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So much to learn

So much to learn…


As well as alleviating social isolation intergenerational groups help young people and old to abandon unconscious and conscious biases they may harbour about each other.   Working together to create a piece of art, with everyone being equal, people share personal information and in the process ageist, gender and other differences such as nationality fall away.   A person’s previous frame of reference either hinders or helps a positive outcome.   The older people may be better at initiating a one-to-one conversation telling their own stories and showing interest in the young person’s life and ideas.   It may happen that a group of, say, TY students, who initially balk at such participation, want to be part of the process after an initial get-together.


People young and old have character traits in common.   Philosophers over time have devised models of universal inborn personalities and behaviours such as Carl Jung’s Archetypes and Oscar Ichazo’s Enneagram of Personality Types.   Some may try to gain insight into the hidden characteristics of their nearest and dearest and themselves by less scientific means such as reading the Sun Signs.


The idea of bias or prejudice is currently a big issue in the United States and Britain.   The killing of George Floyd in May 2020 was the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter Movement when protests pushed the fight for racial justice.   Nicole Hannah-Jones is the author of The 1619 Project which highlights the legacy of slavery in America and how it continues to shape contemporary life there.   She said The 1619 Project is a more truthful but discomforting origin story than the 1776 origin story of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which hasn’t been lived up to.   Opportunities and economic prosperity for black people hasn’t come near that for white people.


Critical Race Theory is not an idea that has been well received by white Americans.   It asks for acknowledgement of racism in the history of America, that it exists today, and consideration be given to ways to correct the situation.   As it stands, white people are born to privilege and their benefits and advantages could be diluted if all people were treated as equals.


David Olusoga, a British historian, originally from Lagos, Nigeria, talks about how the history of slavery all over the British Empire has been left out of the history of empire.   It was brushed under the carpet but now young generations want to know what happened and they want the record corrected now.   He writes that to be brought up in a racist society is to imbibe racism, then it exists in the subconscious.   People were enslaved in their own countries on plantations and in mines and owned by their British occupiers.   American history of slavery differs in that people were sold from their home country and transported into slavery in America.


Having sailed from Cobh on the SS United States, I disembarked in New York on Tuesday, 7th June, 1960, and was met by my uncle and his family with whom I would live in Ozone Park, Queens, New York.   The next day my cousin took me to get my work permit.   The day after that, their next door neighbour who was from Cork, brought me on the subway to her office near Wall Street where I got a job as a Secretary.   Following my interview, etc. she walked me back to the subway to return home.  Only a few people got on the subway at that time of day including a young black man.   That woman made up a tale about me being hesitant because I had never seen a black man before and that I timidly settled in a seat as far away from him as possible.   This was her own fiction and I couldn’t stop her from telling everyone.  


The truth was that I had seen black people in Dublin where I had lived and worked for the two years before going to New York.   Statistics reveal that some black people lived in Ireland since the 1700’s and there were about 1,000 African students at University in Dublin in 1960.   That daughter of Cork may not have had the time or interest to keep abreast of diversity of the population in Ireland.


Ralph Ellison wrote: “I am an invisible man.   I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind.   I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me”.


The Civil Rights Movement was in progress but I lived in a mostly white area whose population was Northern European and their descendants.   Race relations seemed to be better in New York than in New Jersey.   An uncle and an aunt lived in Plainfield, New Jersey and there were race riots there in 1967.


Its only now that I’m reading about black history written by black people that I learned New Jersey operated a lot like the southern states and had much commercial activity with plantations in the south.   They voted against the abolition of slavery but the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1865.


I don’t know why so many Irish people lived in Plainfield but with so many wealthy families, the Irish girls may have got jobs as domestic servants there.   I remember hearing that during The Depression lots of men lost their jobs in the electronics and chemical industries and these girls were able to support their fellows.


Plainfield’s population of 50,000 now is: Black 41%, White 25%, all other 34%.


Ozone Park’s population of 61,000 now is: Hispanic 40%, Asian 31%, White 16%, Black 6%, all other 7%.


I was fortunate to be able to live in nice, green, quiet and crime-free areas myself.   I suppose I was busy keeping my own life going.   Travelling to work especially around the country to cities that were flash points like Birmingham, Alabama, Atlanta or Newark received wisdom was that a person needed to keep their wits about them to preserve life and limb.


Conversation with some American friends now is fraught with misunderstanding.   But I think people would feel safer if they knew and understood each other better.   James Baldwin, speaking to a group of school teachers in 1963 said:  “By teaching American children the real story of what the country had done to it’s black population you would be liberating not only blacks, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history”.


As people of Ireland we can see our conscious biases and we can take a guess at the collective unconscious biases we would have soaked up.   Its another thing to examine ones own biases and try to neutralize at least some of them.    The whole thing can be defeated by acting from instinct, irrational fear, emotion, making judgements based not on statistical calculations but on feelings and flawed thinking that runs through our lives.


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