by Dr. Jem Tosh
(Content warning: Anti-Irish racism in England)
When I was nine years old I had just started a new school. In the first few days there my teacher asked each student to say 'how now brown cow' - a statement used in teaching elocution. As a primary school in England, each student before me said it as you might imagine. However, the Northern Irish pronunction of 'how' (and all the words that rhyme with it) is quite unique. It's so unique, in fact, that it's a common struggle for actors who try their best to mimic the accent to get it anywhere near believable (just check out Sons of Anarchy for some of the more confusing attempts at it).
You learn very quickly that there is something about you that is different, and that difference is cause for social exclusion and ridicule.
I was the last to speak and my attempt was met with ruckus laughter by every student in the room, as well as the teacher. As a child who had talked this way their entire life without question, or laughter, it is a jarring and daunting moment to be singled out for something and have no idea why. You learn very quickly that there is something about you that is different, and that difference is cause for social exclusion and ridicule. It's not as obvious or cruel as the sticks that used to hang around children's necks marked for each time they spoke Irish, but it's just as effective.
Once the laughter had finished, I was made to stand in front of the class and repeat the phrase until I 'got it right' - to replace my Northern Irish accent with a performance of Englishness. These microaggressions, of course, occur within a context of relative powerlessness, as a child in education following the instructions of a teacher. Over time I got very good at this performance, but struggled more with the parts of Northern Irish dialect that go beyond mere pronunication - such as pace, timing, and words unique to where I am from. Every utterance had to be carefully considered before being spoken, a hypersensitivity to social/political context and location. This is painful and exhausting, but the consequences of not being so aware can be severe. The Northern Irish accent can be a sole trigger for violence in Britain, within a present and historical context of colonialism, anti-Irish racism, discrimination and oppression.
That being said, the social, political context and location are equally important when considering anti-Irish racism and white privilege. While the Irish were not always considered 'white', their social position in North America, for example, is very different to Britain. As an Irish individual, I have lived in Northern Ireland, England, and Canada - and my being Irish and my 'Irishness' have been very different in each of those contexts. Therefore, those who draw on the colonial violence enacted on Ireland as a means to undermine racism toward Black and Indigneous folks as well as People of Colour (BIPOC) (by saying that 'whites were slaves too' etc.) fail to consider context - and racism is always context specific.
As an Irish individual, I have lived in Northern Ireland, England, and Canada - and my being Irish and my 'Irishness' have been very different in each of those contexts.
Within North America, the Irish have experienced both discrimination and privilege over a long historical period. They have participated in acts of racial violence toward other marginalised groups, and remain a part of the privileged group of settlers who continue to benefit from the legacy of violent colonial imperialism regarding Indigenous communities in the US and Canada. Also, as Chris Rock's problematic Oscar's performance shows, it is possible to be both a victim of racism and racist to other groups. Therefore, just because some Irish experience racism, that doesn't mean that they are immune to being racist, or tha they have experienced the same struggle as other victimized groups have. Therefore, #blacklivesmatter regardless of the violence towards the Irish many years ago. It is complex interweaving of colonialism and constructions of race that are at play here, not a simple dichotomy of colour.
My first ever job interview after finishing my undergraduate degree was as equally jarring as that day at school. After a 45-minute interview I was told that I was both (a) the most qualified and experienced candidate and (b) not successful. I was told that this was because 'we couldn't understand a word you said', a phrase that confused me further at the time, because it was clear that they had understood. There had been reciprocal conversation for over 40 minutes, that requires successful communication to occur. Over time, I realised that this phrase is used not to mean 'we cannot understand you', but 'we don't like how you speak'. It forces you to change the way you speak, to the preference of the listener, if you are to be successful in whatever it is that you need, whether that's a job, or getting a bottle of water.
It was this moment that I learned that my performance was no longer enough to overcome discrimination in this context - in a professional context. It took much longer to learn how to replace my Northern Irish way of speaking enough to meet the expectations of English professionalism. I learned over and over again that to be successful (or simply to be employed, to gain access to training, services, or basic necessities) I needed to hide my voice more and more.
Over time, I realised that this phrase is used not to mean 'we cannot understand you', but 'we don't like how you speak'.
The fact that the Northern Irish accent is often interpreted within Britain to be 'incorrect' or 'wrong' shows that it is viewed differently than many others. Rather than being viewed as a legitmate accent, it is frequently viewed as a form of communication that needs to change. It is percieved as being incongruent with professionalism, and academia, instead representing more often the longstanding stereotypes of a demonised and ridiculed community - as 'stupid', 'backward', 'poor', and violent. If I were to present research in my voice, it would be recieved very differently (except for the few times I have presented at home - and no one gave it a second thought).
The elitism within academia, especially how it relates to language, is particularly problematic due to the predominance of English and its links to colonialism, making a wide range of global and Indigenous ways of speaking, relating, and knowledges deemed unprofessional, 'less than' English, or laughable. Consequently, it maintains the underrepresentation of marginalized ethnicities and races, classes, communication styles, and disabilities, unless they are willing to sacrifice their voice (culture and heritage) in ways that fit with the mainstream culture. They are then left with a choice, either perform/create a version of yourself that will be (more) accepted, or speak in your voice and be silenced.