Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Go Home

This post is a digression away from discussions of Higher Education but I want to write something about an experience I had at the weekend.

Brexit has brought the vile anti-immigrant rhetoric to the forefront, and in the aftermath of the vote the news was filled with stories of verbal abuse and racist graffiti, largely directed to Eastern Europeans telling them to "go home".

And now I am reading about the burkini ban in Nice, France and the horrid story of a woman being forced to change in front of four male police officers and countless onlookers. The pictures themselves were enough to make me angry as a woman and ashamed as a European. But, for me, the worst part of the story were reports that the onlookers on the beach cheered and shouted "go home."

Now, the story I have to tell does not even come close to the humiliating and racist experience inflicted on that innocent woman and her daughter. But it is a microcosm of how it feels for someone to tell you to "go home".

After Brexit I was repeatedly informed that I have nothing to worry about. Yes I am a European living and working in the UK, but I am also Irish and that makes all the difference apparently! So all that take about "booting out" EU citizens didn't apply to me. Don't worry about it, I was told. Now, this story is less about EU immigration and all about perceptions of nationalities. The point is that micro-aggressions and micro-xenophobia can affect all immigrants to a country, EU or non-EU alike.

I do not have a strong Irish accent. For a number of reasons I have a slight North American accent, which my mother likes to call a "mid-Atlantic accent". Although, trust me, the Irish accent comes out with a glass or two of red wine. But despite the confusion of my accent, I am as Irish as Irish can be - born and raised just outside of Dublin for all of my life.

Saturday found me in a lovely pub/restaurant in Oxford, sat at a table next to the bar. A man standing at the bar repeatedly interrupted my conversation with a friend (an American) to which I politely nodded my head but tried not to engage. That was until the following conversation took place:

Him: "Why are you here?"
Me: "Excuse me?"
Him: "Why are you in Oxford?"
Me: "I work here"
Him: "Why?"
Me: "Because this is where I have my job".
Him: "But why?"
Me: "Why not?"
Him: "Don't you want to work back home?"
Me: "No, I like it here".
Him: "But you're American, right?"
Me: "No, I'm Irish".
Him: "Ahhhh......but why don't you go home to Ireland?"
Me: "Because I like it here and this is where I have my job".
Him: "But you will go home....?"
Me: "Does it matter if I stay or go?"

At this point, he could tell I was getting angry and upset at the implication that I should go home, that I shouldn't be able to live and work in the UK. He apologised, although I doubt he knew why, and ended with:

Him: "Sure weren't those two lads from Skibbereen great in the Olympics?"
Me: "Yes, yes they were".

God bless those two rowers from Skibbereen for rescuing that conversations.

Now, all of the above may not sound that bad. And it wasn't. But it was the first time in 6 years living in the UK that someone made me feel unwelcome here. I felt pretty rubbish as I left that pub, have little to no inclination to return there for a repeat encounter. And if I felt unwelcome and attacked for being an immigrant to this country in that one small encounter, let us all try to imagine how that woman on the beach and her family feels today.

I am an historian and I have, perhaps naively, liked to believe that the role of history is to learn from it lest we repeat the mistakes of the past. More and more I read the news to stories which hark back to the darkest times in our recent history, where we judge people on their language, their skin colour, their religion, their accents. I can only say that this tweet struck a chord with me, and I hope it does the same for you:

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