Anti-Irish prejudice needs to be challenged. But it is not racism.

Updated: Jun 7

This is a guest blog post written by Gary Walsh, an Associate Tutor and PhD Researcher in the School of Education at University of Glasgow. His research focuses on social justice, citizenship education and philosophy of education. He tweets as @garywalsh1982.

Content warning: mention of police violence, murder, anti-Blackness

The riot by Rangers supporters in George Square on Saturday 15th May, and videos of offensive and hurtful anti-Irish abuse, led to the usage of the phrase ‘anti-Irish racism’ (hereafter ‘a-Ir’) in an interview on STV by the former justice secretary, Humza Yousaf. This was described by campaigners as an important public acknowledgement of a-Ir in Scotland. In this blog I aim to show why the use of this phrase is loose and damaging terminology that converges around the interests of white people while erasing People of Colour (PoC) from the discussion of racism. Challenging anti-Irish prejudice is important, yes, but it is not a form of racism.

My position in this discussion is that of a white Irish cis able-bodied male. I benefit from the many advantages and privileges conferred by those identities. Developing an understanding of that positionality through an intersectional lens is a conscious decision. I acknowledge that this is a different position to that of PoC, who have to navigate such spaces and identities whether by choice or not, due to systemic racism. I was born and grew up in Ireland, and most of my family still live there. Since moving to the UK over twenty years ago, I have experienced anti-Irish prejudice and sectarianism many times, particularly in the West of Scotland (including in school staff rooms, by the way). This has mainly come from self-identified Rangers supporters and, oddly enough, from self-identified Celtic supporters or members of the ‘Irish community in Scotland’, but I am not going to dwell on these incidents here. The point is that even though I have experienced this kind of prejudice and sectarianism, I have never and will never experience racism, because I am white.

This discussion is not purely semantic or theoretical, but it does relate to how racism and prejudice are understood. So, what is racism? Racism is best defined with reference to the broad and diverse body of knowledge often referred to as Critical Race Theory (CRT). This is not a unified theory, but generally speaking, CRT holds that racism is systemic, insidious and socially reproduced. In addition to incidents of overt racial discrimination, CRT recognises that racism is an entire system of oppression codified across society by racial categories in the service of white supremacy (‘racism = prejudice plus power’). Regular readers of The Anti-Racist Educator blog will know that racism has horrific impacts on social outcomes and power structures relating to wealth, health, education, work, standards of living, proximity to policing, as well as the chances of dying in childbirth or during a global pandemic. The evidence on this is as horrendous as it is unambiguous. As Professor Kehinde Andrews (2021) argues: racism is the single biggest determinant of global inequality, violence and genocide.

Prejudice generally refers to pre-conceived ideas about people that lead to incidents of discrimination. Prejudice can be racial in nature, but it can also be based on other identifying characteristics such as nationality, ethnicity, ability, gender and class. Anyone can be prejudiced against anyone else, regardless of race. PoC can be prejudiced against white people, but this is not racism, because there is no structural system of power that oppresses white people. Both racism and prejudice can be systematic, in the sense that an individual or organisation can systematically discriminate against people who share a particular characteristic. Prejudice is not systemic, however, when such incidents are specific and localised, and not an inherent feature of power structures that define modern society.

Some minority groups have experienced historic racialisation and modern racial prejudice. This includes racism against people who are, for example, Jewish (antisemitism), Gypsies, Roma, Travellers and other Romani such as Sinti people (antiziganism). Please note that antisemitism, anti-Roma and anti-Traveller racism are forms of racism. This should not be confused with or enable bad faith claims of 'reverse-racism' or 'racism against white people,' that divide solidarities or erase PoC. Irish people have a history of racialisation due to Ireland's occupation and oppression by the British. However, the Irish diaspora stopped being racialised-as-Irish and later ‘became white’ by participating in the brutal oppression of Indigenous people and PoC, especially in the USA and Australia (see Ignatiev, 2009). This shows that racialisation and racial prejudice are related to, but distinct from, racism. Flows of migration, among other issues, mean that these issues have become increasingly fluid and complex. It is vital to acknowledge, for example, that Black Irish people experience both racism AND anti-Irish prejudice; Black Jewish people experience both anti-Black racism AND antisemitism.

Anti-Irish prejudice and the historic racialisation of Irish people have effects in modern-day Scotland, including horrendous incidents of abuse and violence. At the socio-economic level, Catholics in Scotland, many of whom are of Irish descent, tend to live in post-industrial communities in the central belt. Despite this, however, data from the Scottish Government shows that Catholics are no more likely to live in relative poverty than other groups or religious affiliations. 19% of Catholic adults live in relative poverty, which unfortunately is about average in Scotland. All poverty needs to be urgently addressed, of course, but this is not a case of systemic discrimination against Catholics. This becomes especially clear when compared to the equivalent figure for Muslim adults: 49% of whom live in relative poverty.

Source: Poverty and Income Inequality in Scotland 2016-19. Scottish Government, 2020.

This begs the question, why are campaigners insisting that anti-Irish prejudice should ‘count as’ a form of racism? This could be explained simply by a lack of understanding. Strategically speaking, however, it might make sense to use the word ‘racism’ to gain public attention or political leverage. Racism has become a more powerful word, particularly in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the subsequent global BLM movement. Another question has to be asked here: who benefits from the misappropriation of this powerful word, and from whom is that power being taken?

Racism has become a more powerful word, particularly in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the subsequent global BLM movement. Another question has to be asked here: who benefits from the misappropriation of this powerful word, and from whom is that power being taken?

My main concern with a campaign around a-Ir relates to the erasure of PoC in that discussion, including Black and Brown Irish people (see for relevant personal testimonies). This is similar to 'divide and rule' narratives that pit inequalities against one another. This happens with the ideas of race and class, for instance, with the problematic phrase 'white working class'. This erases Black and Brown PoC, most of whom are working class themselves (in the UK). We don't talk about the 'Black working class', for example, in the same way. The Runnymede Trust has produced some excellent resources on this topic.

This is why education is so important: these complex issues cannot be conflated. Nor can they be muscled together into antiracist education, even if it seems politically convenient or expedient to do so, given recent manifesto commitments related to this. Politicians in particular should be aware and reflective of how they use such terminology. Humza Yousaf was absolutely correct to call out anti-Irish (and anti-Catholic) prejudice and discrimination. Describing it as racism, however, is not accurate. Perhaps more worryingly, taking the additional step of saying in that STV interview that "if this had been about Black people, there would have been universal condemnation" is misguided, unnecessary and dangerous. There would not have been ‘universal condemnation’, precisely because of the systemic prevalence of anti-Black racism.

The divisive narrative of ‘if this was about PoC we would all be outraged’ was also seen in comparisons being drawn in the media between the riot at George Square and the legitimate public protest the week before on Kenmure Street - an action that protected two residents from a Home Office ‘dawn raid’. This signifies why anti-Irish prejudice cannot be placed on the same footing as racism. To put it in crude terms: having to avoid town on a Saturday because the football is on is simply not comparable, in any way, to the risk of being detained and deported because of racist 'Hostile Environment' policies.

Anti-Irish and Anti-Catholic prejudice, discrimination, sectarianism and violence are horrendous and need to be tackled. The hurt caused is real, regardless of what it is called. But the use of loose language that conflates these issues with racism, effectively putting them in competition with each other, should be avoided. We need to pick sides: and it should always be the side of the oppressed. That's how we find out who 'we' are. It is also how we can figure out how to tackle prejudice and racism in all its forms while acting in solidarity with Black and Brown PoC.

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