Tales that may never make it into my PhD

I’m carrying out focus groups with small groups of African women, meeting them mainly with their friends. The purpose of these conversations is to explore social networks, and also to discuss perspectives on violence against women – what it is, and how common it is. These are great conversations, but huge chunks of them will never make it into my PhD. I want to capture some of those chunks here. This one is about racism and being black in Ireland. It is, to coin a phrase, a bit of a shaggy dog story, so I’ll give you the summary here:

TL:DR: Mary’s son was bitten by a dog; the dog’s owner was hostile towards her; she took no action because she needs to keep her neighbours on side. She stands out enough being black without being the person who called the cops on her neighbour.

FGDC art1

Artwork by some of the ladies I interviewed who told the dog story. I especially like the flash.

The dog story

We’re sitting in a circle in a community centre, beside a trestle table covered with mugs, cake crumbs, drips of spilled tea and my digital voice recorder. The room is far too big for the eight of us, so we huddle at the edge and pretend we’re somewhere cosier. It takes a long time to feel remotely cosy: me and seven women refugees from the horn of Africa. When I ask them about their stories, they mostly discuss their loneliness and isolation. After an hour, they are telling me about violence in their lives when a soft-spoken lady – we’ll call her Mary – announces that she has a tale to tell. For the next ten minutes, she narrates while the rest of the group provide a chorus.

The story happened just 3 days ago. Mary was at home with her young son (one of six), who really loves dogs.I don’t know what Mary’s house looks like, though I imagined a terrace, with a front and back garden, a flimsy fence separating her home from the neighbours. The boy wanted to go outside to play with the next door neighbour’s dogs, but Mary was busy, so she told him to stay inside. He went out anyway; she thought he was upstairs. Next thing she knew, he was crying in front of the house, so she ran outside and found him there, his hand bloody. The dog had bitten him.

Mary tells the story:

“I say which dog? That one. And looked and there was the owner. I asked – I say sorry. Which dog bit my son? He said mine. I say then, what are you doing now if you know that your dog bite my son, I said what are you doing? I didn’t see any kind of sympathy in his face. You are supposed to hide and say sorry, but now you are doing nothing, it’s like you are happy. He just answered me once that your son is the one come after my dog.’

“I took my son. I went to my GP. My GP asked me that – what happened, I told it to him, and he say where is the owner of the dog? Tell him that my GP told me that you have to put this dog down. You have to put this dog down, that’s the law here. Any dog bites somebody, you have to put it down. If you say no – let me know I’m going to call the gardai. That is what he’s saying.”

While Mary spoke, the other women chorused in recognition and outrage, and from the very beginning of the story were muttering about the gardai. But the situation was strange, and complicated.

“The man started to explain to me that you know what? This dog is not belong to me. This dog is belong to my wife, and my wife is now in the hospital, I don’t know anything, only when I take this dog to her – she will start laughing. I can’t put this dog to rest.”

Sarah interrupts: “Who can start laughing – the wife? In the hospital?”

“Yes. This dog will make the wife happy.’

“Then! Then I say ok, you are not going to put this dog down? Then I say, you know what, I was not going to call the gardai for you. But the way you act, you act to my son, you treat him like animal – like the animals, not the human being. You didn’t even say sorry, to me or my son, you didn’t even stop your dog – just because you say that my son is the one follow that dog. You know. Ok, me, because I know them, they are not happy with me am only one in that area.

“….black in that area”, clarifies Sarah.

“Any time just you can see: the eyes would tell you the entire history. So I say ok I say I am not going to call the gardai, if you tell me you don’t want to put the dog down it’s ok with you. Let me just bring my son.”

Now the reactions were a chorus of outrage. “But the gardaí!” and “here there is law!” It seemed that most of the group were convinced that Mary should have called the police on her neighbour, perplexed by the bizarre story of the wife and the hospital, but equally unconvinced by it. Mary explained:

“If you go and call gardai even the other neighbours they know the dog made this mistake, and the gardai take another action, when they come together, you are not at home.’

“They talk.”

An interjection: “They cannot do anything.”

“No! They will talk. One day something happened to your child again, they will not help and they will not touch it, you know? First of all you have to be careful, anything they are going to do. They will say that you are rude. You are mean – to people.

 

The story dissolved at this point into a debate: one woman incredulous that anybody could judge Mary as rude or mean when she was clearly the victim; Mary insisting that she couldn’t afford to take the chance, couldn’t afford to make a scene, draw attention, take a risk. The calculations Mary makes, 9 years to the day since arriving here. Ever denying herself a fair deal, in order to be seen to fit in.

I was reminded of a Libyan friend who argued that she didn’t have the luxury of not paying her water charges. The risk aversion of the migrant. The strain of having to fit in. It drives obsessive compliance with the law – but also a disinclination to invoke one’s own rights, indeed a disinclination to be noticed, to exist. Mary would shrink rather than be singled out for notice by her neighbours.

This is a far cry from what I would consider integration.