The expression “white privilege” has been around for years but “white skin privilege” has recently been repopularised in the US, where numerous African-American deaths at the hands of police have ignited the Black Lives Matter movement. Broadly speaking, it means the interlocking societal benefits that Caucasians in the West enjoy – benefits that non-white people in the same social, political, or economic circumstances can only look at from the outside, like kids pressed up against a sweet shop window.
In Ireland – a country where up until very recently anyone not 100 per cent white and Christian was seen as something different – white privilege is rooted in the blissful unawareness of the obstacles people of colour experience. The failure to see the destructive attitudes that exist in our communities; our collective neglect in making this land inhospitable for racist ideas and actions.
The best example I have is my own life. I’m half-Asian, but with plenty of white people here to blend in with, I pretty much pass for white on the street. It would be hard for me to deny that it’s made my life easier. Nobody has ever told me to go back to my own country or denied my right to identify as an Irish person. No stranger has ever targeted me with a racial slur. I inadvertently benefit from white privilege; except, of course, online when my foreign-sounding surname means it’s open season.
White privilege is different to overt prejudice and the majority of Irish people deplore naked, boilerplate racism, of course. But one of its defining traits is that those who benefit may be unaware that they do so.
There are plenty of Irish people who will look away when a person of colour – born here or not – points to race-based prejudice. They’ve created their own bubble, unaffected by the same discrimination, that denies its existence. They will contort themselves into pretzels to stop it from being burst.
Take the case of Samia Jalal, who applied for the same job at a Dublin radio station under two different names: her own and the more traditionally Melanin-deprived name of Neville. One was accepted for an interview and the other received a rejection notice. The excuse from the company that this was nothing more sinister than an "administrative error" seems beyond the realms of believability. Jalal hit social media with facts and evidence, but her claims were met with derision.
And then there is the popular @Ireland Twitter account – which sees a different person curate it each week in an attempt to paint a broad picture of contemporary Irish society. It suffered numerous racist attacks when Michelle Marie, a black woman, took the wheel.
The Last Word on Today FM had a segment on the back of this that discussed racism in Ireland. It featured an all-white panel. *
Perhaps that’s why the Irish slave myth has surfaced. The indentured servitude experienced by Irish immigrants in America is being compared to the horrors of perpetual chattel slavery as a way of delegitimising black suffering. It’s horribly inaccurate.
In 2016, people of colour’s modern-day torments are still being marginalised. Prejudice isn’t being called out. Victims of racism are being met with suspicion. When it comes to race relations, there’s plenty of distance left to run. White privilege is real and it’s in Ireland.
Dean Van Nguyen is a freelance journalist and editor covering media, music and pop culture
* This article was amended on October 21st, 2016