There was justified surprise, and no little bemusement, on Wednesday evening, at the sight of a discussion on Virgin Media about whether Irish people benefit from “White privilege”. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:
— 243Cal 🇮🇪 (@243_cal) February 2, 2022
For me, the most interesting thing in that clip is not the guest, but the presenter. Watch it closely, and you’ll notice that Claire Brock is not asking her guest about white privilege but asserting it as fact. Here’s what she says, verbatim: “White people have an advantage in life simply because of the colour of their skin. We don’t even necessarily know we have this advantage, because we haven’t lived in your shoes, but that’s the reality”.
That is not a question – it is a statement of fact. “That’s the reality”, she says, inviting her guest to comment on it. There are a very great many Irish people, living in relative poverty and deprivation, who will be surprised to learn that they are the beneficiaries of white privilege.
The notion of white privilege should be taken seriously – if for no other reason that it is increasingly being embedded as a foundational pillar across the whole western education system. It is, like most modern bad ideas, a product of people in American universities. But at least in America, there is some logic to it.
The basic idea is that people who are white get an inherent advantage over people who are black at the moment of their births, because of all that has come before: White settlers in the United States often received parcels of land doled out by the American Government – land taken, unjustly, from native Americans. Black settlers, by contrast, usually arrived as slaves. Generations later, it might be said that the average descendant of a white settler has benefitted from historic advantages given to their ancestors that their black compatriot simply didn’t have, resulting in higher average net wealth and opportunity for modern whites. That is the basic idea. It’s a very simplistic idea, which suggests that one’s life is governed far more by events a hundred years ago than events today, but it at least makes some sense in the context of American history.
The problem, of course, is that it is an idea which simply cannot be applied to Ireland. It is a simple statement of fact that in general, Irish people did not benefit at the expense of black people, or Asian people, or anybody else. Indeed, many of our ancestors were the people dispossessed of their land and holdings on account of their religion and race. And beyond that, many of our ancestors suffered from inheritance laws designed to split up family holdings, and make each subsequent generation a little poorer. We ended up a nation of small tenant farmers, and it has taken a century to begin to unwind that.
At no stage were people in Ireland set above, or given advantages over, their black neighbours. If the whole foundation of the idea of “white privilege” is historic oppression, then those oppressions simply did not exist here. Black people in Ireland were not deprived of land, or language, or culture, or religion. That happened to Irish people, in fact. You can make a better – though still tenuous and, in my view, stupidly sectarian – case for protestant privilege in Ireland than you can for white privilege.
The problem, as ever, is that the facts don’t fit the culture war preferences of a certain kind of Irish journalist and activist, who tends to identify much more closely in terms of political and cultural outlook with the east coast of America than they do with the tiny, stone-walled fields of Connemara, which are living evidence of our own historic disadvantages. If black people in America suffered oppressions, it must de facto follow that black people in Ireland share the same historic disadvantages. Facts do not really come into it: This is a matter of cultural, not historic, interpretation. That is why Claire Brock is so adamant that white privilege is a real problem in Ireland. It’s just the thing that right-thinking, liberal-minded people in America now accept. The modern, secular, version of original sin.
But of course, in the real world, the truth is that the most disadvantaged people in Ireland tend overwhelmingly to be white. Irish travellers, with poor literacy rates and poor health outcomes, are white. Most of our worst inner-city blackspots, in terms of crime, poverty, and anti-social behaviour, are majority white. In fact in some areas, compared to their impoverished Irish counterparts, migrants here have relative advantages: Monaghan Councillor Seamus Treanor was recently denounced by SIPO for a leaflet pointing out that several families were bumped down the housing list in Monaghan to make way for Syrian refugees, who were given preferential treatment. His statement may have made people uncomfortable, but it was not untrue. In that case, people with darker skin were actively advantaged over white-skinned Irish people, uncomfortable as that fact might make some people.
None of this is about racism, either: Racism – the discrimination against, or abuse of, people on grounds of their skin colour or ethnic background – is contemptible. But “white privilege” is not about racism in the current moment . Instead, it suggests instead systemic advantages gained on the basis of racism by one’s ancestors. Vanishingly few Irish families can trace modern day advantages to the racist acts of their forefathers. It simply is not something which happened on this island.
What’s happening here is the same thing that is happening right across the elite of Irish society: An obsession with transposing the prejudices of American progressives into Irish culture, whether those prejudices fit or not. Talking about white privilege will get you nods of sombre approval in the right company, and mark you out as an enlightened and compassionate person. The fact that it is utter nonsense in the Irish context matters not a jot.
What Claire Brock did in that clip above was not journalism: There is no curiosity to it – there isn’t even really a question, and there is no openness at all to the idea that there might be another perspective. It was, instead, just another example of the performative progressivism that masquerades as current affairs coverage amongst too many in the media.