Challenging racism

Rome 2008 050The Public Service Executive Union (PSEU) undertook a survey of members earlier this year to assess the extent to which training has been made available to staff in the area of anti-racism and intercultural issues. The project was timely, as so many public servants work directly with members of the public.

The results revealedthat 7% of those surveyed reported witnessing a client or customer being subjected to racist remarks or behaviour in the past year, while 26% said they had witnessed racist remarks by colleagues about clients or customers in the past year.

The results are a reminder that racism has a constant presence in the most developed of societies, and its influence is pernicious. Globally, trade unions have always been at the forefront of challenging racism, and the PSEU project is a timely reminder to the trade union movement that the challenge is ongoing, and demands a proactive stance to eliminate all forms of racism in the workplace.

At its most extreme, racist ideology finds expression in the horror of what took place on Utøya island in Norway just over a year ago. But the corrosive effects of racism begins in the manner in which we choose our words. No sentence that begins “I’m not a racist, but…” ever concludes without a generalised and negative statement about some ethnic minority. The disclaimer doesn’t obviate the inherent racism, it just attempts to disguise it.

‘Political correctness’, while it has become a pejorative term itself, is no more than an approach to language and expression that seeks to minimise offence based on a shared idea of mutual respect.

That Ireland has spent the best part of twenty years becoming a multi-cultural society has been one of the defining experiences of the evolution of the state. It has forced us to ask hard questions of ourselves as to how we view that development, and has tested the truth of our self proclaimed status as ‘Ireland of the welcomes’. But, in the main, tolerance and acceptance have prevailed, while the more challenging task of integration has slowly but surely developed.

The links now being forged between Ireland and the new communities within it have deepened our bond with other nations. This finds expression in the welcome afforded to Irish soccer fans pretty much wherever they travel, not least in Poznań earlier this summer.

While we have developed a better understanding of the new Irish communities within our own,recent events serve as a reminder that we still have blind spots when it comes to racial discrimination. That a racially provoked comment can create a public outcry and successfully influence anapologyis a welcome response.

As in all things, we must be guided by good judgement.