Emma Dabiri and Hazel Chu: ‘This is a real, important moment in Ireland’

Race, inequality and how we have a unique opportunity to create a better country

What white people can do next: Hazel Chu and Emma Dabiri. Photographs: Dara Mac Dónaill and Joanne O’Brien

What white people can do next: Hazel Chu and Emma Dabiri. Photographs: Dara Mac Dónaill and Joanne O’Brien

 

Emma Dabiri, the author, historian, and TV presenter, and Hazel Chu, the Green Party politician and Lord Mayor of Dublin, both share an experience of being high-profile Irish women, but have also been subjected to Irish racism in their upbringing, and in their professional lives. 

Both grew up in Dublin in the 1990s, a decade up until which emigration still exceeded immigration, and Ireland remained a largely white, culturally homogenous society. Dabiri’s Irish childhood is rooted in Rialto, and Chu grew up in Firhouse and Celbridge.

Dabiri has spoken and written a lot about her experience of racism in Ireland, where she was the only black person in her immediate environment. She now lives in London, where she took a degree in African studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, presented multiple documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4, and is a visual-sociology PhD researcher at Goldsmiths.

Here, Emma Dabiri and Hazel Chu discuss why now is the time to move from allyship – supporting the cause of marginalised groups to which you do not belong – to coalition: working together to achieve a common goal

Chu was the first Irish-born person of Chinese descent elected to political office in Ireland. Her parents emigrated to Ireland from Hong Kong in the 1970s. Chu was also the first Irish-born person of Chinese descent to be called to the Bar in Ireland, following her degree at the King’s Inns. She didn’t practise as a barrister, and instead worked for Electric Picnic, and then in the non-profit sector, and then in communications for Diageo, before managing her partner Patrick Costello’s 2014 council election campaign, and then running for the Green Party herself and getting elected as a councillor in 2019. 

In June 2020, she became the Lord Mayor of Dublin, the first ethnic Chinese mayor of a European capital. Chu has also spoken about her experiences of harassment and racism growing up, and has also suffered racist abuse, online and off. 

Dabiri’s first book, Don’t Touch My Hair, published in 2019, was a groundbreaking collection of essays tracing histories of blackness through hair. 
Her new book, What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition, emerged from an online resource Dabiri shared in the aftermath of the 2020 killing of George Floyd by police in the US, which instigated a new wave of global anti-racist protests, under the Black Lives Matter banner. 

In Ireland, these protests marked a new era of black Irish visibility, largely youth-led, dovetailing with a cultural moment across Irish music especially, where young black Irish youth have emerged at the creative vanguard of an exciting new wave of independent Irish artists. 

Dabiri’s book, an evolution of that resource she initially shared, offers insightful, practical and thought-provoking guidance that moves discourse away from the often entrenched and passive performance of allyship and towards the ushering in of a new era of coalition-building, something that has been stymied in the past by racist, colonialist and capitalist forces. 

Here, in conversation with Chu, both women discuss the roots of racism and why now is the time to move from allyship – the practice of supporting the cause of marginalised or mistreated groups to which you do not belong – to coalition: working together to achieve a common goal.

They also look at the unique Irish experience of race, and the potency of the opportunity our society is faced with, where Ireland can resist the borrowed racism from elsewhere, and instead create something new.

You can hear audio extracts from their conversation, which is facilitated by Una Mullally, by clicking on the “Tap to listen” links in the text below. These do not work in the Irish Times app; if you’re reading this article in the app, click here to go to the audio-enabled version

Una Mullally: How have you noticed discourse around whiteness change since the summer of 2020, not just in overarching terms, but have you noticed a shift personally, within your own spheres and peers?

Emma Dabiri: It’s very interesting for me because this is an area that I’ve been involved in for years and years. It’s really interesting to see something that at one stage to talk about was incredibly taboo and very fringe, actually, to become increasingly mainstream and then completely turbo-charged by the events of 2020. I’ve seen a phenomenal change occur.

Hazel Chu: In Irish society, I’ve watched it go from something that you don’t speak about – as you point out, the taboo part – to where it’s kind of talked about. There’s a certain openness to talking about race relations, things that are very present that we tend to have swept under the carpet, once upon a time. What were the pitfalls for you, Emma?

Emma Dabiri: I would see the development, where there seems to be a real thirst and commitment to having these conversations – let me think specifically about Ireland – I’d see that as a positive development that I certainly couldn’t have anticipated when I was younger. ► Tap to listen A big theme in the book I’ve just written is the way a lot of the conversation online becomes untethered from the radical and often very self-reflective traditions that these ideas came from. And we see often very distorted versions of conversations happening online. We see ideas that are complex being kind of stripped of their nuance, often, and being reduced to binaries. So that to me is one of the pitfalls. Another one of the pitfalls, obviously a huge one, is the backlash against these conversations. There’s a backlash. And it often seems to me that a lot of these conversations are in many ways preaching to the almost-converted.

Hazel Chu: Yeah.

Emma Dabiri: And vast swathes of people – I might even go so far to dare say the majority of people, perhaps – are not on board.

Hazel Chu:  Tap to listen I just did a session with a school, and we were talking about the generational shift of how different people have these conversations about discrimination, about allyship, and where we’re moving it. Their experiences were similar, but still completely different to my experiences, because they were very online . . . People do reduce things to a binary. It becomes this unnecessary confrontation. It doesn’t become a conversation. It’s not like discussion anymore, it’s not trying to bring people to the middle, or have a compromise. There are some things you can never have a compromise on. There is certain hate that you cannot compromise on.

Emma Dabiri: Completely.

Hazel Chu: But there are certain things that need discussion. Perfect example: [the publication of] the white paper for Direct Provision. That requires discussion. Instead what happened was rhetoric being pushed on one, then the defence being pushed on the other side. Then what happens is, you don’t have a middle conversation. You don’t actually look at what needs to be done. I think in society, we’re all about compromise on some things. We’re all trying to reach some kind of “medium”. I get the feeling it’s become more and more [about] extremes rather than middle of the road.

Emma Dabiri: I completely agree. I think there are people that could be otherwise persuaded, probably quite easily, that end up being swept up in a far more extreme position than they would be otherwise if there was more scope and capacity for conversation, rather than this –exactly as you describe – you’re “for” or you’re “against”. This is in relation to everything at the moment, far beyond race. So I’d be completely inclined to agree.

An underpinning theme of What White People Can Do Next, is looking at the philosophical traditions that inform our lives today. I look at those Cartesian dualisms – René Descartes – and how that separation of the mind and the body, nature and culture, how that created or set up a framework for developments that would follow not long afterwards, which were; the division of the world into binaries, and how that played out with the invention of race. The book goes back to when the idea of a “white race” and a “black race” was invented, because I feel that context is so key to understanding our concepts and ideas about race today. But that context is always missing, even though it’s pretty straightforward.

This idea of dividing everything into binaries has a long tradition in western culture and has its roots in that kind of philosophical movement. But, that division, that binary, of course lends itself very, very applicably to black and white. That way of seeing the world in that very divided way, I think, is something that needs to be unpacked, or at least grappled with in these conversations.

Hazel Chu: A lot of the time, it’s not down to race, it’s down to class, class divides that we are unwilling to acknowledge… My question is: how do we continue to bridge that gap, and where do people play their part in society to try to bridge those classist divides that will inevitably help to bridge racist divides?

Emma Dabiri: I’m so glad you brought that up, because to me any anti-racist narrative that is devoid of class analysis and is devoid of an interrogation of capitalism is only ever going to have advances on a shallow level, because these things are intimately interconnected. Obviously there is a huge intersection between race and class, in that society is in many ways stratified along racialised lines, and that plays out often for people’s class positions. ► Tap to listen Again, a main theme of What White People Can Do Next, is going back to that period in the 1660s, where we have the idea of a white race and a black race introduced into law and codified. One of the primary motivating factors of that is a class division.

I think it’s so fascinating in the Irish context, because the first place we see it is colonial Barbados, where there is an uprising of enslaved Africans and indentured Irish against their English landlords. Race is introduced to help dehumanise the Africans, to justify their enslavement – that’s the primary motivation – but also to shut down those moments of solidarity and coalition that threaten the finances and the position of the landlord class.

So if they can create a racial identity whereby white people see themselves as having shared interests – despite the fact that within that whiteness there is a class that exploits the labour of another class of white people – that can be obscured by the fact of their whiteness, which becomes the coherent narrative by which they understand themselves, rather than through a class identity which would actually give them more in common with the enslaved Africans, both of whom’s labour is being exploited, obviously through varying degrees of exploitation. But those kinds of shared experiences are erased by the promotion of this idea of a superior white race and an – inverted commas – “inferior” black race. That class stuff is key to the invention of race.

Hazel Chu: I think you hit the nail on the head there by saying even when there are different minorities that join forces, inevitably division is sown within them to try to break up that alliance… Is there an answer to how people form that allyship better?

Emma Dabiri: There’s a fundamental flaw in the concept of allyship in that it does exactly as you said, it sets up a dynamic where… racism is “black people’s problem”, and it harms them – and this is true, it harms black people – but this idea that “it harms them, it’s not really got anything to do with me. As an ally I can opt in or opt out. Maybe I kinda wanna help, but I don’t want to interfere. Maybe I don’t want to help at all because it’s not my problem.” That is actually the wrong framework for me. This is why the book is called: From Allyship to Coalition.

The same forces that have a disregard for black life, the same forces that have a disregard for indigenous people, the same forces that have a disregard for women, the same forces that have a disregard for the earth itself, it’s the same force. If we can identify the shared origin of all of these different oppressions, and build a mass movement where we recognise that those oppressions impact on us all differently, but they do all impact on us, and what really unites is the earth. The world cannot actually sustain this level of growth and environmental degradation that it’s experiencing… It’s about identifying points of shared interest despite our differences and working together to build mass movements.

I find the decontextualisation of our current struggles from the past a big problem. Look at Martin Luther King, look at the Black Panthers. What they were actually doing was building mass movements. Fred Hampton was building a rainbow coalition whereby it was black people, it was hispanic people, and it was working class southern whites. They were able to identify – and this is a group as radical as the Black Panthers – the fact that if all those groups work together, it would be a lot more powerful than an atomised approach. They all suffered from the inequalities perpetuated by capitalism. Of course the black Americans and the hispanics have racism on top of that, but they have shared interests.

He was assassinated shortly after that, so the rainbow coalition never came to fruition. Same with Martin Luther King. He was building the poor people’s campaign. He was advocating for universal basic income for all working and poor Americans across the racial divide. Again, that never came to fruition because he was assassinated within a year.

Hazel Chu ► Tap to listen Any time there’s been real systemic change, societal change that is being pushed, there has been a roadblock. And the roadblock generally is someone’s leader being assassinated. Time and time again, the need for fundamental rights is what binds people… What we don’t seem to have formed is that coalition alliance that can build momentum. There’s still going to be pushback because people fear change. There are certain people who fear change, who want things to stay the same because the status quo is better for them.

Emma Dabiri: I even think there’s people whom the status quo is not better for them, but they’ve been so hoodwinked by certain things that they actually act against their own best interests. This is why race is so fascinating. Race was invented. You see it in colonial Barbados, and the next time you see it appear again is in 1681 after Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia. Again, it’s a union of commoners; enslaved Africans and indentured English, mostly, rise up again against the landlord class. The landlord class is like, “this is never going to happen again.” It’s a real threat to them. And so they bring in these draconian laws that really harden the racial divide and start to introduce this idea of a distinct white race. These ideas spread throughout the English colonies and eventually throughout the world. Race was invented. Its functionality is to prevent people from seeing how they have mutual interests. It has been doing its work very, very powerfully now for over 400 years.

Hazel Chu: We look at the last year and we look at movements. I have this horrible fear sometimes that “oh my god, people are just going to crawl back in now, once they think the movement is over, we’re on to the next big thing”, whereas I don’t think people realise the big things are all connected. Your climate falling apart, your racial movements, they’re all connected. It’s all about: when the f*ck are you guys going to start realising it affects you? When is that penny going to drop.

Emma Dabiri: I certainly feel like it’s a trend as well, because if it wasn’t a trend, there would be more enduring [change]. So much of the ways things are being framed now is stuff that just isn’t sustainable, and is not going to bring about lasting change. It’s all quite performative. It’s all quite surface level. I don’t want it to be a squandered opportunity, because the thing is, I’ve never experienced such a willingness for people to engage with these issues and have these conversations.

► Tap to listen Ireland is really kind of exciting to me in a way, because unlike the United States, there is not the same intergenerational entrenched and imposed poverty on a black population. The UK has it more than Ireland, but because the history of the black population in the UK does not go back as far as the US, it doesn’t have it to the extent the US does . . .  

This is a real, important moment in Ireland. I think it’s really important that we don’t just import the narratives of other countries. One of the things I do in the book is actually look at the kind of distinctions between black history in America, black history in the UK, and black history in Ireland. They are hugely different. But also the distinctions between whiteness in the US and the UK and in Ireland, because of course people are racialised as white in all of those countries, but through different formations and through different historical realities, so the whitenesses have different textures, have different dimensions. I don’t see that ever engaged with, just these generic racial terms, generic uses of black, generic uses of white. Who are we talking about?

Hazel Chu: The phrase “imported narrative” is really important because what has happened so far is that we’ve imported narratives to skew our conversations. You have certain far-right groups that import narratives and strategy and ways of working to try and stoke that fear and discrimination. This is why I think you’re spot on in saying Ireland is different. To say that racism doesn’t exist even back in the day is absolutely wrong.

Emma Dabiri: Oh my gosh, I’m not even remotely suggesting that.

Hazel Chu: I know you’re not, but some people do. They kind of look at current situations and they go “oh that’s imported from the US and the UK, we’ve never had this issue.” But we’ve always had the issue, it was just slightly different. To your point about whiteness having different textures, it’s been different in Ireland as well. A lot of people talk about “oh, why don’t we have hate speech laws that will help things”, but it’s always been you have the stick, you have carrot. That is very much the stick side of things, enforcement. But we also need the carrot in terms of how do we proactively drive this conversation… There’s a vast amount we can do with the school curriculum on how we look at these racial divides, class divides. That discussion should be had from an early age. I’ll definitely be talking to the ministers in government and saying we need to look at this in terms of curriculum, how do we drive it forward.

Emma Dabiri: Absolutely, that’s so brilliant to hear. That’s exactly what’s needed. That’s how change happens.

Hazel Chu: I’ll put my hand up first and foremost and say, “yeah, we are in government, we need to do more in the area.” Everyone can put up their hands in different ways.

Una Mullally: One of the things that happened in Ireland is because successive governments had such a laissez-faire attitude to integration and addressing racism, there was an assumption that “it’ll be grand”, that it would sort itself out in the schoolyard and the football pitch. And to some degree from the late 1990s onwards, that maybe happened a bit.

But the fundamental fear is around how racism in Ireland is at such a base level. As you write, Emma, that’s not to say that institutional racism doesn’t assert itself when it has the opportunity. Obviously that’s also the case. I wonder because of the lack of sophistication of racism in Ireland,  does that also provide an opportunity to tackle racism at its actual grassroots blunt level? Or does it present a bigger battle than the more embedded, intergenerational, sophisticated, institutional racism in other jurisdictions?

Emma Dabiri: I see it as an opportunity. In some contexts it seems almost insurmountable. When we think about places that the building blocks, the foundations of these nations, are on stolen land, on slave labour, it’s in the DNA. The investment in whiteness is so potent, it’s different… It was so crazy when I was growing up. There were very few black people in [Ireland], but ideas about black people, notions and stereotypes about black people were very, very present, and were very potent.

Hazel Chu: ► Tap to listen There’s a very particular moment when I remember canvassing with the other half, and he was at a door with someone arguing with him saying that “such and such took our jobs, took our homes”, and started listening “all the blacks, all the Romanians”. She was just about to say “Chinese” until she saw me bouncing up the pathway. And she quickly changed it to “but the Chinese work really hard, so they’re fine.” My other half, because she had started giving out, he was slowly backing away and saying to her “listen, I don’t need your vote, you can keep it.” But it comes back to Una’s point that racism is very basic here. It’s basic because of the issues we have in the country as well. It’s amplified by issues of homelessness, lack of housing, unemployment. When people have genuine issues and concerns – and you can see it across the world – they automatically blame two categories: immigrants and poor people.

Emma Dabiri: I don’t think they automatically do. I feel that they’ve been conditioned to. That’s why race exists. That’s why these things exist, because it takes the heat off the real source of the inequality and the deprivation and the pain and the suffering and the oppression that people are actually experiencing… It’s a very effective mythology.

Una Mullally: What about how discourse around colonialism can be leveraged to incorporate anti-racist movements in Ireland?

Emma Dabiri: That’s something I’m fascinated by, and that I think is so powerful. Tap to listen There are so many parallels between Irish history and the history of other colonised countries. I think the big distinction is that Irish people came to be racialised as white, and that’s what stopped the real identification of those parallels and those similarities, and creating a true Irish anti-racism. I think it’s whiteness that got in the way. But I think there’s such rich potentiality in exploring those histories. Something that I’ve written about in other places as well are those relationships between black American freedom fighters and black American theorists and intellectuals and Irish revolutionaries. So, the relationship between W E B Dubois and Roger Casement. Or Marcus Garvey wearing on his shirt with all his medals, he would wear one for Ireland to represent the oppression that Irish people were experiencing under colonialism. The relationship between Daniel O’Connell and Frederick Douglass. There are many. I remember actually being in South Africa a few years ago, and I was with some much older anti-apartheid activists, and one of them sang me a song in Irish. They were like “we had so much solidarity with the Irish struggle.” I was like, “wow”. Those points of solidarity are fascinating and could be made a lot more of.

Hazel Chu: To Emma’s point, it’s funny, the line is whiteness got in the way. I constantly get a line “your history isn’t our history because Chinese history is different.” Look at where Hong Kong was even before 1997. Look at how the Opium Wars happened. Look at Ireland and what happened in the Famine. The shared history is across the world, but we tend to not notice it. The proclamation there outside my office says you cherish all children equally, because they didn’t see the colouring, whereas racists see colouring and apply that as almost the counter-narrative of “oh we were colonised, and we can’t [ allow that] happen again by other people.”

Emma Dabiri: Whiteness is a colonial construct. It’s invented by the English in the colonial Caribbean and the English Americas. One of the questions that I pose in the book is: who were white people before they were racialised as white? People who are now racialised as white have quite a short history of being racialised as white. Who were Irish people before they were racialised as white? What have Irish people lost through being racialised as white?

What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition by Emma Dabiri is published on April 1st by Penguin, £7.99. On April 22nd, at 7pm Emma Dabiri will discuss her new book as part of Cúirt International Festival of Literature 2021 cuirt.ie

WHAT WHITE PEOPLE CAN DO NEXT

Extracts from Emma Dabiri’s original online toolkit

Stop the denial
Stop vehemently denying you are racist. What makes you immune to centuries of socialisation? “It’s a system we’ve been born into, of which you have no control. What you DO have control over is what you do next.”

Stop trying to be a “good” person
“Black people do not need your charity or your benevolence and we certainly don’t need your guilt.” Avoid the compulsion and trope of the white saviour.

Pull people up on racism

Abandon guilt
“You are not responsible for what your ancestors did. You are however responsible for what YOU do.”

Interrogate whiteness
Learn about whiteness. Where does it come from, and why?

Stop reducing black people to one-dimensional characters

Read
Read books by black people, and not just books about anti-racism.

Interrogate capitalism
“Exploitation and inequality are the operating logic of capitalism, in such an environment not only will racism flourish, it will remain a prerequisite.”

Redistribute resources
Vote for representatives committed to tackling inequality. Redistributing resources may depend on your personal and professional environment, such as mentorship. Examine your own context and see how redistribution of resources can function within that.

Recognise this is killing you too
Systems of inequality and exploitation ultimately destroy everyone. “It’s not just about calling yourself an ‘ally’.” This is everyone’s battle.