she saw no difference between the English and the Irish).
I had to be helped from Occupy St Paul’s because I felt so emotionally distraught partly because of an Indian schoolteacher (at a relatively posh school) who kept shouting at me “what would the IRISH know about racism in England??.”
In both these events, as in others, the people involved were from highly privileged backgrounds. Yet they felt comfortable ignoring not only the historical reality of the Irish experience of colonialism, but the ongoing modern day reality of the Irish Diaspora in Britain, especially the intersectionally gender and sexually diverse (a friend Lindsay Wolf while running the now sadly defunct Polari – a campaigning group for older LGBTQ+ members – conducted a research report which showed that Irish LGBTQ+ seniors were the group amongst our community members who had the most overwhelmingly negative experiences of the NHS).
This chimes with the fact that the Irish are the only ethnic Diaspora group whose life expectancy and rates of education go down when they leave their home country (especially for Britain); while the rates of depression, addiction and isolation go up.
Part of this is the insidious process of ‘deracialisation’ – a politically motivated, concerted racist agenda to make the Irish ‘white’, or a better term would be ‘off-white’. I’m speaking here mostly about Britain because the Irish in Britain is the Diaspora community that I know best. From being othered and seen as non-white (there are lots of media representations of the Irish up until the 1950’s which portray us as brown monkeys) – just like Afro-Caribbeans – researchers such as Bronwyn Davis have shown how political decisions were taken to make the Irish ‘white’. Mostly these decisions were done to appease the Unionist Northern Irish (who the British saw and treated as no differently from the Southern Irish) but also to divide the vastly increasing Diaspora working groups from each other.
It’s important to understand that deracialisation simply meant absorbing the Irish into the native white working-class – with no consideration for our culture, language, anything that made us uniquely Irish. Some may have ‘thrived’ in the sense that they or successive generations moved up the white ladder of privilege: some certainly acquired the prejudices of the English working-classes: the harsh reality for most is that they joined the bottom rung of the white ladder and stayed there with all the problems that brought. For some groups, Irish travelers especially, the level of ongoing racial hatred is such as to make them amongst the most vulnerable ethniclly white groups in the world (mostly because of their very reasonable effort not to be deracialinised and assimilated).
I would expect queer academics to understand this and be supportive – especially queers of color. But I’ve now left two conferences early where Irish subjects were presented in a deracialised manner and queers of color either choose to ignore it or enthusiastically supported it.
At the Tangentially Queer conference at the LSE last month a paper was given on the actress/comedian Kathy Burke which, apart from mentioning that she was London-Irish, totally ignored any sense of her cultural background and it’s significance in her work. Having listening to one queer of color after another talk, often angrily, about the effects of erasure I expected some discussion to follow when I pointed this out. Instead silence (ironically the very quality the previous speaker had claim was the quietening reaction of liberal white queers). So I left.
However, the World Human Rights Conference at World Pride was far worst. I went to a session on Youth and Queer Identity. There a speaker called Arun Smith simply talked about being a privileged Queer of Colour and how that gave him the right to speak for all Queers of Colour. He kept promising statistics, but it was clear he had no empirical work. It was that appalling ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’ queer presentation where the speaker vacillates with themselves in dense auto-ethnographic argument (to make up for the lack of actual empirical data) as to whether they should be using up the space instead of more deserving others, but always in the end come down in favor of hearing their own voice. Lots of people loved it in the audience, but then I’ve noticed that Canada is a country where a certain kind of modern queer minstrelsy plays well.
It was when he started talking about his Irish background that things took a darker turn. Like most of what Arun said, what followed was incoherent, contradictory and felt like he needed to be exploring it with a therapist rather than sharing it with a conference. But it revealed at least how one mixed-race Irish-Indian Canadian from a relatively privileged background is expected to present at least half of his cultural heritage (to an appreciative audience). The Irish had suffered under colonialism because “they sent all the potatoes to Manchester” (I can’t explain how racist this is as a dismissal of The Hunger) but now deracialisation meant “the Irish beat up all the Jews.” And all the while people clapped – it really did feel like a certain kind of queer minstrelsy for a liberal white and establishment minority ethnicities.
I was here to conduct participant-observation on my research cohort which left very little time to do any other empirical research. But I went to the Youth Space, besides Buddies in Bad Times, at World Pride. It was clear that some, not all, of the spectrum youth using the space were extremely vulnerable (well done to the organizers). It was also clear that very few, if any, were from privileged Indian backgrounds but many were from impoverished white backgrounds including Irish.
It is bad enough that so much was stripped from us in the Diaspora by the process of deracialisation. It is equally as sad and violent that our brothers and sisters of color should suggest that it was our own fault due to our skin tone.