| 12.3°C Dublin

Racism comes in many forms - but it always hurts

Close

'Racism, and all forms of discrimination, can only be overcome when the non-oppressed rally and agitate for the rights and dignity of those of those who are affected.' Stock Image

'Racism, and all forms of discrimination, can only be overcome when the non-oppressed rally and agitate for the rights and dignity of those of those who are affected.' Stock Image

'Racism, and all forms of discrimination, can only be overcome when the non-oppressed rally and agitate for the rights and dignity of those of those who are affected.' Stock Image

Editor's note: The author of this piece is a hospital doctor who has helped save many lives in Ireland since coming here. He is also, I'm happy to say, a regular Sunday Independent reader. At his request we are not publishing his name because he has no wish to publicly shame or antagonise anyone who has caused distress to him or his family, perhaps without even realising it.

His children have had discriminatory experiences in school, but he does not want their friends' parents "to walk tentatively around us after our names appeared in an article about racism".

He has written this article in the hope that it might challenge some people to change their behaviour.

I am a black African man who has lived in Ireland for 16 years and I've been writing this article in my head for most of the last five years. Now I am finally putting it down on paper.

Many of my friends and workmates have told me they're not racist. They say they have people from diverse cultures in their contact lists, as if this is proof of their claim. I tell them there are many different types of racism.

I want to describe how I view the spectrum of racial discrimination, from the overt kind to the more subtle and persistent form that often goes unnoticed, in Ireland, as well as elsewhere.

Overt racism

I'm glad to say that overt racism is not the norm today, unless a pressure-cooker situation arises. My wife - blue-eyed, blonde-haired - comes from Continental Europe. In her country they say: "You only really know what's in a vessel when you nudge it until its contents spill over". Tensions have a way of revealing the visceral feelings that are usually controlled or suppressed. In all my time in Ireland, I have not been subjected to any overt racism that I can easily recall. I appreciate this more than you can imagine.

However, when I was living in Continental Europe, overt racism was commonplace. I was verbally abused, spat at, physically assaulted with clubs, chains and knives, ejected from public transport, and even made fun of at church, simply on account of my skin colour.

Sections of the city were out of bounds for black- and brown-skinned people, and I remember the trepidation with which I boarded every bus or tram when it was dark. I took note of every face on public transport before I boarded. It was a life of stress and fear and I was ready to run or fight at any moment.

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

Curiosity is not racism

Many years back, before I arrived in Ireland, I was invited by one of my college classmates to visit her family at Easter time. Alone in the dorms, with nothing better to do, I decided to go.

When I arrived at the village, it soon became clear that none of the locals had ever seen a black man in the flesh. Before long, the whole town came out to see me: it was an unforgettable experience.

As we walked through the town, everything came to a standstill. The local fire station closed, and the firefighters were up on the balconies, waving at me. Little kids were chasing about town looking for autographs. "Are you Michael Jordan?" they asked.

They wanted to touch my hair. Check if I had a tail. Rub my skin to see if the colour would rub off. I was mightily amused by all of this. Old folks sat on the doorways and offered me their finest local brew to see how much it would take to get me drunk. I imagine the first European explorers were met with similar responses when they first arrived in Asia, Africa, America and Australia.

This is not racism.

There was no animosity shown towards me, only simple curiosity and a desire to explore 'otherness'. My classmate was brimming with pride.

Genuine curiosity is not to be confused with racism. The world is more integrated today than it was when I had this experience. However, we need to realise that our more integrated society is also more insular now than it ever was.

I encourage my kids to be more accepting of the lack of knowledge of others around them, to view it as a learning experience, and to speak proudly about their cultures.

Insidious racism

One of my first experiences of racism in Ireland affected my daughters. They were enrolled in the local ballet school where they took lessons regularly. About a week before their first performance, we had their hair braided in a subtle pattern at the cost of about €80 each. When they went for their final rehearsal, they were excluded on the basis that their hair was "unacceptable" for a ballerina. Our girls of mixed heritage were learning at a young age that their version of beauty was not up to scratch.

I encourage my kids to be more accepting of the possible ignorance of others around them. They are not black and they are not white. I understand their search for belonging, but I cannot tell them where they belong. The black society is more willing to accept them than the white society, and that is cause for concern.

When I go to my local shop, I queue at the counter to pay like everyone else. The shop assistant accepts everyone else's cash from their hands and hands them the change. In my case, no hand is ever offered, so I must put my cash on the till. Even when I hold my hand out for the change, the shop assistant places it on the till rather than hand it to me. When my wife (again, who is white) is doing the shopping, the hands become involved again.

I have gone for job interviews for which I was the best candidate (academically and in terms of experience). The interviewers have told me they were thoroughly impressed by my knowledge and competence. But when the official results were released, I have been overlooked and, in one case, the person I had trained was hired instead of me. When this happens up to five times, you realise it's no coincidence.

I work for an organisation where no more than 60pc of the regular staff are Irish and white. In spite of this, less than 10pc of management and head office positions are filled by people who are not white or not Irish. Qualification, commitment and competence seem to count for little at that level.

In the course of private conversation with a friend, they let slip something that totally surprised me. Their grandmother had been given a home carer and "thank goodness" it wasn't a black lady, like the neighbour had. My friend "would have stayed home from work if that had happened".

I was shocked. We've been close friends for 10 years. What was I supposed to say to that? To this day, I have not said anything to this person. I want to educate them, but I don't want to antagonise them. But should I be having this discussion with myself, while they are blissfully oblivious of the bias they carry inside? I feel like I am the black friend who is in their life to prove that they are not racist.

Open discrimination

I am well integrated in the local community. I own property here and I've never been a burden on society. I've paid all my taxes during this time and have only ever made a positive contribution to Irish society. When I requested a visa for my mother to visit, after the death of my father, it was declined - and this despite fulfilling all the conditions stipulated.

The visa was only granted on appeal when my wife requested it. My mother was informed at the embassy that she was only allowed into Ireland because my wife is from an EU country. I was so mad. Mad at the country I have helped prosper for openly discriminating against me, and mad at my mother for accepting this reason; I told her I would never have travelled on that premise. That was the incident that prompted me to start writing this article.

I once asked my wife to queue at the airport with two of the children while I queued separately, with our third child. She was not stopped or questioned at any stage, yet I was grilled once again. When I was asked by the immigration officer whether I had my wife's consent to take my daughter out of the country, I pointed my wife out to him - she had already passed through with ease. I asked him whether he had queried whether my consent had been given to her to travel with my other two children. He seemed to melt with shame. He had not.

My children are closely observing these situations we find ourselves in, as a family. What is society teaching them? This is covert, insidious or ingrained racism that many of us experience in Ireland. You cannot quantify it, you cannot even protest against it, because it is shifting and often subconscious, rather than expressed openly by the offender. But it does not hurt any less.

What can we do? The solution

Benjamin Franklin once quoted Solon (630-560 BC), an ancient law maker, philosopher, poet and statesman, by saying: "Justice will not be served, until those unaffected are as outraged as those who are". These are ancient truths that are as valid today as when they were first uttered.

When I was being assaulted, insulted and belittled because of my skin colour in the EU, it was not the perpetrators I was most angry with. Rather, I felt most hurt by those who sat by and did nothing. I understood that my attackers were a minority of misinformed fools. But all it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

Senseless attacks on black people will only stop when white people refuse to condone it by actively engaging against it, both in the streets and in government. And not just by expressing feelings of anger or indignation, but by fervently and enthusiastically applying the law, to ensure that aggressors are found and punished, and that society returns to an equilibrium of equal respect for all its members.

Education is a big part of the solution. We need to continue to drive an agenda that teaches us about the evils of discrimination and the merits of diversity and inclusion.

While I have focused on people of African extraction, it is important to point out that discrimination affects many different groups. Asians, Eastern Europeans, Muslims, Travellers and many more ethnic minorities suffer at the hands of overt and covert racism. Any group that identifies as marginalised will need the majority, those with disproportionate privilege in our society, to fight for equality.

Racism, and all forms of discrimination, can only be overcome when the non-oppressed rally and agitate for the rights and dignity of those of those who are affected.

Where do you stand?


Most Watched





Privacy