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Fake Tan, Racism, and the Complexities of Hate Offences Bill: Unveiling Societal Tensions

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The Irish Times recently found itself at the centre of a controversy when an article by Adriana Acosta-Cortez questioning the potential racism of fake tan was published, only to be later removed due to suspicions of it being AI-generated content. Whether or not the content was generated by AI is not really the issue. The issue, which Senator Ronán Mullen also picked up on, is the fact that an article implying that fake tan is racist made it past the gatekeepers of The Irish Times. The issue is that this is where the public discourse is. What seems to have gone unnoticed, however, is that a similar piece, “Why hopping on a sunbed or slapping on fake tan reinforces racism and self-hatred”, was published in the Irish Independent Comment section in 2022, authored by one Joy-Tendai Kangere. It would be easy to dismiss this whole debacle as a mere triviality, another salvo in the monotonous so-called “culture wars” that appear to have spread to these shores from the US. However, this is no longer a trivial issue when one considers the pending Hate Offences Bill, already passed by the Dáil and awaiting debate in the Seanad. In fact, it could become a very serious question for some young girl who, having resorted to fake tan in the unreliable Irish summer. If one follows this hypothesis to its logical conclusion, then that girl could even find herself charged with a hate incident or crime.

In her July 2022 article for The Irish Independent, Joy-Tendai Kangere raised concerns about fake tan, saying that it “goes a step further than cultural appropriation – in itself harmful – and is known as blackfishing”. Before one dismisses these concerns of cultural appropriation, Kangere says, “it is important to understand from where the outrage might come” (emphasis added). Kangere pointed out that “people can choose when they want to look white, and when they do not without having to experience the trauma that is faced by black and brown people”. If the content of the recent Irish Times article was indeed generated by AI, perhaps the Independent article was the origin of the statement that highlighted the ability of individuals to revert to their natural skin tone, untouched by the systemic discrimination encountered by people of colour. One thing is clear: Kangere sees the tanning industry as “exploiting black identity and culture” and a cause of racism in the world. To be fair to Kangere, she includes the practices of skin bleaching in this.

Whether or not wearing fake tan is indeed a step further than cultural appropriation and possibly even racist is not the issue being considered here. What is being considered are the potential implications of this situation, which are multifaceted and demand careful examination. While it remains uncertain whether wearing fake tan would constitute an offence under the Hate Offences Bill, the fact that such a scenario is made even remotely possible raises serious concerns about the limits and interpretations of the Hate Offences legislation. The possibility that individuals could face legal consequences for wearing fake tan based on someone else’s offence is unsettling.

Furthermore, this debate raises questions about the influence of critical theory, or what some refer to as “woke ideology”, both online and in our universities. The teaching of these frameworks often encourages students to analyze societal power dynamics through the lens of oppressor and oppressed, which will certainly create an environment where offence is actively sought out in every aspect of society. Combine this with the expansive scope of the Hate Offences Bill – which raises the perception of the victim to the status of hard evidence – and An Garda Síochána’s Diversity and Integration Strategy 2019-2021, and this bill becomes a weapon in the hands of the perennially offended. Even more worrying is the statement by the Diversity and Integration unit of An Garda Síochána to an online conference – as reported by Gript Media – that they “work off a very low threshold of perception”:

If it’s perceived by either you, a victim, a family member, a friend, somebody else acting in your best interest – if you perceive that you have been a victim of racism, that is sufficient for An Garda Síochána to take that report from you and we’re obliged to do that.

In the hands of the queer theorists, this bill could potentially become the weapon they so desperately seek – a means of destabilizing and toppling societal structures as we know them.

While the Irish Times article may have been as fake as the tan over which the controversy was raised, Kangere’s Irish Independent article certainly wasn’t. Usually, this could be dismissed as little more than a clickbait opinion piece raising an issue worthy of contemplation and discussion. However, the pending Hate Offences Bill changes all that. While the authenticity of the Irish Times article remains in question, its initial publication –and of course the still published Irish Independent article – is an indication of how the Hate Offences Bill might be wielded should it come to pass. With its wide-ranging definition of hate crimes, the potential overreach and unintended consequences appear to have slipped past the gatekeepers of our democracy.