Symbols are important in stimulating debates, but nothing would have prepared me, in the 21st century, for the sight of a sculpture depicting a black man holding a tray with sweets in a hotel lobby during a trip to a European city some years ago.
The image reminded me of the films I use to see when I was young and growing up in Africa. In those Hollywood movies, people of colour played roles reifying the status of their race. These images were reminders of the dark days of slavery and indeed the Apartheid regime that was still in place in South Africa.
Thankfully, as I started questioning the motivation of Hollywood film producers, I became exposed to films from Bollywood and movies made in China, and later I saw pictures made in sub-Saharan Africa. (This does not explain why I never aspired to be an actor, the reason being that I was never good on stage, and suppose I did not try hard enough.)
Returning to the sculpture – the next day I spoke to other people of colour that had stayed at the same hotel and who were attending the same event I had travelled to attend. Our contrasting views came as a surprise, because ethnic minorities living in the country I was visiting did not see any problem with the image. Moreover, my views were shared by a some ethnic minorities who, like myself, were shocked. I have since been considering how we as humans internalise oppression to the point of becoming blind to symbols of racism. (I am conscious that as I write this piece, there are debates about the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University. For those not familiar with the Rhodes story, they can find a clue in the former name of Zimbabwe: Rhodesia.)
Why is the lobby sculpture relevant? Why is it worth a mention in Ireland? Notwithstanding the sculpture presence, judging by the way I and other people of colour were treated during our stay, I can without doubt say that the hotel staff and management were not racist. They were, from my perspective, unaware of the fact that residents like myself might find the sculpture offensive.
I was in two minds on whether or not to complain. The fact that locally based minorities did not see any problem with the sculpture compelled me to review and decide on the strategy to use in sharing my views about it. After considering my options over a number of years, I have decided to share my experience here, and in doing so, I am hoping to trigger a reaction among my Irish readers.
Are there any symbols that you see regularly, that after reading this piece, you’ve started questioning? How do you react to the portrayal of diversity in the media? Have you thought about some of the images used for fundraising for good causes in other parts of the world?
During a speech I gave at event hosted by Fás in 2001, I shared a story relating to a discussion to which I was privy, during which someone said that the closest they had been to a black person prior to that year was the ‘black baby box’. In other words, society and education had not prepared them for the diversity of the workplace in Ireland from the late 1990s onwards. I am assuming that 15 years on things have changed for the better; today diversity is part and parcel of all facets of Irish life.
I encourage you to look at symbols that may be interpreted, for one reason or another, by members of minority communities as symbols of oppression. Maybe some readers will be brave and react immediately, unlike what happened in my case. Some such symbols are very valuable to other members of society. (The debate over the Rhodes statue in Oxford offers a good example of what I am talking about.)
The Lord Mayor of Dublin’s action in February 2014 to introduce the Frederick Douglass Award “for outstanding contribution to civic life in Dublin by an immigrant” is an innovative idea on how to use symbols in promoting diversity and inclusion, rather than oppression. The honour, first bestowed on broadcaster and LGBT activist Dil Wickremasinghe, commemorates the African-American anti-slavery campaigner who visited Ireland in 1845 and “wrote of how he was treated as an equal”.
It would be interesting to hear the views of people of migrant backgrounds who made Ireland their home in the last 20 years and see if they share the views of Frederick Douglass. While the experience in terms of integration has been largely positive, we need to harness that positivity for the benefit of all, and the long-awaited Integration Strategy will set the path.
Above all, we need to encourage interactions between established communities and ethnic minorities. This will help in dispelling myths and highlighting the fact that, as members of the human race, we have the same needs and aspirations for our children.
As we celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising, we have to remember the fact that the group that led the revolution was diverse. It included people with some migrant connections, Protestants and Catholics alike, and indeed others aligning with less obvious ‘isms’.
It’s important to avoid the over-simplification of facts that tends to binaries, to distinguish between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ characters. Inclusivity enhances creativity, while groupthink tends to produce less sustainable outcomes.
Normalisation and non-questioning of symbols that others might consider offensive should not be the norm, if we want minorities to develop, cherish and enjoy their belonging in society. The 1916 Rising centenary gives Ireland the opportunity to reflect on the past, the present and more importantly, to shape an inclusive future for Ireland; that cherishes all the children of the nation as enshrined in the Constitution.
Dr Fidèle Mutwarasibo is principal consultant at Dileas Consulting and a member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.