A home away from home: Trinity’s cultural societies

Alison Traynor talks to four of Trinity’s foremost cultural societies

The year is 2019, and we are living in a dystopian horror show. A man who once described Mexican immigrants as “rapists” is the most powerful person in the world. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has been reelected, he has also declared that he does not want his nation “to be a multi-coloured country”. Meanwhile, the bumbling buffoon who is now the UK’s Prime Minister attempts to rectify increasing rates of hate crime in the country – by comparing Muslim women to “letterboxes” and “bank robber[s]”.

However ludicrous the words of our world leaders may be, they still have consequences. They produce an aftershock that often goes unnoticed until irreparable tragedy occurs. This August, immigrants in Texas were targeted by a member of the far-right in a mass shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 22 people and left a further 24 injured. A facist militia, known as the National Legion, has recently been formed in Hungary. Likewise, this year The Guardian reported that 71% of people from ethnic minorities in Britain have experienced discrimination, which is a 13% increase since 2016.

“However ludicrous the words of our world leaders may be, they still have consequences.”

In a world where racial discrimination and violence are rife, cultural societies play a vital role in college life for international students and students from racial minorities. Comhall Fanning, the chairperson of DU Germanic Society, speaks to Trinity News about the society’s role within a challenging political climate. He notes that the society’s members are “very aware of increased racist rhetoric both nationally and internationally,” and because of this, they have hosted several events which have dealt with this trend in the past. Last year, for example, they held a panel discussion about the rise of far-right politics in Germany, at which various experts in the field spoke, including The Irish Times’ German correspondent Derek Scally. Fanning believes that education and discussion are key if these problems are to be resolved: “It is critical that students engage with these issues in order to tackle them effectively and I hope that the society provides a platform for discussion through such events.”

Cultural societies also spark discussion by enabling people from different cultures to meet, form friendships, and teach each other about their cultural experiences. Bessy Zhu, the president of TCD Chinese Scholars and Students Association (CSSA) and Chinese Society, says that: “generally, I find Irish people don’t have a lot of opportunities to be exposed to different cultures.” In an attempt to change this, the society “aims to provide an opportunity for Trinity students to get an exposure to Chinese culture and for Chinese students studying in Trinity to be introduced to Irish culture.” Zhu adds that, essentially, the society serves “as a cultural exchange platform for Trinity students to form international friendships.”

“It should not be assumed that the university is a microcosm of Irish society as a whole”

On a less political note, cultural societies are also beneficial to international students struggling with homesickness while living in a new country. Zhu asserts that TCD CSSA and Chinese Society is “like home” to her. While the chairperson of Trinity’s Arabesque Society, Sara Abdulmagid, says that: “We believe that both our committee and our members feel comfortable at our events, as it is a reminder of home and of our culture.” Within cultural societies, students can meet those who they can relate to: people who speak their first language and people who have grown up watching the same television shows and eating the same food as them. This is something that Irish students often take for granted, but it is vital that international students can experience a taste of home every now and again in order to thrive in an alien environment.

Fanning, Zhu and Abdulmagid all find Trinity to be a generally inclusive place, but it should not be assumed that the university is a microcosm of Irish society as a whole. Although Fanning believes that Irish people are largely “open to other cultures,” he says that it is still important to consider “the fact that Ireland does not have a right-wing political party could lead people into a false sense of security that racism does not exist in Ireland. Unfortunately, racism does exist in Ireland.”

Fanning’s assertion is certainly an accurate one, but can cultural societies really solve a problem as widespread as racism? In Ireland, it is a systematic issue that even our government perpetuates, albeit in a subtle and subversive way. With a Taoiseach who cosies up to blatantly bigoted figures like Mike Pence, and a brutal system of direct provision for refugees in place, we certainly cannot claim to treat all races equally. Fanning believes that “cultural exchanges are extremely important in overcoming this”, and that “the importance of cultural societies in universities really cannot be undervalued.” While the work of cultural societies will never solve these issues completely, they are undoubtedly a good place to start

Alison Traynor

Alison Traynor is the current Life Editor of Trinity News.