Racist B&B: Rattling the cage of bigotry

When Carl Austin was racially abused in Kinsale recently, his wife, the comedian Tara Flynn, decided to send up Irish bigotry in a sketch that has clocked up almost 100,000 views in its first few days on YouTube

Video response: Carl Austin and Tara Flynn. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Video response: Carl Austin and Tara Flynn. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Sat, Jun 15, 2013, 11:23

When Carl Austin, an African-American man who is married to the Irish comedian Tara Flynn, was in Kinsale recently he heard a word that shook him.

The couple were visiting Flynn’s mother in the Co Cork town when Austin took their dog, Oscar, for a walk. “We passed this pub – I don’t know what it was called – and there were about four guys outside, doing whatever guys do outside pubs.

“I wasn’t paying attention until I heard a word I hadn’t heard in quite some time. I won’t say what it was, but it’s a word that has no other definition than what it means. I stopped and stared at them, maybe for 15 seconds. They were laughing amongst themselves. I turned and went on my way.”

Video: Tara Flynn's 'Racist B&B'

Austin tried to forget what had been a racist insult, but Flynn didn’t. The comedian, who grew up in Kinsale, says she “felt horrible” that her husband wasn’t totally safe in her home town. She describes it as “usually such a tolerant place . . . It was a verbal assault, and a lot of people are minimising it and saying it was just words, but he was unsettled. He was rattled. An assault is an assault.”

She made a video sketch in response to the incident and uploaded it this week to YouTube, where it clocked up more than 85,000 views in two days.

The sketch, which riffs on a Nationwide-style format, plays on the image Irish people often propagate of a welcoming country, showing that ugliness can lurk beneath such glossy hospitality. The video features the bean an tí of Ireland’s fictional foremost “racist B&B”, whose unique selling point is to blend rural niceness with bigotry.

“I think it’s the best way to protest this,” Austin says. “I’ve always said – and this is before I married a comedian – if you want to make someone think about something, don’t preach to them: make them laugh while making them think. Some things are so ridiculous – and I would consider racial slurs as one of those things – that the only thing you can do is laugh at them. It’s a much better way of dealing with it than lashing out.”

“Reading the responses people have sent me has been a real eye-opener,” Flynn says. “I seem to have rattled a big cage. People don’t want to be reminded it’s out there, they don’t want to be challenged if they’ve a leaning towards it, and they get very cross.”

Comments on Flynn’s website tell of boyfriends being racially abused by people shouting from passing cars, a woman whose Chinese husband was abused a few weeks ago around the corner from their house, a woman whose Asian-American husband has been called names in the street, and a British Pakistani man who was abused to such an extent that he and his white partner moved to England.

What do Austin and Flynn believe might prompt racism in Ireland? Both mention economic hardship. “Traditionally, that intensifies this kind of problem,” Flynn says. Austin adds, “A lot of people, they need to be able to blame someone for things that they don’t like . . . It can bring out those tendencies for people who normally mightn’t even think like that.”

The abuse in Kinsale is not the first racist incident Austin has experienced in Ireland. He says it brought back a feeling he thought was in the past. “My mother grew up in Arkansas during the civil-rights movement. I lived there for parts of my youth when racism was right there. They didn’t try to hide it. It’s not good to make comparisons, but it could be worse is what I’m trying to say. But that’s not good enough in any shape or form.”

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