Public discussion: Does race matter?

Posted on: 02 April 2019

In a recent public discussion in Trinity College Dublin, panellists were asked the question ‘Does Race Matter?’ The Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion explored how racism has manifested in different ways throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, and why racism prevails today.

Speaking on Ireland’s connection to the American Civil Rights Movement, Daniel Geary, Mark Pigott Professor of Modern History at Trinity spoke about Bernadette Devlin, the eminent civil rights activist from Northern Ireland who in a trip to the US in 1969 “captured American media attention” by identifying closely with the struggle of African Americans, much to the dismay of the Irish American community in the US.

“Race is a historical, political and a cultural phenomenon,” Professor Geary began, illustrating the historical relationship between the Irish and African Americans as a particularly complex example of how race functions.

Speaking about Devlin, he said that she couldn’t understand the Irish American fight for the cause of the Irish Catholics while acting as the oppressor when it came to African Americans. “She baffled Irish Americans by repeatedly identifying with African Americans on the trip.”

Eugenia Siapera, Professor and Head of the School of Information and Communication Studies at University College Dublin, focused on digital racism which she said has a direct link to offline racism and attacks on minority groups, with social media platforms failing to prevent hate speech.

“Toxic speech online is linked to real-life violence”, Prof Siapera commented, adding that research shows “a causal link between online hate speech and street violence.” She referred to a German study which highlighted the co-relation between a far-right political party in Germany and its anti-immigrant posts on Facebook, and the real life attacks against refugees.

Highlighting the bias which is engrained in algorithms, she commented that new technologies reproduce existing inequalities while also producing new inequalities.

Prof Premesh Lalu; Prof Dan Geary; Ms Sahar Ahmed; Prof Eugenia Siapera and Professor Jane Ohlmeyer.

Speaking on her experience of “institutionalised racism” in higher education, Sahar Ahmed, a PhD student at Trinity said that racism also includes a “constant othering”. “I am constantly reminded on a daily basis, that I am a person of colour, and that informs every single interaction I have, both on campus and off it as well,” she said.

“Institutionalised racism manifests itself in much more subtle and covert ways and is often dismissed and ignored by people in positions of authority. It cannot be proven in most cases.”

“My experience of racism in higher education in Ireland has been both personal, but also observational; the personal being informed by my experiences of navigating a system and academia as a scholar with the visible baggage of race and the observational through my experiences of forming friendships and associations with other students of colour.”

In Ireland, Ms Ahmed said “the language and comfort required to speak about race, and racialized minorities, does not exist.” Ms Ahmed is a PhD student in Trinity’s School of Law, researching the right to freedom of religion within the international human rights legal system and Islamic jurisprudence.

Professor Premesh Lalu, a visiting research fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub from the University of the Western Cape, South Africa looked at how racism continues to evolve under different guises, often returning in more virulent forms throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

He discussed the link between technology and race arguing that race and the rapid expansion of technological objects of communication and control are central to understanding racism.

“Race underwrites our planetary crisis”, he said, and “rethinking its attachments to technology, may offer us a different perspective and a different course of action” on many global issues.