Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Just Because It's Painted Over...

doesn't mean they don't feel it.

"All Blacks Out"-- this is graffiti on both ends of my neighborhood in reaction to the two Zambian families who moved in this year. Eli and I met the 14-year-old daughter in one family, Ngoma, who told us that she has never liked Belfast because it is too difficult for minorities and, upon hearing that we're American, proceeded to call her friend after we had gone inside and squeal, "AMERICANS! In MY neighborhood!" Her dream is to move to America someday, and quite frankly I don't blame her.
Malia's newest blog post ( got me thinking again of one of the other problems that permeates Belfast, but one that is generally sidelined or overshadowed by the sectarian wars: the quiet but deadly cultural malaise of serious racism. Belfast was recently dubbed with the unappealing moniker of "racism capital of Europe," and all I can think when I hear that is "Thank God it doesn't get worse than this; thank God this isn't status quo." The thing that makes her story difficult to stomach is that it came from middle-class, suburban kids who were being educated in some of the best schools in Northern Ireland, indicating that the working class isn't the only one with seriously backward ideology.
Though I constantly hear stories of minorities yelled at on the street and other sickening treatment aimed at immigrants, it wasn't until I starting spending time with North Belfast teenagers that I began to realize how palpable and blatant racism can actually be. Growing up in a time and place where any kind of racism is looked at as a personality flaw, I was amazed when I went out for coffee with one of my tougher girls, Jolene. She was cooperating with my usual game of Twenty Questions when, seemingly out of nowhere, the subject of Chinese people came up (Josh, cover your ears, because I wish I could have). It was like opening Pandora's Box of racist ideology. I had to interrupt her torrent of negativity to ask about African immigrants, the Middle Eastern population, and a variety of other minorities. She had nothing but glowing reports on all of them, but somehow had chosen Belfast's Chinese as the butt of her ignorant, hateful opinions.
Other people are different, claiming to "love" the Chinese population for whatever reason and wishing that all black people would "go back to Africa." A few weeks ago, I met a group of kids playing football behind the church and walked with a bunch of them down the Crumlin as I made my way to the Vine (the community outreach center). The mild conversation was broken when one of the boys suddenly yelled “N*****!” across the street. In shock, I glanced over to see a black guy getting into a car with a white friend after throwing the fingers at the boy I was with. “What did you just say?” I asked, trying to keep from roaring at him. The boy was flippant. “It’s ok. He knows 50 Cent.” "Never ever say that word again, especially in front of me,” I roared while thoughts of throttling him (or his parents, or peers, or whoever taught him that things like that were okay) ran briefly through my mind. My dilemma then became this: I can’t be mad at the kid. He is surrounded by ideologies that tell him it’s ok to do things like that. But Belfast, especially north Belfast, is drowning in a tide of racism that can’t be stopped unless small incidences like that can be stopped first (or is it the other way around?). The Zambian families with mega-watt smiles living amongst "Blacks Out" signage, the glaring lack of minorities in the city center… things like this make me uncomfortable. The fact that Belfast cannot stop its ethnic conflict, let alone incorporate a racial conflict on top of it, is evidence of a city deeply wounded. If BandAids aren’t working, I wish we could apply stitches, but it’s difficult when the injured aren’t entirely aware of their wounds and don’t want to see a doctor anyway. And as much as I wish I could say that I think things are getting better, I don't. Not only is the sectarian conflict being aggravated, racist attacks are increasing as well, and I just shake my head and wonder, What is going on here?

Monday, November 13, 2006

What It Is!

Sometimes all it really takes to feel like a normal person again is a really long laugh with someone you love... and since I am so lucky to have had Schlosser visit over the weekend, I am reminded of who I am and what it's about. I was a bit nervous to have her come to my little corner of Northern Ireland after she had spent so much time seeing all the glamorous places in Europe, partying in Italy and drinking beer in Munich. To come to a place like this was going to be a shock to her system, and I didn’t really know how to explain everything, let alone justify it. But Aimee showed up, nearly a month into her European adventure, with a totally expanded worldview and willingness to become a part of wherever she was. She really impressed me, actually. I am reminded of how much I love her heart.
Schlossmo showed up late from Dublin and we headed straight to the Crown Saloon, her huge backpack in tow, and had Stella in hand within ten minutes of her arrival. When in Rome, we say. Before I had even gotten back from the bar, which took a bit longer because I had to bitch to the bartender about how they didn't pour Harp (this is BELFAST... what do you mean, NO HARP?), Aim had discovered the two guys in the bar who were under the age of thirty. So Madrileno Faro and Salzburgite (not a word) Thomas became our partners in crime for the night, which was an interesting choice to say the least. On the plus side, I got to speak Spanish, we got free passes to a "trendy" club, and despite lacking a bit in the English department Thomas completely got us and actually thought we were funny so of course we loved him. On the down side, there was some really ugly dancing at said club and Aim and I were unsuccessful at explaining the meaning of "that girl," which apparently doesn't translate (side note: after a long discussion on the meaning, Aim and I decided to be walking examples and in fact became "those girls").

Throughout our lovefest of a weekend, I spent a lot of my time translating for her, especially at YF when she was surrounded with “the craziest bunch of teenagers” she had ever met in her life. I had to laugh when they informed me I must be losing my American edge because her accent was so strong. She did really well though, for being thrown to the wolves, and they loved her. But I can’t wait to see their faces next week when we tell them she’s Catholic… for being so world-wise, they really are sheltered in so many ways. Alison mentioned to Aim that they all think I’m crazy because I walk to work through Ardoyne, because I get coffee at the Toasted Soda, and now to have Catholic friends who they actually LIKE… it’s going to blow their minds! It’d be funnier if it weren’t so sad!
On Sunday, as Aimee and I tooled around Belfast looking at murals on both sides of the peace line, I think it all became real when we spotted a massive Home Depot-type building that was completely collapsed and charred from a firebomb a couple weeks ago. Apparently it’s the work of the Real IRA, a radical offshoot of the Provos (Provisional IRA, which from what I can tell is getting increasingly united with Sinn Féin, its political wing, and naturally has become much less violent in the process). So members of the RIRA don’t agree with the talks that are going on in Stormont right now to create some kind of workable power-sharing Northern Irish government, because they don’t think the Sinn Féin (via Gerry Adams) should be trying to cooperate with Protestant leaders. So instead of peaceful demonstrations against the negotiations, they’d prefer to firebomb buildings. Not surprisingly, the US has the RIRA categorized as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Since the Good Friday Agreement, they have supposedly agreed to ceasefire, but still are pretty into planting car bombs, bombing rail stations in England, etc., including a couple places in Belfast in the last few weeks. Kathryn, who was driving, told us that that particular shop most likely had 50 or more Catholics working there, ie. the RIRA just put dozens of their own “people” out of work in the name of revolution, in an attempt to spur Catholics toward a more hard-line stance against what they consider political acquiescence. The logic is so absent it’s astounding.
Seeing Belfast through Aimee’s eyes revived my fascination with the history, the personality, and the people of the north and west ends of the city, and I remember why I wanted to be here in the first place. Everywhere you go you are walking on ground steeped in historical conflict and potential turbulence. There’s an edge to it, and it’s unreal sometimes. It was amazing to have someone to remind me of what a dork I am and laugh at nothing for way too long! I waved goodbye as her bus pulled away, we both tried not to cry, and I realized that it’s much easier to be the one leaving than to be the one left…