Earlier this week Irish Social Media and regular media, were having the vapours about a dramatic example of racism in Ireland. A mind-your-own-business Spanish tourist was sitting in a St*"!*cks in Dublin, when a drunken yob hucked a lunger and spat in his face, shouted "Foreigners" and swept out of the cafe. According to the reports, everyone in the cafe was gobsmacked and didn't stir to apprehend the perp. Actually, of course, only one man in the place was smacked by gob: the rest were just having an attack of bystander effect. As the drunk left the premises, it is reported that a beer bottle fell from his his pocket and smashed on the ground - a telling metaphor for his condition: would it count as pathetic fallacy? It is certainly pathetic journalism because it avoids the difficult bits: we can all now suck our teeth and tsk-tsk because we would none of us be guilty of such a flagrant breach of good manners and so by extension we are not racist. Hmmm? Not the teensy tiniest bit racist?
I've written before about, say, bus-drivers being clever enough to note the colour of a passenger's skin but too dense and benighted in their ethics to ignore it. If you have a black person in front of you, you can casually ignore them, or pause before serving them, or find a reason why their kettle just cannot be fixed. But how do you work it out from an e-mail?
It's the surname stupid! The EU optimistically claims that there are 140,000 speakers of Irish in Ireland and some of them have gone back to an ancient parchment deed and brought to life an exotic and largely romantic version of their ordinary surname. See if you can guess what Ceallacháin, Ní Dhulchaointigh, Muimhneacháin, and Seoighe were two generations ago when (being) Irish was distinctly unsexy. I don't know of any case where the Irish version has fewer letters than the terse English equivalent - Churchill, famous for his use of Anglo-Saxon terms recommended "Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all." He got a Nobel Prize for Literature , so he must be correct; although to give Churchill the Nobel Prize was a decision somewhere on the spectrum of bonkers to deeply unimaginative.
Nobody is going to refuse to interview Ms Seoighe, not least because she is symmetrical, but if a CV comes in from Ms Al Malaawi, or Mr Rakotodramananana, it must be easy to imagine trouble with English, let alone trouble with clients or office-mates, and put it to one side. One of my mature students, a charming PakistanIrish addition to multicultural Ireland used to be manager of a section of fast-food franchises - he was told by his boss not to employ "any blacks" because Irish people didn't like to be served by such people.
In Environmental Chemistry, in discussion of water pollution we recognise point sources and diffuse sources. The former are much easier to deal with: if all the fish go belly-up downstream from the cheese factory, it is a racing certainty that someone has left the whey-discharge tap open all night and the EPA can prosecute. But nitrate run-off into Irish waters? That's an unavoidable part of the human condition in the modern farming world, everyone is guilty and it is therefore futile to point fingers. It's like that with the social pollution of racism: we can, if we have moral courage and dare risk a biffing, run after the gobber described above and point out the errors of his ways. Or, more likely, we can feel ashamed that we didn't act quick enough to do so.
It is much more difficult to recognise our own casual racism and do something about that.