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'Just because the gardaí are not kneeling on necks does not mean there's no racism in Ireland'

The uproar following the death of George Floyd in police custody has prompted black people to share their own experiences of racism in Ireland, writes Ellen Coyne

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Abuse: Tobi Lawal, who was born in Nigeria but came to Ireland when she was six, has been racially abused many times while walking down the street.
PHOTO: Don Moloney

Abuse: Tobi Lawal, who was born in Nigeria but came to Ireland when she was six, has been racially abused many times while walking down the street. PHOTO: Don Moloney

Mia O'Neill

Mia O'Neill

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Abuse: Tobi Lawal, who was born in Nigeria but came to Ireland when she was six, has been racially abused many times while walking down the street. PHOTO: Don Moloney

'I don't want my children to die," Aisling O'Neill said.

Ms O'Neill has an 11-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter who are mixed race. Mia, her eldest, died by suicide at the age of 16 last September following a sustained six-year campaign of racist bullying.

"She used to walk around with her phone and be anxious about having it ready in case anyone said something to her," Ms O'Neill said, starting to cry.

"Because she felt she needed to prove that this was happening to her."

Ms O'Neill said she wants Ireland to face up to its problems with racism, which contributed to her daughter's death and which she is still seeing manifest in racist abuse against her younger children.

"Mia grew up hating herself, hating her skin, trying to cut her skin from her body. Trying to look white. Racism is not just words, it destroys a person's soul.

"It's not enough anymore to just not be racist, you have to be clearly and loudly anti-racist," she said.

All this week the uproar following the death of George Floyd in police custody has prompted black people to share their own experiences of racism in Ireland.

It made some white Irish people critical or dismissive, uncomfortable at the perceived suggestion that Ireland and America were the same.

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While Ireland does not suffer from the exact same institutional racism and police brutality towards black people that the US does, claims that Ireland does not have a problem with racism do not stand up to scrutiny after a cursory glance at some recent headlines, including the death of Mia O'Neill.

Last year, a couple decided to leave Ireland after they endured vicious online racist abuse following their appearance in a Lidl advert.

Last month, gardaí investigated a teenager after racist abuse was sent to ex-footballer Ian Wright via social media.

In 2019, a study by the European Fundamental Rights agency found instances of racism in Ireland were often above the European average.

"Just because the police here aren't kneeling on necks, does not mean that racism is not alive and well in Ireland too," 22-year-old Oluwatobi Lawal, who goes by Tobi, said.

Tobi, who was born in Nigeria but came to Ireland when she was six, has been called the 'n' word and a "black c***" when walking down the street.

Tobi, who is studying law in Limerick, is told she is "pretty for a black girl" by boys on nights out but can also be told to "go back to your own country" if she rejects them.

Last year, she went to visit a boyfriend in a rural town in West Cork and a man in a pub marvelled out loud at the fact she was educated and said he was taught that black people were thieves.

Like all the young black people who spoke to the Irish Independent, she was deeply distraught after watching the video of George Floyd's death.

"That could have been my dad," Tobi said. "People say that we don't have lynching, this is modern-day lynching."

Tristan Barnett (22), from Dublin, was sitting in a Subway restaurant with friends a few years ago when a woman walked up to him and loudly called him a "black c***".

"I just sat there with a lump in my throat," said Tristan, who has represented Ireland internationally at kickboxing. But he never really spoke about racism before this week.

"I thought it was embarrassing," he said. "Now I'm wondering if I should have said something sooner."

Tristan was born in the Rotunda, as were both of his parents. His grandfather on his mother's side was Jamaican, and Tristan has been dealing with racist abuse for his entire life because of the colour of his skin. "I don't think there was a single day at school when there weren't some remarks," he said.

Tristan feels conscious of the fact that he doesn't have "any black culture", he said all he knows is white culture.

But he got so angry when he saw friends criticising the Black Lives Matter protests that he had to say something.

"There is racism in Ireland. The best thing that could happen now is to bring that to light," he said.

Most of the young black people the Irish Independent spoke to mentioned that white Irish people can sometimes be too comfortable using the history of their own persecution to excuse any of the discrimination against other people.

Because white Irish people were discriminated against in the same breath as black people in racist "no dogs, no blacks, no Irish" signs outside shops and pubs in London, some seem to suggest that modern white Irish people couldn't be capable of racism.

Vitor Cruz O'Fádharta (21), from Galway, was accused of dismissing the history of the British oppression of Irish people when he shared his experiences of racism on social media this week.

"I'm not going to sit here and say that horrible things don't happen to people who aren't black or who aren't of colour, but white Irish people need to realise there are a lot of things that black people and people of colour go through, that white Irish people won't have happen to them, just because of the amount of melanin in their skin," Vitor said.

Celaviedmai, a rapper based in Galway, said she is often told that "Irish people were slaves, too". "I empathise with that, if Irish people were slaves, I really do, but the difference between white Irish people now and black people now is white Irish people are no longer oppressed. That's the big difference. The oppression of black people now is not a physical bondage, it's a mental bondage," she said. "You guys, as a society, have gotten out of it. We are still in it."

Amanda Ade (22) has been using Instagram to talk about racism in Irish society and said she has basically put a "target on her back", attracting even more racist abuse in the process.

She also feels there's a burden on black people to educate white Irish people who refuse to believe racism exists.

"I understand that nobody wants to believe they are inherently bad, and when you talk about [racism in Ireland] some people see that as a personal attack," Amanda said.

"It's hard, you're coming up against a lot of resistance, or almost blissful ignorance."

Some who were at the Black Lives Matter protest in Dublin were protesting against what was happening in the US rather than against racism closer to home. But Amanda, who spoke at the protest, said she felt it was heartening to see the scale of support for an anti-racism protest.

"There was a point where we all knelt down to have a moment of silence, and I remember just looking out at the crowd and it was the most beautiful picture of people, of all races, genders, ethnic background and age groups," she said.

"It was just a picture of what I envision the future of Ireland to look like.

"People from everywhere, all coming together and just standing together, believing and wanting the same thing. So I have hope for the future."


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