On Irish Drinking Culture, Assimilation and "Passing"

Ebun Joseph

Dr Ebun Joseph is the module coordinator in UCD of the first Black Studies module in Ireland. She lectures on race, migration, social policy and equality. She is a career-development specialist, author and chairperson of the African Scholars Association Ireland (AfSAI). She is a citizen of both Nigeria and Ireland, and has lived in Ireland for more than 17 years.

Dear Ebun, to what extent is the so-called “drinking culture” something non-Irish need to adopt in order to feel integrated within the Irish culture?

Thanks for this interesting question. We need to unpack it because it is full of innuendo.

First is the stereotyping of the Irish through the notion of a “drinking culture”.

Second is the reference to “non-Irish”. Who are they? What does it mean to be non-anything? Are the “non-Irish” population permanent strangers? When does a person of migrant descent stop being “non-Irish”?

Lastly, is the mention of the need of the “non-Irish” to integrate. This ignores the fact that integration is a two-way process and both the host and newcomers are active participants in making it work.

As a person of Black African descent living and working in Ireland, I am averse to stereotyping groups. It can be very damaging.

While it provides a shortcut to understanding how different groups behave, referring to the “drinking culture” of the Irish ignores the almost 20 percent of the population that abstains from drink.

That being said, drinking culture is difficult to define, as there is no consensus of what it really means. In Ireland, many things happen around drink: bonding, camaraderie, socialising, and networking.

Grouping also happens, with insiders and outsiders. It can be gendered or raced. It can separate those who are in, and those who are out.

Real integration is not about the three Ds – dance, diet, and dress of a people – but about their access to economic resources through employment.

If we strip back this question, it simply means how much of their host’s culture must a “non-Irish” person adopt to be able to navigate the labour market?

Based on the ability or inability of people of migrant descent to get paid work and progress in their careers, I have argued in my previous studies that in Ireland, “to be is to be like”.

In other words, the more you look and act like the Irish, the better your chances of success in the world of waged work. While some might think that this is okay, in race relations, this is assimilation, not integration.

When we operate a system that rewards people for looking and acting like the host, it impacts on their identities and we miss out on real talent.

Upward mobility in racially invested societies has historically involved “passing” in exchange for access to economic opportunities.

This has often been one of the few strategies used by marginalised migrant groups to circumvent the negative impact of race, their racial positioning, classification and its associated socioeconomic disadvantages.

In the United States, a route historically employed by those classified as non-whites or Blacks was to pretend to be possessors of whiteness, which in the parlance of racist America is called “passing”, to take advantage of opportunities that would have otherwise been denied to them.

Adopting the so-called “drink culture” of the Irish will be tantamount to passing. This is two-pronged, as first it suggests our system is not meritocratic, and second that “non-Irish” are compelled to change parts of themselves to fit in.

Although “passing” is still seen by many as an American phenomenon that is steeped in its history of slavery and subjugation of Blacks, and has yet to cross over the European borders, I believe it is more widely operational in the labour market than supposed.

New York University Professor Brooke Kroeger in her book Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are contends that passing is not a thing of the past, nor is it simply a black-and-white matter, but rather, “when there is prejudice and preconception in society, there is passing”.

There is a move from overt assimilation to a covert demand for practices that encourage and reward muting non-white features, cultures and practices. This is becoming prevalent but unrecognised.

It comes under the guise of “integration”, “ethnicity”, “cultural diversity”, “professionalism” and “multiculturalism”. It is seen as the norm, the natural and logical course of action.

This move, driven by nationalism, is prevalent in recruitment and mobility within the labour market. Even I, in my role as a career-development consultant, am guilty of encouraging people of migrant descent to speak with more Westernised phonetics because, from my lived experience, I find that migrant workers who can speak without their native accent have an increased chance of getting a paid job.

The question though is where do you stop? It starts with the accent, then the way you dress – meaning you dress European all the time, as this is seen as the professional image.

Then it moves to hair, and Black women have to adopt artificial weaves, matching Western hair, because that makes them look more professional to be accepted and “fit” in. When does it stop? What is the cost to the person? Would they have to reduce their curvaceous hips? The size of their lips? The list could go on.

Truth be told, many have done this and gone to the extreme of skin lightening in order to fit in. Looking at the higher unemployment rate among the members of the non-Irish population who look least like the host, one can understand why people feel compelled to self-assimilate or pass in order to progress.

Some indeed may try to pass, some separate themselves from the marginalised groups while others  bear negative treatment in exchange for access to economic and educational opportunities because it is a bit better than their previous economic outcome.

The impact can, however, involve a level of hiding the true self, self-masking, invisibilisation, being evaluated negatively by their community and even being seen as inauthentic, which can result in self-annihilation, as critical-legal scholar Cheryl Harris has put it.

Migrants who are permitted to break through the barrier of racial exclusion into jobs involving public contact are more likely to be those who exhibit characteristics close to those of the dominant racial group.

This reinforces the view that race still matters in influencing the socioeconomic outcomes of “non-Irish” workers in society. A more worrying conclusion is that although assimilation is not overtly practised, it is covertly expected, demanded and rewarded.

If you have a question about race or identity in contemporary Ireland that you’d like Ebun to tackle, send it to [email protected]


Ebun Joseph: Dr Ebun Joseph is the module coordinator in UCD of the first Black Studies module in Ireland. She lectures on race, migration, social policy and equality. She is a career-development specialist, author and chairperson of the African Scholars Association Ireland (AfSAI). She is a citizen of both Nigeria and Ireland, and has lived in Ireland for more than 17 years.

Reader responses

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at 17 October 2018 at 16:32

Very interesting and educative article!

at 17 October 2018 at 16:01

Interesting write up and food for thought. One wonders indeed where the expectation of assimilation ends, and how much the migrant worker will be allowed to be themselves without affecting their career aspirations.

at 17 October 2018 at 15:58

Interesting write up. One wonders indeed where the expectation of assimilation ends, and how much the migrant worker will be alli

Anonymous commenter
at 18 October 2018 at 22:29

A great article. Pointed out new perspectives I have never thought of.

at 18 October 2018 at 05:15

Race has always.been an issue due mainly to conceptions,prejudices,mimisinformation and ignorance. To overcome this thorny issue will require some level of cultural intelligence and social intelligence. Education plays a major role. While we continue to navigate the cancerous issue we also need spiritual intelligence in addition. We must not allow our circumstances, environment etc to determine our outcome in life rather we have a big role to play to win and reign in life. Be positive, be proactive know who God says you are.

Anonymous commenter
at 17 October 2018 at 18:36

Brilliant article Ebun. The drinking culture of the Irish is a label which follows us everywhere despite the fact that tons of Irish abstain and are pioneers. Drinking or not drinking doesn't mean a person can or can not fit into society as there is a niche for everyone. My own parents for me are a classic example of pioneers enjoying their niche and belonging to society through their charitable works and friendships throughout the world. Drinking is not compulsory to belong in Ireland or to fit in no matter what race or creed we are.

at 17 October 2018 at 17:55

Very interesting and thought provoking.

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