How Influencers are Miseducating Newcomers to the City About the "K-Word"

Douglas Gomides remembers back to an evening in the summer of 2014, sitting on the south bank of River Liffey idly chatting with friends and others clustered nearby, when one woman spoke up.

She pointed to Paul McKeon, Gomides’ closest Irish friend, and called him the k-word, he says. The woman was Irish too.

It was out of the blue, says Gomides. “As soon as she heard Paul speaking to us in English with his accent.”

McKeon, a Traveller, recoiled in embarrassment. “He didn’t reply, he didn’t answer, but he just got really shameful,” Gomides says.

McKeon remembers it too. He tried to ignore it as he does when someone calls him the k-word because it’s not easy to live saddled with shame, he says. “Otherwise, you won’t be able to live your life.”

Gomides had heard the k-word before that night. He picked it up before touching down in Dublin to study English that year, he says.

Before arriving, he had mined Facebook groups for Brazilians in Dublin for tips about living in the city.

On those, he says, users commonly used the slur to refer to what they described as inner-city youth who wore “grey Adidas” tracksuits and had it out for Brazilian newcomers.

“When I got to Dublin, if I saw anyone wearing grey Adidas clothes, I would cross the street, [even if] they might not have been any danger to me,” Gomides says, laughing.

Almost seven years after Gomides first learned the k-word, the slur has not disappeared from the vocabulary of Portuguese-speakers in the city.

If anything, it appears to have become more commonplace.

It even has its own Portuguese version now which inner-city kids have wised up to, says McKeon. We’ll call it the “na-word”.

One vector that McKeon has spotted as spreading these classist and racist slurs are online influencers with popular social media channels and portals to help Brazilians orient in a new city.

McKeon wants to fight back, with videos explaining what these words really mean, through real-life mediation, and by battling to get derogatory videos taken down.

To “save a lot of English language students from learning this type of attitude, stereotypes about the community before they even get to meet any Travellers or people from the inner-city”, he says.

The Explainers

In late September 2020, Ross O’Connor, a tour guide in the city who also contributes to a website called E-Dublin, appeared in an explainer video on the online magazine’s YouTube channel.

“Irish tells the truth about [the na-word],” it’s titled. E-Dublin posts articles and videos about the city in Portuguese, and sells career development courses through its website.

It appears hugely popular among those who speak the language in the city and further afield with more than half a million Facebook follows, and more than 367,000 YouTube channel subscribers.

In that video – which has more than 29,000 views and roughly 3,000 likes – O’Connor says the na-word comes from the derogatory k-word. (He doesn’t mention that it disparages Travellers.)

“It usually comes together as a term defined by youths who get together and cause trouble,” he says.

He runs through a “history” and “socio-economic” background to the term, noting the overcrowded tenements in centuries past and saying they led to social problems, through to the social housing projects of more recent decades, and the tough conditions of the 1980s.

People called na-words come from these backgrounds, he says. “Probably working class, and life was not easy.”

He repeats the term throughout – addressing why, in his view, they have an air of invincibility, attack some nationalities, but adding that viewers should be careful not to generalise about the Irish.

“We’re all not [na-words] walking down O’Connell Street,” he says.

In a written comment in Portugese under the video with his personal YouTube page, he wrote that the “terms” used in the video “are for educational purposes” and not “disparagingly”.

McKeon says although O’Connor doesn’t use the word “Traveller”, for him that’s the clear implication.

“Sometimes they can be more subtle, saying in the city centre we have people called [the k-word], they live on government support, they’re poor people, but they’re talking about the Travelling community,” says McKeon.

By email, O’Connor said he doesn’t need to comment. “The word is used for context and not spoken in a derogatory way,” he said. “Stop looking for a problem when there isn’t one.”

Eduardo Mendes Alves Giansante, the founder of Nomadez Services Limited, the company behind E-Dublin, said the video was also to “educate and not depreciate any other community”.

If members of different communities are “interested in educating the Brazilian community with content we will be glad to hear it”, says Giansante.

McKeon said that O’Connor “could have told them about all the famous people that came from the inner-city, he could talk about Molly Malone, Luke Kelly”.

The video, he said, “was pure designed to be divisive”.

E-Dublin had left McKeon’s messages sent on Instagram in late January unanswered. “You should be ashamed of yourself for the hate you’re spreading against poor people,” McKeon said, in one unanswered message.

In another video from June 2018, Giansante himself appears alongside the co-director of E-Dublin Maira Chuquer Marra to answer viewers’ questions.

One viewer had said that he has doubts about moving to Ireland because he read about na-words on Facebook. Is it something I should be concerned about? he had asked.

Marra tells him that it is used to refer to kids in the city centre who cause trouble, she says.

One of McKeon’s friends, Lury Gonzaga says that before McKeon told him, that was what he thought the word meant too. “I would have thought it meant like a drug dealer, trouble-maker, yes.”

After E-Dublin was contacted for comment, the video with Giansante and Marra was removed from its YouTube channel.

By email, Marra said they’re reviewing their content “to make sure we remove any mentions of the ‘k-word’ that are out of context or derogatory in any way”.

“It was never our intention to be offensive towards anyone nor any community,” she said. “We truly value respect, justice, connection, humanity, peace and most of all love.”

Teaching Slurs

Cian Thompson has an Instagram account with more than 19,000 followers.

In some stories, Thompson dresses up and plays a character called Connor, a young man in a grey Adidas tracksuit with a strong inner-city Dublin accent, similar to McKeon’s.

In one video from October 2020, in which Thompson is mostly as himself, he says in Portugese and English that he’s trying to teach the meaning of the k-word.

During it, he says in Portuguese that the k-word means “the worst person in the Traveller community” but that “not every Traveller is bad”.

Those stealing bikes and attacking people are k-words and “are a shame for the Irish community, they should be ashamed to call themselves Irish”, he says.

In the video, Thompson says he was explaining the words, to educate viewers so they don’t say the word around the wrong people for their own safety.

“You can use these with your friends. […] That’s no problem,” he says. “Just be careful around people you use them with, that’s all.”

The video has nearly 3,000 likes and more than 43,000 views.

McKeon says he’s hurt by the video.

Thompson doesn’t suggest calling the guards, reaching out to community leaders, telling your employer if it’s affecting your job, says McKeon. “No, none of that, just these horrible [k-words].”

Social exclusion and poverty lead to crime, and it’s not okay to refer to poor people as [the k-words] either, says McKeon.

“Now if anything bad happens any Brazilian would say that the person who done it to them is a [k-word],” he says.

On a WhatsApp call on 27 February, Thompson said he makes “funny, light-hearted” videos to teach English to his Portuguese-speaking followers.

He lives with his family in Brazil, where he teaches English in private sessions on a freelance basis. He also gets sponsored to advertise services from cheap flights to online banks, although that’s not a lucrative business, he says.

This video was to teach the differences between Travellers and inner-city kids who assault Brazilian workers, he says.

Says Thompson: “I actually feel bad that my video has affected people like that. It was not my intention to offend anybody.”

In retrospect, Thompson shouldn’t have used slurs in his video, he says. “If I could do it again, I wouldn’t use these words so freely, and I shouldn’t have said that you can use it with your friends.”

But the na-word is not a code for the k-word, he says. “It was used as a term to describe people who stand on the road and mug people. I don’t know how the word came up.”

(In the video, Thompson says that the na-word and the k-word are the same.)

His character Connor is comic relief for his audience who are the targets of crime in the city, he says. “My childhood friends used to dress like that. Connor is not a Traveller.”

Thompson says he meant to make a video with a Traveller to clarify things further, but he didn’t get around to do one as he was busy teaching.

A screenshot of messages sent to Thompson by McKeon shows that he has left them unanswered.

“You’re teaching students hate and misinformation about my family and my community,” wrote McKeon in one unanswered message.

On Monday 2 March, McKeon said he was frustrated by the lack of apology from Thompson. If influencers like him are not showing remorse then maybe they deserve to lose their jobs, he said.

“People can make mistakes but people that are building a brand around the suffering and stereotypes of our community need to be held accountable, if they show no genuine remorse,” he says.

Thompson neither reached out to an inner-city Traveller group nor apologised, says McKeon, last week. These influencers have a worryingly big audience, he says.

Last Tuesday 3 March, Thompson posted an apology video on his Instagram account, saying he made a few mistakes in the video from October including recording part of it in Portuegese.

He says, he “ironically” told people to be careful using “[the k-word]” when he himself wasn’t.

The na-word is not as derogatory as the k-word; it is akin to the word “scumbag” and is used to refer to “ kids” and “trouble-makers” who harass Brazilians, says Thompsons during his apology video. He wasn’t referring to Travellers, he said.

“Something that I have to really apologise for is that I didn’t take in consideration that this can be viewed by an Irish Traveller and, even worse, that I could have offended an Irish Traveller in this video.”

Pushing Back

About a month ago, Adam Woods, a freelance English language teacher in Dublin, who also speaks Portuguese, was watching the news on Brazilian television channel Band TV, when he heard the k-word.

A woman harassed in Dublin city was being interviewed, and she casually used the k-word to refer to the offenders.

“Unfortunately, she was a victim of one of those attacks. I can’t remember if her bicycle was stolen or it was something else,” says Woods.

Woods says he sympathises with Portuguese-speaking Deliveroo riders attacked in the city, among them are his students.

“I feel like they carry this baggage from these attacks like the Deliveroo bags on their backs,” he says.

But he doesn’t want his students to use slurs. He took to Instagram to set the record straight, speaking in Portuguese for his over 11,000 followers. He asks them not to use it, looking serious.

Woods says he has used it himself in the past in informal situations with friends and family. But “I shouldn’t”, he says.

He’s going to go live on Instagram with McKeon soon to educate his followers further, he says.

Giving Travellers a platform to educate the Portuguese-speaking community on the matter could be a good solution, says Woods. Use of the k-word is aggravating tensions between inner-city youth and Brazilian students, he says.

McKeon is organising a football tournament between inner-city youth, Travellers and Portuguese-speaking students, hoping it will help ease tensions.

“It’s not a magic solution, but if you mix them together they don’t see each other as the other person anymore,” says McKeon, whose partner is from Brazil.

A Symptom and a Cause

Gomides left Dublin shortly after his language course ended. “I didn’t feel welcome there, for sure, for sure,” he says, nodding during a video call in late February.

He was attacked once, as he walked out of a Carroll’s shop, lugging bags of souvenirs, he said. “Someone threw a can at my head, and I started chasing them.”

Gomides didn’t realise he was bleeding. A stranger had to let him know.

He would’ve used the k-word to describe the people who had attacked him, he says. But he didn’t know the word was a slur, he says.

He’d heard it from almost everyone in Dublin, even his teachers. “The only person who told me it was a bad word was Paul,” he says.

Gomides was shocked to learn that McKeon was deemed deserving of the k-word by Dublin’s wider society. “He wasn’t like one of them [k-words],” he says.

McKeon, who lives in one of the housing blocks at St Andrew’s Court on Fenian Street says some Portuguese-speaking workers have learned to call them the “[k-word] flats”.

Many families who moved into the flats after tenements were knocked down were among the poorest families in the city, says McKeon. “And then like my ma, Travellers were also put into these flats.”

Gomides seemed confused to find him living there.

Speaking from his backyard in Brazil as his dog’s barks interrupt him, Gomides says there needs to be an initiative from the Irish government to discourage both Brazilian and Irish people from using the slur.

“We use [the k-word] because we were taught this. I told Paul, ‘This is not a Brazilian problem, it’s an Irish problem,’” he says.

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Author:

Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at [email protected]

Reader responses

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James Appleton
at 17 March at 09:30

Not just Brazilians. When I lived in Dublin, I was part of a Facebook group for Italians living there - my wife is Italian and I was trying to practise the language. There were so many posts on there that used this slur casually that I posted myself, suggesting that perhaps some of the group members for whom English is a second language didn't know how offensive it was. I got a few supportive responses, but also lots of mocking or dismissive ones, and several more elaborate comments lumping all travellers together based on the worst stereotypes of them. It's clearly a deep-rooted problem, both among Irish people and foreigners living in the country, that goes beyond the use of a single word to the popular image of the traveller community.

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