‘Where are you really from?’: Growing up black in Ireland

Tamilore Awonusi: ‘I’m often asked what my first encounter of racism was. The question you must ask is: when did you realise you were being discriminated against? Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
For many black people, growing up in Ireland can mean you work so hard to create an identity to suit other people that you start to lose your own

Up until a month ago, I don’t think I’d ever discussed racism so much. The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and the sudden surge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement there and across the world, ignited a fire within myself and many other black people across Ireland. It has brought out into the open the uncomfortable topic of racism in this country that has been long overdue.

“Where are you really from?”

“You don’t look like you’re from around here.”

“You sound Irish.”

I, and many other black people in Ireland, are all too familiar with these phrases, which set a benchmark for casual racism. Sometimes referred to as “micro-aggressions”, on the surface they may seem unintentional and harmless, but they point to a lack of awareness of, and misinformation about, racism that many of us are forced to confront on a daily basis.

During the recent discourse, the “Ireland isn’t racist” rhetoric has made me uncomfortable. Could it be that this “norm” is so embedded in our culture to the point that we’re oblivious to it?

I’m often asked what my first encounter of racism was, and I always reply that this is the wrong question to be asking. The question you must ask is: when did you realise you were being discriminated against? Many black people are unaware that they are victims of racial abuse at a young age simply because they are oblivious to their skin colour. They are unaware that life has dealt them a disadvantaged card of being scrutinised as a result of their skin colour.

Sharon Olatunde, a 20-year-old biomedical science student, says many black children who were born here had different school experiences from that of their non-black classmates.
Sharon Olatunde, a 20-year-old biomedical science student, says many black children who were born here had different school experiences from that of their non-black classmates.

I draw from my experience growing up as a black Irish man. I was privileged to attend a private primary school in Dublin, but the lines around that privilege were blurred. I was one of the first black students to attend my school and for the first few years, I was the only black child. It may have been very obvious I was different, but I didn’t notice until I was in first class. Suddenly I noticed everything – the littlest things: being the only child not invited to a birthday party; being labelled disruptive; remarks about how my parents dressed and spoke. It’s at that moment a child realises where they stand in this “social hierarchy”.

Teachers would try to help with the words, “I don’t see colour,” and while the sentiment serves to acknowledge that we are all the same, it neglects the fact that we are not. And while one person may choose to ignore it, others do not. In certain scenarios, we fail to acknowledge that the outcomes are as a result of skin colour, and if we don’t address that, nothing changes.

The passiveness or misguided efforts of education professionals affect their students, black or otherwise. Sharon Olatunde is a 20-year-old biomedical science student at Maynooth University. She grew up in Dundalk, Co Louth, and while in primary school, she says there was a strong black community in her area and many black children in her class – Irish children born to Nigerian, Ghanian, Congolese parents. But while these children were born here, their experience in school was different from that of their non-black classmates.

“My teachers would often pair the black children together and take them as a group out of the classroom for extra education classes,” says Olatunde. This approach of making an “other” of the black children may have influenced how their non-black peers perceived them, she says, embedding (in the minds of both black and non-black children) that black children are inferior and different.

Joella Dhlamini, an 18-year-old from South Africa, moved to Ireland when she was 13 years old, and felt intense pressure to excel to prove that she wasn’t inferior due to her skin colour.
Joella Dhlamini, an 18-year-old from South Africa, moved to Ireland when she was 13 years old, and felt intense pressure to excel to prove that she wasn’t inferior due to her skin colour.

This stigma is well known to the black community and we work constantly to dismantle it. Joella Dhlamini, an 18-year-old from South Africa, moved to Ireland with her family in early 2014. Then 13 years old, she felt intense pressure to excel to prove that she wasn’t inferior due to her skin colour, she says. She went on to become her school’s head girl, was on the board for the positive mental health committee, was heavily involved in the drama department, and in her transition year interviewed Leo Varadkar on the topic of racism.

“I felt there was a need for me to succeed and be ahead because I believed the colour of my skin would be a factor for me to battle and I felt the pressure of it,” she says.

As a black Irish teenager in a country that’s predominantly white, I also felt the pressure and the burden of not being accepted due to the constant encounters with discrimination and stereotyping. I did everything within my power to distract my peers from my skin colour. I gave my all in sports and pushed myself to be the best I could be, in both athletics and rugby, so I could be accepted.

I was no longer “Tamilore, the black kid”. I was now “Tamilore, the rugby player” and I found comfort in that. I believed my peers would now accept me as one of them but, at some point, you start to lose your own identity working so hard to create one for other people.

Laju Uwatse, a 22-year-old model from Limerick, says there was a time when he used to dislike black people.
Laju Uwatse, a 22-year-old model from Limerick, says there was a time when he used to dislike black people.

Laju Uwatse, a 22-year-old model from Limerick, recalls a period where he used to dislike black people. “I reached a point where I didn’t like black people; the stereotypes that were around us made me hate being compared to it.” Uwatse believes these stereotypes, and the attempt to escape them, is why he and so many other young black people set ourselves aside and strive to be seen as the same as everyone else; we never want to give people an excuse to treat us differently.

This discrimination doesn’t end with adolescence; for many young black people in Ireland it follows them into the professional world. Azeez Saeed, a 25-year-old event manager based in Dublin, says: “They never expect a black man to be in a position of power. You work extra hard to control your own narrative, only for others not to believe so.”

Azeez Saeed, a 25-year-old event manager based in Dublin, says people never expect a black man to be in a position of power
Azeez Saeed, a 25-year-old event manager based in Dublin, says people never expect a black man to be in a position of power

Saeed recalls events he organised where non-black attendees would often assume he held a menial role, speaking down to him or dismissing him to later find out that he was the one organising the event – sometimes after security had been called.

Kevin Garry, a 27-year-old account executive from Dublin, now works in London. He highlights a scenario in a previous workplace when, at a work lunch surrounded by the leadership team, he was referred to as “Black Kev”. “It’s a moment of reflection,” he says. “You put in all this extra work and wear yourself out to be accepted, only to find out you are still only being identified by your skin colour.”

There is a pattern to this behaviour: constant micro-aggressions, constant need for proof of one’s Irishness, constant stereotyping. Many young black Irish people like myself are first-generation Irish – the first in our families to have been born and raised here. At some point in the very near future, we will have our own black Irish children. When asked where they’re from, I want my children to be able to say Ireland, with no questions asked.

Kevin Garry, a 27-year-old account executive from Dublin, recalls being at a work lunch surrounded by the leadership team, and being referred to as ‘Black Kev’.
Kevin Garry, a 27-year-old account executive from Dublin, recalls being at a work lunch surrounded by the leadership team, and being referred to as ‘Black Kev’.

It’s impossible to distil the entire experience of growing up black in Ireland in one article. I will never be able to evoke every emotion, every instance of racism I’ve had to endure, every moment I feared for my life or wished I was born a “different colour” or had to limit myself because of the colour of my skin. But to understand our upbringing is to understand how racism works, how it manifests in Ireland, and why our call for change is warranted.

Many people are not racist, but they ignore or enable racist undertones. Crossing the road when you see a black person ahead; stereotyping a black person for the music they listen to or the clothes they wear; and the age-old question: “Where are you really from?” These all go towards propping up a system that damages us all, and we can dismantle such a corrosive system only by working together.

As Azeez Saeed concludes: “We must work to remove the negative social constructs of race and the only way to achieve this is by having non-black people take a stand. It shouldn’t just be people who look like you who have to fight for you.”