Oh, you’re Irish?

 

This blog has mainly been my thoughts on American politics and issues so far, but I feel the need to address something that isn’t necessarily an ‘American’ thing. I certainly haven’t experienced it in New York, or DC. I’m talking about meeting people who hear ‘Irish’, and react in ways that are… puzzling.

I’m sitting in a bank manager’s office, opening an account. As I don’t have a social security number, I need to fill out one or two extra forms. “I’m actually from Ireland, I just got married to an American”, I say by way of explanation. The manager’s eyes widen slightly, followed by a conspiratorial grin. I know what’s coming, and I mentally prepare my frozen rictus smile. “I know someone Scottish, you know. He’s been here years”.

In the post office, I’m sending a package home to my mother. The woman behind the counter glances at the package, and smiles. “I thought I heard an accent! I spent a summer in London.” I resist the urge to reply that some of my best friends are Canadians, and nod with a smile.

I have to return to the bank, I need to sign another document. It’s a different person this time, necessitating a quick recap of my situation. A quick businesslike nod, and the new manager goes to collect the form for me to sign. I have a palpable sense of relief. Too soon. The manager pops her head back around the door. “My brother married a welsh woman. They have a daughter. She has elf ears”. This is a new level. I’m not sure the blank, vaguely indulgent smile will cut it here. She’s waiting for a response. “… ehh, whereabouts in Wales is she from?” I spend the next 5 minutes avoiding my wife’s ‘you brought this on yourself’ face while the manager navigates her Facebook profile to pinpoint the exact town. (It was Brechin, you’ll be relieved to know. Brechin is in Scotland.)

My wife had a conversation with a pastor just yesterday who was absolutely adamant that Dublin was part of the UK, as it was in the North. Eventually he asked my wife ‘Where did you go to school?” “Dublin”, she replied.

These are all absolutely true stories. I’m leaving out the multitude of responses that are variations on “You’re Irish? I LOVE the UK!”, which is unquestionably going to be a contributory factor in the massive stroke that’s in the post for me.

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Outsiders

Protest

In many ways, I’m an outsider in America. People are confused by my accent, I’m left baffled by certain customs and turns of phrase.

However, in a vitally important way, I am not. I can see police, talk to police, indeed have been stopped by police, without fear. This week has brought home in stark and sobering relief how this is not an assumption that millions of Americans can share. How can large swathes of the black community feel like anything other than outside the much lauded American justice system, with its notions of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, and a ‘jury of your peers’?I have had conversations with people, black and white, who in response to Ferguson and the shooting of Michael Brown, have said some variation on ‘well he was no choirboy- you have to see it from the police officers point of view’.While I don’t agree with these arguments, I understand the urge to give Darren Wilson the benefit of the doubt. There is no video footage of the altercation, and people do seem to want to believe the best of those who are sworn to protect them- even though the benefit of the doubt is something not routinely offered to victims. But I cannot fathom how anyone looks at this case, and then at Tamir Rice, and then at Eric Garner, and fail to see that black lives are judged as less important than white in America. Search for the hashtags “crimingwhilewhite” and “alivewhileblack” to see the disparity in experiences, and ask yourself who isn’t showing ‘respect for the law’. Remember Jared Lee Loughner? Remember James Holmes? White men who committed murder, yet were subdued on the scene without being killed. They were arrested, processed, and availed of the help and protection offered by the American Justice system. Just to be clear, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that should be the procedure for everyone, as far as possible. Conservative websites and Fox News twist themselves into knots to simultaneously dismiss race as a factor (this is not a black/white issue, this is a thug/ police officer issue, one commentator said) while blaming Obama and Eric Holder for stoking racial tension. This may have been a useful strategy to demonise legitimate outrage and protest in Ferguson, but there is video footage of Eric Garner. He is agitated, but obviously not a threat to anyone, certainly not  the armed police who surround him. And how thuggish was Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy with a toy gun? These are not isolated cases; although official statistics are not kept. At what point do people start giving the victims the benefit of the doubt? At what point does a militarised police force who face no sanction for the murder of black children lose the benefit of the doubt? Peter Beinart in the Atlantic compares the case of Eric Garner with the summer’s conservative cause célèbre, Cliven Bundy, who was flouting the law for more than a decade, was heavily armed, and openly hostile to law enforcement. Try to find how many right wing commentators referred to Cliven Bundy as a ‘thug’.

The hypocrisy and double standards across media are not unique to America, and have long since ceased to be a surprise. But the lack of empathy people exhibit, the presumption that the overwhelming power given to police is not being abused, and the urge to shift blame onto the victim is something I don’t think I’ll ever fully wrap my arms around. In this, I want to remain, in my own safe and nonthreatening way, an outsider.