Emma Dabiri: ‘I wouldn't want my children to experience what I did in Ireland’

Emma Dabiri. Photograph: Olivia Harris
Growing up in Dublin, Emma Dabiri was the only black person in her sphere of vision. Now living in London, the academic, TV presenter and writer talks about online racist abuse, the symbolism of hair, and how Ireland has changed 

A few months ago, it was hard to pick up a publication that didn’t have Emma Dabiri heralded as “one to watch” in 2019. The Irish Times, The Observer and i-D magazine talked up the significant accolades of this academic, broadcaster, mother and now author.

That should not be a surprise; after all, it’s not often you meet someone who stepped out of an isolated upbringing in Rialto, Dublin, to accidentally become a model, then study sociology to PhD level, while teaching, and presenting documentaries and TV series, and maintaining a fulfilling home life with her partner and their young son.

Meeting her breezy self, you’d guess little of this productive and accomplished life. Except maybe the modelling bit. 

In the book Dabiri recounts a sleepover where a friend taunted her, saying she had ‘pubes in my bed... no, hang on, it’s just Emma’s hair’

In between all this, she found time to write about the politics and history around African hair, in the wonderfully titled Don’t Touch My Hair. Zone in on its roots (the hair pun intended, the Alex Haley one not so much) and it goes back to the schoolyards of Dublin, when, after a few happy years in Atlanta, Georgia, she found herself as the only black person in her sphere of vision; her mother is Irish and split from her Nigerian father when she was 10 years old. Racism wasn’t the only predicament she faced; the specific nature of African hair meant she didn’t know about, then wasn’t able to access, the methods and materials to maintain it. It made everything worse. In the book she recounts a sleepover where a friend taunted her, saying she had “pubes in my bed... no, hang on, it’s just Emma’s hair.”

“Not knowing how to handle my hair was really traumatic,” she tells me, now comfortably curled up on her leather couch at home in east London. “Any hair texture to be left natural isn’t going to look great. But Afro hair needs to be twisted, braided, oiled, parted and detangled, and that’s all before you get into any sort of styling. So my hair was just left matted.

“Even if my hair had been maintained, I still wouldn’t have been happy with it because everybody around me had long, straight hair, which made me feel excluded. I was deeply ashamed of my hair. It preoccupied a lot of my thinking; I would pray every night to wake up and have normal hair.”

Emma Dabiri as a five-year-old in Dublin. Photograph courtesy of the author
Emma Dabiri as a five-year-old in Dublin. Photograph courtesy of the author

As with many points that are often viewed as a a curse when growing up, it turned out to be a blessing in adulthood. Today, she looks distinguished, with a cowry shell-dotted shuku hairstyle that’s traditional to her Yoruba background, which took three hours to complete and will last a month, if she were to let it.

The isolation she experienced also led her to finding answers in books, which begun her path into academia. After a journalism course in Ballyfermot, she left Ireland to study African Studies at the elite School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where she was spotted by a model scout, then television makers.

So while in academia, she’s presented three series of BBC Four’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, Channel 4 documentaries such as Is Love Racist?, and a radio show about Afrofuturism, as well as weightier lectures and lighter shows, such as e The Six O’Clock Show on Virgin Media One.

It turns out that the childhood taunts readied her for the online trolls she’s faced since stepping in to the public eye.

The first time I was publicly speaking about race there was an onslaught of racist abuse online, but to me it’s just words. It means nothing

“I don’t want to say it made me stronger because I feel like that suggests damage, but it’s difficult for words to hurt me now,” she says. “I remember the first time I was publicly speaking about race and doing some quite high-profile appearances. There was an onslaught of quite extreme racist abuse online, but I was entirely unmoved by it. It was like part of me is dead inside. To me it’s just words, it means nothing.”

Don’t Touch My Hair is her first foray into book writing, and complements her experience of Afro hair with research and context pulled in from her academic studies.

When I first ruminated on the specifics of Afro hair, cheerily unaware of its depth, I imagined the main issues were that of standing out, confidence and acceptance: akin to the predicament of redheads. I imagined Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s tirade on hair in Fleabag, delivered to a hairdresser (ironically an Afro-Caribbean one), summed up its importance for all of us. “Hair is everything,” her character declared. “We wish it wasn’t so we could actually think about something else occasionally. But it is. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day. We’re meant to think that it’s a symbol of power, that it’s a symbol of fertility. Some people are exploited for it, and it pays your fucking bills. Hair is everything, Anthony.”

Emma Dabiri. Photograph: Olivia Harris
Don’t Touch My Hair: Emma Dabiri. Photograph: Olivia Harris

The truth is, that’s only the start of its significance for those with Afro hair. As Dabiri covers in the book, hairstyles were a rare source of freedom for slaves in America. Further back in time, in Africa itself, the intricate patterns doubled as art. Seeing to another person’s hair was a bonding experience when time was a neutral commodity (it was only considered to have value after colonisation). It was used to indicate someone’s social status, their marital status and, for some groups, the religion they followed. 

“There’s this idea that black history starts with slavery, or in the diaspora in the Americas, and before that Africa was a heathen place full of witchcraft,” says Dabiri. “Even books that I’d read about black hair had maybe a page or two about Africa, then really started with enslavement. But before there was any stigma attached to it, in lots of cultures across the continent, it was a complex visual language.”

After a period of repression, then reclamation, in the last 30 years African stylings have become popular enough that they’re in the eyeline of cultural appropriation – enter Madonna, Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus et al. So it’s noticeable that Beyoncé, whose pride in her black heritage seems to grow stronger each album and is explicit her new documentary Homecoming, turned her hair blonde and silky, a style that she still wears to this day. Dabiri understands this decision.

“She became an iconic figure in a period where it was unknown for a black female artist to have natural hair,” she says. “Lauryn Hill had locks but she was seen as a militant figure. I don’t think Beyoncé could have had her hair in its natural state and become a superstar. And now it’s a defining feature, so you can understand why she keeps it, although she’s wearing her hair natural more often now. It’s the same for Michelle Obama: Barack would not have become the president of the United States if he was married to a woman with natural hair. Hair has that much symbolism.”

Emma Dabiri. Photograph: Olivia Harris
Emma Dabiri. Photograph: Olivia Harris

When Dabiri was pregnant with her son, now six years old, she made her own symbolic choice: she shaved off her hair and let it grow again naturally. It spoke volumes about her relationship with her hair and heritage, especially as it related to her role as a mother. 

Of course, she’s conscious of showcasing all the elements of her son’s background, given her own childhood, and especially as her PhD centres on the identity politics of mixed-race people as an ethnic group.

“It’s more about showing than telling, especially when he’s living in a different country,” Dabiri says. “I think people can end up having an identity crisis if they’re born in one place but their parents are strongly telling them that they’re something else. 

“So my son has a very long Nigerian name, but my partner is English with Irish ancestry, so he’s representing with his surname,” she says. “We go to Ireland every month, and he loves Irish folk music, so that’s a powerful way of passing on our history and culture. On his last day of nursery all the kids had to do a performance of a song and most kids did a nursery rhyme, but he sung Raggle Taggle Gypsy by Planxty, of all things. 

I have a brother, mixed race also, who’s 17 years younger than me, and the Ireland that he’s growing up in and that my son is seeing is very different to the one I grew up in

“I used to think I would never be able to live in Ireland after I left, because I wouldn’t want my children to experience anything even remotely close to what I did. But I have a brother, mixed race also, who’s 17 years younger than me, and the Ireland that he’s growing up in and that my son is seeing is very different to the one I grew up in. It’s changed more than I could ever have anticipated. I think it would be fine to live there with children now.”

Yet, counter to the prevailing spirit of inclusion, we need only look at the potential candidates for the local and EU elections to see that nationalist sentiment is increasing, in keeping with global shifts.

“That’s obviously really something that I have no tolerance for,” she says. “Between nationalism, anti-immigration and racism, there are textured differences, but their origin is from the same place: fantasies about their nation, fantasies about ethnic purity, issues about scarcity and resources and also conflating corporate neoliberal globalisation, and the ills that it creates, with the presence of non-white migrants particularly,” she says.

“Often that’s a narrative that’s promoted by influential parties, so people don’t quite understand the causes of poverty and inequality.

“Ireland has so much in common with Africa and Asia because of its history of colonialism. That shared history should be an enduring panacea against the development of those kind of ideas. It’s disappointing and crap. And it needs to be stamped out before it develops into anything that you see in countries that have a longer history of multiculturalism. There needs to be really considered and concerted policy and efforts to deal with this immediately, and that’s not only through legislation but the media as well.” 

In the UK at least, her very presence on screen and the radio helps in a small but significant way. With her PhD ticking over nicely – she’s aiming to finish it this year or next – her broadcast career continues in earnest. There’s another series of Britain’s Lost Masterpieces on the way, and a trip to Haiti for a radio documentary about the artistic genre of Afro-surrealism.   

“At the moment I teach part-time, so I can have an academic position and still do presenting work,” she says. “I love broadcasting and I’m very lucky I’ve had the opportunity to make programmes that I’ve been really passionate about. If I can continue doing both in the long-term, I’ll be happy.”

Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri is published on Thursday, May 2nd, by Allen Lane. Read the review here.