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‘White Irish people have never had to think about this’

Young black community calls for early education about racism to tackle public ignorance

Sorcha Pollak

Lawson Mpame at a rally on Monday in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement outside the US embassy in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Children should learn about racism and black history from an early age while more teachers of colour are needed in our schools to encourage an understanding of Ireland’s cultural diversity, a group of young black Irish people have agreed.

“Talking about race is a complicated thing,” Boni Odoemene (25), former DIT Students’ Union president, told The Irish Times. “We need to normalise the situation like with Repeal and marriage equality. It’s only with conversation and honest dialogue that we can get through this as a country.”

Watching the video of George Floyd’s death and the protests that followed prompted Odoemene to reflect on his own experiences of racism growing up in Ireland. He was five the first time he was singled out in an Irish playground. “We were playing chasing and one kid said ‘don’t touch me with your dirty skin’.

“When I was 11 I was called n***r for the first time and had to ask my dad what the word meant. When I was 20 a guy called me a black b*****d on the street and no one passing by said anything.”

Many Irish still believe racism does not exist here, says Odoemene, who this week started posting video conversations with friends and family about race on his Instagram account. He has also set up an Instagram account for young black Irish people to share their experiences of growing up here.

“What’s struck with me the most is Irish people were surprised to hear this; they say they ‘literally had no clue’. This is the personification of white privilege; white Irish people have never had to think or talk about this.”

Boni Odoemene: Many Irish still believe racism does not exist here, says the former DIT Students’ Union president

While racist police brutality is not a problem in Ireland, Garda “micro-aggressions” towards people of colour happen all the time, says Odoemene, who now works at the University of Birmingham. “I never had any issues with guards growing up but as I became a man I noticed how they approached me differently compared to white friends.”

When I was younger I used to think the whole of Ireland was hateful

Lawson Mpame, a 27-year-old stylist from Castleknock, agrees that racism is an issue within An Garda Síochána. “I’ve seen it first hand; you’re in a group of lads walking and they’ll stop you ask ‘where are you going, where do you live?’ I’ve had friends who were searched by gardaí for no reason.

“I even dress a certain way so the guards don’t stop me. I rarely wear hoodies or tracksuit bottoms because I know it means I’m more likely to be stopped. It makes me really frustrated and disillusioned with the guards and justice system.

“Racism in Ireland ranges from overtly extreme and being called the ‘N’ word to subtle things like ‘you’re very educated for a black person’ or ‘you’re very articulate’.”

Mpame, who took part in last Monday’s Black Lives Matter protest in Dublin, says in the wake of Floyd’s death, black Irish people finally feel confident to speak openly about their experiences of racism. “I’m probably the only black male in the Irish fashion industry and I didn’t feel I could talk about these things before. But now there’s a platform to be open and people are paying attention.”

Nathali Turner (24): ‘I remember walking to school and people calling me and my sister the ‘N’ word and there was nothing we could do about it’

Nathali Turner (24), a fashion model and graphic design graduate living in Carlow, agrees that people of colour feel like they’re “finally being heard”.

Turner, who is mixed race, moved to Ireland when she was nine. In Nigeria, she never felt different but here, she suffered racist abuse from the moment she arrived.

“I remember walking to school and people calling me and my sister the ‘N’ word and there was nothing we could do about it. It felt like an identity crisis; I was half Irish but these people didn’t want me.”

She remembers strangers approaching her Nigerian mother to ask whether Turner was her child. “When we walked around together we got a lot of looks because of our different skin tones.

“When I was younger I used to think the whole of Ireland was hateful and I was so confused when people said Ireland is a happy country. I never experienced that happiness and I’m half Irish.”

Only recently, when Turner made friends through the Gxrl Code collective for women in the arts, did she start to feel comfortable in her own skin. As a model, she’s found most Irish agencies only have a couple of women of colour on their books. “They usually have a few token black models but they have a certain look they’re trying to get out.”

Amanda Adé, who spoke outside the US embassy at Monday’s protest, says racism has been “programmed into people’s consciousness” and that many Irish are “blissfully ignorant” of their prejudices towards people of colour.

People need to learn to call out racist remarks and not “brush them off as banter”, says Adé. “It’s great the black Irish community finally has the courage to step up. It helps people realise racism is real and brings it beyond what’s going on in America. It brings it home to Ireland.”

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