|Fr. Des Wilson: “Racism is just
a manifestation of a much deeper problem: desperate humans need to hurt
other people in order to feel good… ”
By Irina Malenko
-Fr. Des, you are a well-known figure not just in Belfast, but in the whole of Ireland – a Rebellious Priest, as they call you… But our readers are actually foreigners, so most of them would know very little about you… Could you say a few words about yourself?
- I was born and lived all my life in Belfast. I was working here as part of the college staff, then – in a parish, until I finally decided that if I wanted to get things done that I wanted to do most in my life, I had to detach myself from all this apparatus of the church. But I am still remaining a Catholic priest, of course… This is an educational project that was found in 1972 – and this is my full-time business…
- The Irish people have experienced an enormous amount of racism, both in England and in America and back at home, in Ireland itself. It seems that because of their own history, the Irish should know better than most of other Europeans what it is like to be racially discriminated against, and how does discrimination affect your life… Yet, at the moment we are witnessing a strong growth of racism in this country that is becoming more and more obvious – because of the growing number of newcomers from all around the world. Why do the Irish tend to feel this way about the immigrants?
-There is an assumption there that people from other countries are in some way less important or inferior. People here might not realise the extend to which they were subjected to propaganda that came mainly – well, almost exclusively! - from the English speaking sources. Children are brought up to believe a number of things: a) that the Native Americans, Australians, Canadians are inferior and that it was quite right for Europeans to go over and to conquer and to destroy their systems and cultures; b) there is also an immense amount of propaganda coming through newspapers, films, books etc, which said that the continental European people were inferior to the Great British.
And, of course, a lot of us were subjected to this propaganda,
and it seems that it is now printed somewhere in people’s minds an idea
that somehow there was inferiority there… Although you might not actually
be antagonistic… As well as the Irish missionary work assumed that
we were bringing something to the Africans and the Native Americans and
that our version of life and of Christianity were much better than
anybody else’s – and the right thing to do was to dismantle other
people’s cultures… All this was horrifying when you look back at it, but
this is until now built into people’s minds, so I am not surprised if,
say, people come from Nigeria or Kenya or any other country to Ireland,
that they are being looked upon as “not quite as important as we are…”.
On the other hand, Americans are being looked upon as superior. British
are being looked upon as superior. And then, of course, there was the whole
history of the so-called “Cold War”, when you had to look upon the
Russian system or any other systems, in Nicaragua or Cuba, at any system
that was disapproved by the American and the British government : they
were held to be “inferior”, and it was “right” to dismantle them, so it
was all built-in into the people. And no matter how much good will you
have, you will find that these prejudges will come through, and I
have been making a plea that if we are going to be serious about fighting
racism in Ireland, we have to talk in the first place about the anti-Irish
- That brings us closer to my next question: the Irish people here, in the North of Ireland, are still suffering from sectarian discrimination. Sectarianism is just a form of racism . Could you tell us how does it affect people here in their daily lives, until now?
- On one hand – there is a quite open manifestation: people are being refused jobs, houses, even being refused to be allowed to live in a certain area because of their religion. On the other hand, again and again people who wanted to be pleasant to you, would make remarks about how they admire your religion or your culture… That becomes so tedious that you just simply say: “I don’t want to talk to those people anymore!” – because they are going to tell me how many Catholic priests they know, and how wonderful Irish dancing is or Irish whiskey is… All of this made together will come to the point that “how wonderful it is to meet an Irish priest because he’d always offer you an Irish whiskey” – which is ridiculous… But that’s the kind of a mindset : that they had to please you by this.
So, there are all kinds of manifestations of it in a daily life. And
,of course, the terrible need that people felt - to find out
what religion you have.. You have to fight very hard against it and to
say : “No, we are not even going to ask…”
- Well, I must confess to you, Father, that even I am still fighting with it in myself: since I came here, whenever I am being introduced to a new person, I AM UNWILLINGLY STARTING THINKING AND TRYING TO GUESS WHAT IS HIS OR HER RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND… But I am struggling with it and hope to overcome it soon. However, I noticed a striking difference in attitude towards immigrants in the South and in the North of Ireland: here, in the North, people seem to be much friendlier, much more interested in you in a friendly way than in a more hostile, in general, South… I wonder: is it because, so far, there are much less immigrants here or does it have to do more with the hardships of life people here had to go through, while in the South people are getting more spoiled and materialistic, because of the Celtic Tiger?
- It’s very hard to know. And that’s why I would like to see a study of what racism really means and what are its manifestations. It means , if we got a situation where in the church and in the political parties is somehow this assumption that some people are less worthy, then you are bound to have a reaction reflecting this, on the streets. Here, in the North, we would look upon discrimination against ,or public insult against homosexual people rather than insult based on person’s colour, for example.
I’d say there are many areas in Belfast where a person who is Black would walk quite happily along the street, while a person who is known to be a homosexual, would not be able to do so. Where as in Dublin, I noticed, that the whole question of homosexuality has been brought out in the open and has become very much acceptable, I’d say, to the majority of people, but they are having another problem – with a colour of somebody’s skin. So, there is a difference in manifestation of people’s dislike of difference.
I think here we have a reasonable chance: there is an initiative now
of Irish-African friendship and that is being run by a number of people,
including academics from Queens University, and I’m sure things like that
will help. It also helps that over the years we’ve had people coming here
from Nigeria and going here to university and being very closely associated
with some of the Catholic organisations – which helped a bit. But
up here, way back in 1969-1970, it was very interesting to see 2
manifestations of racism:
- When you were speaking, I just remember how I came to Holland with my Russian University diploma – and I was told there, even though people there had no idea what our educational system was like, that my diploma will be “ worth nothing in this country”… It was quite hard to study in Russia, the education I got was excellent, and I did a lot of work. Yet, I had to go “back to school” – and to study in a Dutch university from the very beginning. And, I can assure you, that even though I was studying in a foreign language, it was much easier than back at home – and I didn’t really learn much there… But such were the assumptions and the prejudges of the western society about ours…
- That’s very interesting, because the same assumption is here that, once you get beyond America or Britain, there are lands where people are inferior and so is their level of teaching and their culture…It’s very difficult to sustain that when most of your music and literature comes, from, let say, France or Germany. But nevertheless, there is an idea that a foreign university or a foreign institute of any sort is “less competent” I remember this tremendous surprise I got as a youngster when I first learnt that Italians had a great reputation for engineering and the surprise that I got when I saw first the pictures of the African cities with high-rise buildings. “That is not what we were being taught!” But the things was built-in, of course, that somehow they were inferior – and it’s still there….
- We are having similar problem in Russia, it was existing to a less extends in Soviet times as well, but it has grown enormously since: when people seriously speak of African students who come to Moscow that they “just got off the tree”… I was always fighting with it back at home…
- That’s very sad – that one of the problems is that the people who suffered themselves from discrimination or racism or other sorts of oppression, quite often turn to be very heavily racist themselves. I noticed this when I went over quite a lot of times to America in the 80s – and I was amazed! The most of the people I met there, were good people with a very strong sense of justice, but from time to time I met people of Irish origin who had the most amazing prejudges against Black or Hispanic people. And this was very hard to understand. And you won’t talk about it because you don’t want to raise ghosts for other people… The fact of the matter was that the majority of people I met, were decent people who would have done anything for justice – but there also were these people, strange enough , of Irish origin… So, it’s not surprising for me what we see now in parts of Ireland, but I do believe that there has to be a tremendous campaign by the schools and anybody else in order to eliminate this- and wherever you can eliminate this or not, I don’t know…
- … But we have to keep on trying…
- That’s exactly the point! And I think , you have to be very severe to people who do it. You see, I’ve given up the idea of reforming the institutions… You might as well talk about “reforming banks” as about “reforming churches”! You don’t do that. It doesn’t work. They tried – and it didn’t. Instead of that, you concentrate all your attention on getting laws made which will immediately stop on their track anybody who makes a slightest reference to a person to their disadvantage because of their race or whatever – and until we make those laws, we are not going to get very far… Now, our laws in this country, North or South, are not efficient. For instance, there are laws that say that you must not make any derogatory reference to another person. But if you will try to put this law into practice, you’ll find out that they’ll tell you: unless you can prove that that remark actually resulted in physical damage to you, you have no case!
-… And unless you can prove that it was said deliberately…
- … And there are all these exceptions which they have very deliberately put into these laws, so that, for instance, when a very disgusting remark was made here to a Catholic bishop, well, he was well able to defend himself, but my point was that we should put it as a test, so I made a complaint to the relevant authorities – and I was told: “If you could actually prove that this remark has resulted in a person going to the bishop’s house and smashing his windows, you would have a case… But as this actually didn’t happen…”
That means that you could have any numbers of insults – and the law didn’t work, so you can be as insulting as you like . The antiracist laws and the laws to protect your good name just do not work.
- That was exactly my perception of this society – when I, from my Soviet background, was confronted with it for the very first time, my sharpest and strongest impression was that in this society criminals have more rights than their victims!
- That’s perfectly true- and people would have to think about it here!
It has to be emphasised that those laws have been made very deliberately because they want to make sure that nobody will be legally able to defend property or a person, except the police.
The police must be given the monopoly of force – just like the army must. That, to me, is very sinister. It’s not a question of protecting people . It’s just to make sure that the police have a monopoly of force – even if they don’t use it. They must have it. And so, you are forbidden to use it.
- That was one of the striking features of the Western society to me
when I just emigrated. I was brought up with the idea that as soon as you
will see something bad happening, don’t just stand there – go and help
people, do something. Because evil is there to fight with! Because in 9
cases out of 10 criminals are such cowards that, once you’ll stand up against
them, they’ll run away. Because it’s a question of human dignity – not
to watch the evil, but to fight it! My favourite quote is that of a Soviet
writer Bruno Yasensky: “Do not be afraid of your friends – in the worst
case, they can betray you. Do not be afraid of your enemies – in the worst
case, they can kill you. Be afraid of the indifferent ones : it is from
their silent blessing that all the evil is happening in the world!”..
- And, of course, if you do stand up, you learn how to defend yourself
and then you have taken away some of the power of the state. And you must
not be allowed to do that. The law is quite determined that the citizen
should be powerless. It happens in a number of spheres. The propaganda
was always telling us that you only got that kind of treatment from the
state in communist countries- and that is why people here fail to understand
that their powers, their ability is being taken away from them day by day.
And we are left where you can’t defend yourself, you are not allowed
to educate your children the way you want to, you are not allowed
to do practically nothing.. And with the rise of the European Union it
is going to be only worse… So, I think that the opposition by the Irish
people of the Treaty of Nice was one of the brightest spots in our lives!
- I also think that in order to understand this, you have to know different kind of life, which, for instance, I know (because I come from a different system). Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the establishment here is so afraid of newcomers: we, foreigners, will bring with us knowledge of a different kind of life – and we will tell about this and eventually, will bring it across to the people here. That different life is possible. That their own life is not what they think it is….
- And then, of course, you will also have to cater for them! In a country like ours – with overwhelmingly Christian ethos – it comes as quite a surprise to the people to find out that there is a need for a Mosque. A synagogue – OK, they got used to that idea of having it, only occasionally, but a mosque… Plus you will also have to cater for people’s food, religious and cultural customs, traditional clothing… People say: we didn’t realise it. And that’s a big test: to see of we are going to be able to receive newcomers or not. I think, as the time goes by, they probably will realise that a lot of racism here is of the same kind as insults that people would use to their fellow citizens. It’s the same as shouting at them loud because they are lame, blind or supporters of a different football club.
- Because they are DIFFERENT!
- That’s right! I come back: in order to understand why people who are doing it, why do they have this instinct that they want to insult others, you have to get down to the very root of this basic desire to hurt other people. And one reason why I would like people to start with the question about anti-Irish racism by Irish people, it’s because that’s the root of why people do those things.
- Because they feel bad about themselves…
- The dreadful thing is that you feel better yourself because you hurt somebody else. That’s an educational problem. There is the other thing too: the difference scares people, and therefore they want to attack people who are different. The schools will tell you that they are fighting against all this, but they are exactly the people who are demanding that everybody will be the same! At school children must have the same religion, they are of the same age in the group, they read the same books, get the same lessons, say the same prayers… They also have uniforms – they even look all the same! How can a school claim that it teaches people a respect for difference if it doesn’t tolerate it?
- That’s a problem for many countries. In fact, in the Netherlands that claims to be such a tolerant country, it is apparently a big problem for the majority if a Moslem woman or girl wants to cover her hair and to wear a traditional dress. People were loosing jobs because of this!
- Those “liberal” people – when it comes down to things like that, you’ll
find out that under the surface they aren’t that liberal, after all… It
must be because people resent difference. If you are going to deal with
it seriously, you’ll almost have to create a cult of difference in schools.
And they are not doing that – and in the churches, of course, people must
all say the same things, believe the same way…Imagine: hundreds of people
must get up in a public place and announce that they all believe the same
way! I don’t know how that works! They couldn’t – and if they couldn’t,
they shouldn’t say it!