Most people would probably agree that we should aspire to live in a world in which race matters less—perhaps even, as Sam Harris has suggested, becoming as inconsequential as one’s hair colour.
Our modern inclination is to see race as the primary lens through which to view life and identity. But can race be erased?
Jesse Marczyk has argued that, since it is “unlikely that ancestral human populations ever travelled far enough … to have encountered members of other races with any regularity,” we probably often use race as “a proxy for something else that likely was recurrently relevant during our [evolutionary] history … coalition and group membership.” Marczyk suggests that “when people are provided with alternate visual cues to group membership—such as different color shirts—the automaticity of race being attended to appears to be diminished.”
This hypothesis is buttressed by a study by Pietraszewski et al, which found that “when crossed with party support categorization by race is reduced.” “Our brains are not designed to attend to race,” explains co-author John Tooby: “they are designed to attend to coalition—and race gets picked up only as long as it predicts who is allied with whom.” As the researchers explain, “it’s easy for our minds to frame alliance categories like race and politics in terms of an ‘us versus them’ mentality. But the good news is that … race and politics are intrinsically flexible categories as far as our minds are concerned.”
In her book How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do and What it Says About You, Katherine Kinzler also highlights the relative novelty of the psychology of race. Humans, Kinzler argues, attach such importance to linguistic groups that these markers appear to be more significant in terms of categorizing people into us and them than race itself. She acknowledges that “race is bound up with many other social markers such as class, ethnicity and religion in ways that are highly complex.” However, Kinzler argues that humans have not been thinking about race for very long and that intergroup differences in skin colour are a relatively recent evolutionary phenomenon. The social significance we attach to what we perceive as race is even more recent still. Light skin evolved among Northern European settlers approximately 8,000 years ago, at a time when groups that differed in racial appearance would not have come into much contact with each other.
The psychology of race, then, is not a human necessity but a modern by-product of an ancient adaptation for caring about groups more generally. This means that if we were raised in a world in which race were not a big deal, race would no longer seem like a necessary way of categorizing and dividing people. This is cause for optimism as to how malleable our attitudes to race might actually be.
Sport and the Salah Effect
Sport can be extremely effective in helping us transcend racism by creating new tribal coalitions. Take, for example, Liverpool and Egypt striker Mo Salah. Researchers at Stanford University found an 18.9% drop in anti-Muslim hate crimes on Merseyside in the period since Salah signed for Liverpool in June 2017. No other offence had a comparable drop in frequency over the same timeframe. Liverpool fans only post half as many anti-Muslim tweets as fans of other major Premier League clubs. Salah can even inspire full football stadiums to sing “I’ll Be Muslim Too”—quite a feat since football fans are reputed to be one of the most racist and Islamophobic segments of the UK population.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’ insightful book Everybody Lies also highlights this effect. The author reveals that, following a speech in which Barack Obama described Muslim-Americans as “our friends and our neighbours, our co-workers, our sports heroes and, yes … our men and women in uniform, who are willing to die in defence of our country,” for the first time in more than a year, the most frequently Googled noun after Muslim was not terrorists, extremists or refugees but athletes, followed by soldiers. Athletes remained in the top spot for a full day afterwards.
When we lecture angry people, their fury can grow. But subtly provoking people’s curiosity, by giving them new information about and offering new images of the group that is stoking their rage, may turn their thoughts in more positive directions.
Ireland: A Small Country That Has Touched the World
The Irish word gael is traditionally translated as a Celtic, especially Irish-speaking, inhabitant of Ireland, Scotland or the Isle of Man, but in our modern world, we should expand this to encompass anyone who is living the Irish experience anywhere in the world.
Last year, the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) launched a manifesto which was summed up by the slogan GAA—Where We All Belong. Those words define the spirit of New Gaels, a documentary that tells the stories of four GAA players who were born in other countries, embraced Gaelic games when they moved to Ireland and were, in turn, welcomed by the GAA community, which helped to make their new country of residence feel like home.
The documentary centres on the stories of Westmeath and Rosemount footballer Boidu Sayeh; Leitrim and Thomas Davis hurler Zak Moradi; Mayo and Ballaghaderreen footballer Shairoze Akram; and Jeannine O’Brien, who is involved with the Monaleen club in Limerick. New Gaels vividly illustrates the power of sport to bring people together, break down barriers and help people see that we’re all the same deep down, regardless of superficial differences like ethnicity.
“I have Kurdish blood with an Irish heart, as I always say,” remarks Leitrim hurler Zak Moradi: “You’re never going to get rid of racism in this world, you’re going to get it in every country in the world. You’re going to get that small minority and the problem is we can’t let the small minority ruin it for everyone else.”
Sport in general and Gaelic games in particular, then, can be a vehicle to combat racism. The Irish notion of gaels from all over the world forming one tribal clan might be used as a model of how to foster unity.
The New Gaels documentary is further evidence that Ireland has become an incredibly progressive country, rather than the backward Catholic backwater that many believe us to be (Consider also that Ireland was the first country in the world to legalise same sex marriage by plebiscite and that, during the Repeal the 8th campaign we overwhelmingly voted to provide access to safe abortions for women.) The world has a lot to learn from the Irish model of integrating into society wherever we go, while still retaining the richness of our culture and welcoming others who wish to embrace it.
Ralph Leonard has argued that, “tribally marking off permission rights over who can use what cultural form … and in what way is puerile. No culture is pure, uncontaminated, hermetically sealed, existing purely within its own universe … The history of all cultures is a history of cultural borrowing.” Irish culture might be the second best example (after pizza) of how culture can and should be shared worldwide.
We love to share our native games, dance, folklore and customs wherever we go. There are Gaelic football teams all over the world: from the Dubai Celts to the Brisbane Harps and the Clan na nGael club in Atlanta Georgia.
One powerful example of the positive international impact of Irish culture is Morgan Bullock, a young black American dancer whose short clips Irish dancing to Megan Thee Stallion and to Beyoncé’s hip-hop track “Savage” recently went viral.
“To call Morgan Bullock’s dancing ‘inauthentic’ is as ridiculous as the suggestion that all Irish children are born with a spring in their step and a tin whistle in their gob,” writes Ella Whelan in her article “Irish Dancing Isn’t Just for the Irish”:
The great irony is that Irish dancing might be the most international dance there is. It has even been taken up in China. There is a wonderful tradition of unlikely individuals taking a shine to Irish culture. Some of the most beautiful sean nós singing (think trilling, traditional sounds) can be heard from London imam Muhammad Al-Hussaini who won international fame for his love of Irish traditional singing.
There are 6 million native Irish people in Ireland and an estimated 50–80 million in the worldwide Irish diaspora. Even Barack O’Bama has laid claim to Irish heritage. We have the world’s highest proportion of native-born citizens living abroad: one in six. We’re a small country in a big ocean, but from here we’ve touched the world.
A Travelling Tribesman
In 2011, I moved from my hometown of Milltown in County Galway to Birmingham for university. People from Galway are colloquially known as the tribesmen. On my travels, I found several new tribes, but I never felt too far away from Ireland due to the strength with which our culture and native games embed themselves wherever we go.
I played Gaelic football for Newman University alongside a mixture of Irish natives, second generation Irish/British lads and British born lads who learned to love the game despite having no connection to Ireland whatsoever. We even pulled in a number of Erasmus students every year, such as Rambo from Spain, Massa from Japan and Aman from India. The best player I encountered was Ethan, a Birmingham lad born to Jamaican and Indian parents. Ethan, who had crossed over from basketball, possessed a talent that would earn him a place on any senior club team in Ireland. We were a genuine example of positive diversity and cultural sharing.
Tonight, I will train with my local club St. Brendan’s, alongside Aston Villa Captain Jack Grealish’s cousin. Grealish himself played Gaelic football here in Birmingham. In 2018, St. Brendan’s under-17 team became the first ever British side to compete at the GAA Continental Youth Championships in Boston, Massachusetts, further highlighting the international presence of the game.
All this is remarkable when we consider the historic tensions between Britain and Ireland. It’s only 100 years ago that British tanks drove into the Gaelic football headquarters at Croke Park in Dublin and opened fire on players and fans alike in what is known as Bloody Sunday. It’s only 102 years since Gaelic Sunday, 4 August 1918, the day on which Irish clubs stood up against the British Empire and triumphed in a peaceful protest against the requirement that their games could only take place with an official permit. Approximately 1,500 hurling and football matches were scheduled to start simultaneously throughout the country at 3pm. Over 50,000 players were expected to participate and many more turned out as spectators.
Up until recently, I thought that I could never raise a family outside my native Ireland because I feared that they would lose their sense of Irish identity and heritage. However, since encountering English-born gaels who would put me to shame when it comes to singing Irish rebel songs, I realised I have nothing to fear. The Irish people are like the mythical Asgardians popularised in modern imagination by the Thor and Marvel Avengers movies, for whom “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people.” So is the clan na gael, the family of gaels—except that it is an ever expanding people, membership of which is open to everyone with football boots, be they Irish, English, Kurdish or Congolese.
Can race ever be erased?
I don’t think so. But we can learn a lesson from the native games of Ireland and allow everyone to be our tribesmen. Both sport and the GAA are places where we all belong.