Why are dark-skinned young men the target of much racist abuse?

We have the chance to stand above the rising wave of xenophobic nationalism sweeping across Europe

The results of last week’s Brexit referendum revealed with clarity the fear millions of people across the UK feel towards immigration. This racism towards refugees and migrants is not confined to the United Kingdom.

The results of last week’s Brexit referendum revealed with clarity the fear millions of people across the UK feel towards immigration. This racism towards refugees and migrants is not confined to the United Kingdom.

 

A couple of months ago I received a call from a young man I had interviewed. His voice shook as he explained he had just read my article about his journey from Zimbabwe to Ireland seeking asylum.

“I like the article, but I don’t understand why they’re writing those things about me in the comment section,” he said quietly. I was surprised to hear such vulnerability in the voice of a young man who had seemed so confident and self-assured when we met.

I told him to try to ignore the hateful words some people feel compelled to express when they read about asylum seekers and thanked him for having the courage to share his story. “But they don’t understand me,” he said. “They don’t know me.”

After I put down the phone I turned on my laptop and began reading the comments beneath the article. “Deport him”, “go back to Africa”, “you have done nothing to deserve our land”.

While The Irish Times recently introduced additional measures to deter online trolls – including a flagging alert system and only allowing subscribers to comment – hate and disgust plagued many of the initial responses to the piece. The Irish Times is not responsible for comments that appear under Facebook posts, meaning venomous responses to articles show up under social media posts.

On Facebook you cannot hide behind a pseudonym or fake persona. Your profile photo and full name are clearly displayed alongside your comment. These people felt no shame in attacking this young student; they were proud of the venom in their words. They wanted it broadcast to the world that this young, black man was not welcome in Ireland.

Each time I interview someone for New to the Parish – a series which tells the stories of people who have moved to Ireland over the past decade – I warn them of the comments that may appear under the online article.

In the interviews I have carried out with more than 50 couples, families, women and men over the past year, a pattern of online abuse has emerged. While the vast majority receive words of encouragement and welcome, a small group are victims of the vitriolic rantings of online trolls. At least five people have experienced serious online abuse after appearing in the series. What did they have in common? They were all young men and four out of five of them had dark skin and were asylum seekers.

The results of last week’s Brexit referendum revealed with clarity the fear millions of people across the UK feel towards immigration. This racism towards refugees and migrants is not confined to the United Kingdom. While Ireland is full of organisations and community groups putting time and effort into welcoming the small trickle of refugees arriving on our shores, there are still people who respond with fear and distrust.

In March I interviewed a teenage boy who fled his home country in Africa after his mother was killed. He arrived in Ireland alone and without a word of English. When we met he was still wearing his school uniform, having rushed from his final class to meet me. I warned him about the comments; he said he wanted to go ahead with the interview.

I was filled with anger and despair as I read the words that appeared within hours of his story being published online. It’s not like I had never seen trolls attack before. I knew it was coming. Yet, all I could think of was the young, softly-spoken teenager in the school uniform.

Before Christmas, I told the story of a Pakistani teenager who fled his home after the Taliban began targeting him as a potential recruit. His tale of wandering the streets of Dublin alone, also without English, after the man who had brought him to Ireland abandoned him, attracted racist remarks.

I have interviewed female asylum seekers and while their stories do sometimes attract negativity, the real hostility is reserved for men.

Over the past decade, Ireland has rapidly become more multicultural and racially diverse. Yet, often the commentary under my interviews with darker-skinned men reveals an unsettling distrust in this diversity.

Ireland is new to immigration. For most of our history we have been the migrants. As new arrivals to the immigration debate, we have the chance to stand above the rising wave of xenophobic nationalism sweeping across Europe and welcome those of different backgrounds, skin colours and religions.

We cannot let our prejudices and preconceived judgments obstruct a young man’s search for acceptance and safety. If we reject and isolate him, he too will reject us. We must encourage an open-minded society that allows young men with dark skin to speak openly about their dreams for a better future on this small island they would like to call home.

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