In Backwards and Forwards, one of my favorite books on writing drama, David Ball says that two connected events create one action. By this he means one inciting event invites/invokes/encourages a response event that becomes the inciting event for the next action (and so on, and so on, until Hamlet lies dead on the stage). Think of it. I drop my pen. You pick it up and hand it to me. That’s one action. You’ve picked up my pen, and I say thank you. And away we go.
Well, a few weeks ago, two events happened that have conspired to make me consider notions of racism, class, culture, and fitting in. Yes, this again. Shortly after we arrived back in July, I wrote about suddenly being “ethnic. Well, the latest events didn’t so much happen to me, as happen with me.
As part of my multi-pronged campaign to get out and meet people and explore Ireland on foot, my wife, Kalpana, and I headed out to meet a group of folks from a local Walking Club Meet Up group. On the Dublin Bus (route 16a) ride to the walk’s starting point we passed through a good bit of Dublin (south, city center, and north). But it wasn’t until we got to the northern (less affluent) parts of town that two Dublin Bus inspectors came on board.
This was particularly noteworthy because in nine months I’ve never seen a Dublin Bus inspector anywhere (north, south, east, west) at any time. So I’m hyper aware that something is different. One inspector comes upstairs and finds a smattering of passengers that include me (a white American), my wife (Indian American), two Italian girls, an Indian man, an olive-skinned “Middle Eastern-looking” (whatever that means) man, and four other white men. Being the hyper-compliant, goody goody, hall monitor type that I am, I immediately brandish my ticket to the inspector, who promptly ignores it. He checks my wife’s ticket, the Italian girls’ tickets, the Indian man’s tickets, the Middle Eastern man’s ticket, and one of the white men. The he comes back to the front, ignores my aggressively flapping ticket once more, and checks the same tickets again (except for the lone white man), and then leaves.
Clearly this inspector was looking for something among a narrowly defined slice of the population. We found out later (having complained to Dublin Bus about this flagrant act of racial profiling) that the appearance of the inspectors (at all) was likely due to the fact that (unbeknownst to the public) thousands of Euros in ticket have recently gone missing. Yet that hardly explains the profiling, for which the official had no response, except to say that Dublin Bus’ inspectors (and employees overall) represent the pinnacle of professionalism.
While the Irish are often labeled as friendly and easy going, they’ve also been tagged as not being the most racially or culturally sensitive people on the planet. Witness the ubiquitous “damn Polacks taking all the jobs” comments. This comment is almost always meant as a slight on not just folks of Polish heritage, but towards anyone of Eastern European ancestry. I find this attitude puzzling (or not) give the fact that Irish attempts at assimilation have, at times, been greeted less than warmly.
Later that same day, on our walk, I passed an attractive black-skinned woman and her child walking in the park. The woman stood out to me because it’s fairly rare to see dark-skinned people (be they African American, African, Caribbean, or what have you) in Ireland, but mostly because she was attractive. I was conscious of the fact that I was staring at her. Being handicapped myself, there’s a little voice in the back of my head when people look at me with anything other than a casual glance. That voice always asks me, “do I look good today, or is it the limp?” After forty some years of this, I don’t hold it against them, but still I wonder.
So, on this day, with racial issues on my mind, it occurred to me that this woman might think I was profiling her. I found myself thinking, “Man, I hope she thinks I’m a letch and not a bigot.”
Later, it also occurred to me that on the bus I dismissively assumed there were more bus inspectors on the north side of town (the poor side) because that’s where the scammers would be. Is that wrong of me?
Also, I was wearing a flat cap and am a white man. At a quick glance does that make me “look Irish”? I’m told that the cap is too new and nobody Irish and under 60 wears them, so the Irish assume I’m American. American, good? Or pig-dog American, heathen-exploiter, and cultural rapist?
All of this got me thinking, what marks us racially, culturally, stylistically as Irish, American, Indian, African, rich, poor? And when we get to obvious color distinctions, what marks us as poor black, or poor white, and why?
Imagine there are two people standing in line at a store in London (or Dublin, or New York). It’s 7a.m. and both are un-showered and dressed in clean, comfortable old jeans and a t-shirt. Both have clearly stopped in just to grab a newspaper and a coffee. Both are on vacation. Both pay cash. One is from Moscow, and one is from Namibia. One runs a syndicate, while the other is a farmer. One is male, and one is female.
- One is Judy Schwartz, a white Harvard-educated solar energy expert who designs, manufactures, and distributes inexpensive solar panels all across Africa.
- The other is Jim Alamahu, an Ethiopian-born (black-skinned) potato farmer from Moscow, Idaho. He’s also a millionaire.
As I added in more and more details, did you make assumptions about who did what and from where? I did.
At the store, If they are both paying cash and dressed the same, why do we make assumptions about their wealth and class, based on ethnicity/nationality?
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
Taxed in Two Places