The first sociology essay that I wrote shortly after my arrival in Ireland, just over 20 years ago, took on the subject of school uniforms in post-colonial Africa. In the essay, I reflected upon the wearing of blazers in places where the temperature at times exceed 35C. I also discussed the positive aspects of school uniform in terms of setting aside issues like socio-economic status by virtue of their egalitarian nature.
In my primary school years, the uniform was compulsory – and a tool for exclusion of those who could not afford it. Countless people I knew dropped out of school because they did not have a uniform. In my secondary school days it was different: in theory there was a school uniform, but there was no strict enforcement and I hardly ever wore it.
My views on school uniforms are ambivalent and have not paid too much attention to them for the last 20 years except when the uniform debate arises in a family context or in the media in the context of religious symbols.
In a wider context, in my sociological research and practice endeavours, I have been interested in looking at symbols of power and authority, status, identity, citizenship and so forth. As such, the school uniform has to be seen in a wider context beyond its mundane perception. Indeed the recent debate on laïcité – the absence of religious influence – in French schools brought to the fore the essence of the school uniform as a significant symbol in multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies.
At a recent event in Dublin, a young person of migrant background narrated her experience of the move to university as an awakening. While her identity had not been questioned when she was wearing the school uniform, her experience changed dramatically when she started getting compliments in relation to her English, and conversely, being told to return ‘home’.
Dublin is her home and she considers herself to be a Dubliner. Furthermore, it has been a while since she lived in her parents’ country of origin and hence has little attachment to the country. She said she was unable to comprehend how the change in people’s attitudes towards her as a person dramatically changed once she no longer wore her school uniform.
She even went further and jokingly said that if she had known this was going to happen, or indeed if she had been warned by her career advisor, she would have pursued a career in banking to continue her life in uniform. It’s truly a sad state of affairs when one contemplates hiding their identity under a uniform in a multi-ethnic society such as 21st-century Ireland.
I have been reflecting on her experience since and decided to share this story with others in order to stimulate a debate and contribute to discussions on what Irishness means today. This experience reminded me of the work of Benedict Anderson on imagined community, and how often the what’s imagined is not in line with the actual community.
To simplify things, the imagined community refers to how members of the inner group sometimes called ‘indigenous society’ perceive themselves. The definition of imagined community comes about when the inner group contrasts itself with an outer group; in this context, the outer groups are migrant communities.
We are all aware of how representation and mass communication can challenge or indeed reinforce the imagined community, and in extreme cases alienate those who don’t feel that their identity is reflected in the imagined community. Yet culture and indeed identity are not static but dynamic.
Ireland is lucky to be one of the latest countries of immigration. And we can maximise the learning from Irish emigrants’ experiences in other countries; the learning from missionaries and development workers who have served overseas; and the experiences of countries with the history of immigration.
Challenge our attitudes
As a society, we will have to develop our own pathway. This is especially the case in terms of learning from other places with an immigration history. The traditional models of guest workers, assimilation and multiculturalism have shown their limitations. Ireland has already outgrown the recommendations of publications such as Integration: a Two Way Process in 1999, the National Action Plan Against Racism in 2005 and Migration Nation in 2008, and will undoubtedly advocate interculturalism in the forthcoming Integration Strategy.
Interculturalism is underpinned by interactions between members the inner groups and migrants. Encouraging interactions between all members of society will help in building intercultural competences – all groups learning to understand and respect each other – and challenge our attitudes towards members of various communities that are now part of the pluralistic Irish community. This will in turn help us in seeing and engaging with individuals as people, whether or not they are wearing a uniform or any other symbols.
Having said that, the diversity messages will only sink in when all members of society are able to identify themselves in the politicians we elect, the media we consume, the civil service that serves the community, the teams that represent the nation, the gardaí who police our communities, or our immigration officers who welcome us at the port of entry. As the adage goes: a lot done, more to do.
Dr Fidele Mutwarasibo is principal consultant at Dileas Consulting and a member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.