‘I make myself small and stay quiet’: Experiences of racism in Ireland

The Irish Times invited black people and people of colour in Ireland to share their personal stories of growing up, living and working in this country, their experiences of identity and racism, and their views on what needs to be done to make Ireland a more inclusive society. From the responses we received, here is a selection

Youssef Khalifa: ‘I make myself small and I stay quiet’

I don’t often speak up about these things. I learned from an early age that it was less uncomfortable to stay quiet, and play along.

I was born in 1983 to a Libyan father and an Irish mother, in the Coombe Hospital in Dublin. I grew-up in Tallaght. Until you hear my name or look at my passport, no-one notices me. It’s easier to not be noticed and to get on with it - this is the big lesson I have taken from primary school, and carry with me to this day. I have passing privilege if I keep my life small. So I do. No-one should have to do this.

When I was 14 years old in an Irish-speaking secondary school, a teacher I looked up to was talking about racism. I brought up an experience I had in primary school of racial discrimination by an adult. The teacher, who I am very fond of to this day, replied to my story with a laugh and consoled me that the person I was talking about was actually a really nice guy. I gave up.

I gave up when a guard stopped me for cycling too fast in Templeogue Village and upon hearing my name asked me where I was from. When I said Dublin he asked “and what is your status in this nation young man?” I replied “citizen”. What teenager knows to say that? I was a kid, he was in power, and he went straight to implicit threat of deportation.

I resign myself to being stopped in airports as a suspected terror risk. I have had my passport taken away for further processing many times. This isn’t racial profiling, it’s just racism. But I am lucky I have the privilege to keep travelling. That’s what an Irish passport gave me. Many are not that lucky. Many do not have the choice to hide behind a passport, or behind silence.

My wife thinks I act tense in airports when we travel together. I do! I am tense and resigned. I am sick of being stopped randomly. So to not get stopped, by teachers, by guards, by the world at large, I make myself small and I stay quiet. It’s easier, and it’s exhausting.

Ahmed Elawad: ‘I first remember being called a n****r when I was nine’

Ahmed Elawad
Ahmed Elawad

I am a 21-year-old student from Dublin, originally Sudan. I first remember being called a n****r when I was nine years old, by a classmate. When I told my teacher, he told the classmate to stop name calling and that was it. At the time I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of deep hatred behind the word. Looking back now, I feel my teacher wasted a rare and powerful opportunity to teach the class about racism. He let me and all his other students down that day.

A few weeks later I witnessed a father instill hatred into his young son. I heard him say, “When that black c*nt gets the ball you better tackle him”.

That same year, at night our doorbell rang. I went to open the door, I couldn’t see anything, but I heard a man call out “you and your n****r family leave our estate”.

I didn’t tell my family because I knew it would hurt them. This is one of my regrets, as they would have guided me through it and I wouldn’t have held on to that pain by myself.

While Dublin is more multicultural, I’ve still experienced hate because of the colour of my skin. I was working at a retail shop and a mother and her two young daughters walked in. Her youngest daughter asked me my name. The mother quickly intervened, and told her daughter to shut up. Her daughter asked why and her older sister reminded her that they are not allowed to talk to black people. This really shocked me. I froze because I genuinely couldn’t believe it.

Another time I was running to catch the bus while I heard a man say “run n****r run”. I stopped and confronted this man, everyone around started looking at me like I was crazy, like I was the “angry black man”. It’s so frustrating.

It’s my responsibility to educate myself about homophobia, misogyny and transphobia. Similarly, it’s white people’s responsibility to learn about racism. But it isn’t enough to not be racist you have to be actively antiracist, and call people out on their subtle racism.

Orlaith Onoh: ‘There is racism in our offices, schools, stores and government buildings’

Orlaith Onoh
Orlaith Onoh

I am 16, living in Cork City. I have had to endure racism of all types in this country, even though I was born and raised here. I thought being an Irish citizen was going to protect me from any injustice projected onto me because of my skin colour, but I was wrong. I have experienced racism at school, not just from ignorant kids who didn’t know any better, but from adults too. They would shame me, belittle me and make me question why I was born black.

Any time me and my black friends chose to sit next to each other, we were questioned why we wanted to segregate ourselves. All white eyes stared back at the black kid whenever the N word was present in the novels we read. It was uncomfortable to be a black girl. To grow up knowing that in order to succeed you have to work 10 times harder.

People say that there isn’t any racism in Ireland, which is a myth. There is racism in our offices, schools, stores and government buildings. Leo, our Taoiseach wants to acknowledge that there is racism in our country but how can you speak about racism in the Dáil when there is not and has never been one single black politician in the parliament in the history of this country?

How many black people work in your local bank? Garda station? Local council? Local accountant firm, law firm, library? As a teacher in your primary and secondary school?

We need representation in this country, we need to inspire young people of colour. We need to educate children on this topic; it is the only way the negative perception of black people will be erased.

Peo Mosepele: ‘I never felt like a second class citizen’

I moved to Ireland from Botswana when I was nine years old. My family immigrated to a small town where we were welcomed and made to feel part of the community. I attended the local primary and secondary school, where for most years during my education, I was the only black girl in my year. I never had any trouble making friends because of my race, nor did I face any discrimination.

This continued when I attended university in Ireland. I am currently a Master’s student at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway. My experience of living in Galway has been overwhelmingly positive. I have studied and worked in Galway for five years. When I moved here, I did not know anyone but was immediately surprised at how friendly the city was. I was greeted by friendly smiles and never felt like a second class citizen.

I know my experience is not reflective of what other black people in the State have experienced. However, in the midst of this gloom and confusion about what is going on in the world, it is important to remember that the actions of the few racist people do not reflect the sentiment of most Irish people. Irish people should be proud of how accepting they have been of racial minorities.

Syamala Roberts: ‘We’re taken for the cleaners, staff or care workers’

Syamala Roberts
Syamala Roberts

I’m young woman of Indian origin. I grew up and went to school in Belfast, and I still spend a lot of time there, on breaks from my PhD in Cambridge and Berlin. I had a privileged upbringing and grew up in an affluent, reasonably multicultural area, home to sizeable Indian and Chinese communities.

When I think back to my school days, I remember being embarrassed and uncomfortable about being different, and I did wish away the colour of my skin. We never had any non-white teachers. All the adults I looked up to - aside from my parents - were white.

Because I feel Northern Irish and English is my first language, I’ve always been shocked whenever I encounter casual or overt racism “at home”. I know many recent BME migrants in Belfast who have experienced serious racist attacks, such as being followed, called names, threatened or having eggs or stones thrown at them. Mercifully, I have never experienced this.

I am, however, often struck by the naivety of Irish and Northern Irish people on issues related to race and diversity. On a trip home via Dublin Airport last year, an official at passport control asked me, “What are you doing in Ireland?” “I live here - I’m from Belfast,” I replied, but he found it difficult to believe this, despite my Northern Irish accent. It was unpleasant to have to justify my background, and with all the extra questioning, I missed my bus.

When I wrote to airport management to enquire about their training procedures on racial profiling and unconscious bias, I received a response from the Department of Justice and Equality: “There is no racial element to this procedure as people of all ethnic backgrounds and nationalities may be asked for a secondary identification”. None of my white friends have ever been asked what they are “doing in Ireland”.

I look around the spaces we inhabit - at a party or lecture at Trinity College or Queen’s University, or in church at a wedding or funeral - and realise we are the only brown faces. Sometimes, we’re taken for the cleaners, staff or care workers; people find it hard to believe we’d have any other business there. I wish people had a deeper understanding and a more critical attitude of the structural inequality and pervasive prejudice faced by people of colour in Ireland.

Stacey Luna: ‘I hated being African, I hated being black’

I have never really been able to speak about my experiences in Ireland as a black person. I was born and raised in Dublin. In secondary school, my friends and I couldn’t hang in groups because teachers would tell us we were in a gang, while white kids could be in a large group and face no consequences at all. I had some racist classmates too. Every time I was in an argument with someone, they would bring up the colour of my skin and call me a “blackie”. For them it was a joke, but for me it wasn’t.

When I am going to town or into shops, I encounter racist people. I have been called a n****r so many times. There was a point in my life where I felt so insecure with my skin colour. I hated being African, I hated being black, all because people in this country made me feel bad for the colour of my skin.

Even looking for a job is difficult. I have white friends that get jobs within days, but for me, even for a simple part-time job, it takes months. It took me eight months to find my first job. I know many Africans and other people of colour who struggle to find jobs in this country because of systematic racism.

Choy-Ping Clarke-Ng: ‘I’ve never known of life without racism’

Choy-Ping Clarke-Ng
Choy-Ping Clarke-Ng

I’m 23 and grew up in Wicklow. My mother is white Irish and my father is Hong Kong Chinese. He came to Ireland when he was 15.

I’ve never known of life without racism. I was in three primary schools as a child; I kept having to move due to bullying, the majority of which was racist. This continued until I was much older, and I know it has had an impact on my self-esteem today.

As an adult, I still experience racism all the time. Thankfully now I am stronger (years of counselling, supportive friends and chances to relearn things). But it still hurts, it’s still exhausting.

I am nervous for myself and other people of Asian heritage to go back into the world after Covid. The racism will be there, stronger than ever - there’s already been a spike in racist attacks against Asian people in the UK and the US.

Last year, a theatre show about myself and my father’s experiences was staged at the Abbey Theatre as part of their Young Curators Festival. I was very nervous about the show - not only to speak about things I’d never said aloud to my closest friends, or wanting to share my father’s experiences accurately - but also to just be on stage. I love theatre but in Ireland I so rarely see anyone like me performing.

When you can’t see someone like you doing what you want to do - you feel quite alone and you’re scared to let people down. You’re scared of the critics and the people who want to see you succeed. But the show was also empowering. I want more people to be able to tell their stories in their own words, in their own ways. I wrote a dissertation researching the experiences of people of marginalised racial and ethnic identities in Ireland last year. It was great to speak with professionals and hear their opinions.

I would say to white people: It’s not enough to use a hashtag, we all need to re-educate ourselves, speak up, have the difficult conversations and get into organising against racist structures and policies. It’s ok to admit there’s more to learn, but you have to follow that up.

Anonymous: ‘My son was taught that being Irish was to have white skin’

I am a white Irish woman, my husband is mixed race, born to a white Irish mother and an Afrasian father. My husband was raised in South Africa but has been an Irish citizen, and passionate about his Irish identity, long before he met me. We have three children, of varying hues.

My eldest son has struggled with feeling 100 per cent Irish but not looking remotely like what Irish people are perceived to look like. In primary school he was taught as part of the lessons on cultural identity, by two separate teachers, that being Irish was to have white skin, red hair and freckles. One of the teachers pointed at my son and stated that he was not Irish because he doesn’t have white skin and freckles. I complained, to no avail. The child was left confused, and upset.

My other son was teased by children on the school bus, told that it was okay for him to sit in a seat with no belt because he was a poor African and would be used to not having buses with seatbelts.

My husband has been spat at and told to remove his Irish football jersey when he wore it to a pub to watch an international match. He has been asked at the Garda station if he was there to renew his visa. He has been skipped over by staff at the local supermarket.

My husband says he thought it would be different here than South Africa, but it’s not. That’s a very strong statement from someone who grew up during apartheid.

Radhika Iyer: ‘People express shock when I tell them I am an English teacher’

Where are you really from? Most would think that this is an acceptable and innocent question. But when you ask a black or person of colour this question, you are detaching yourself and highlighting our difference.

I have lived here for five years. I get this question a lot. I have been, until recently, a teacher of English as a foreign language. Even strangers and people I have just met express shock when I tell them I am an English teacher. A bus driver once asked me, “Oh you can do that?” Because I am of colour, the assumption is I can’t possibly be competent in a “white” language.

This is reinforced by language schools who advertise that their teachers are native speakers. I can’t get a job with most language schools because I don’t fit their “native speaker” requirement, although English is technically my first language. Some students have walked into my class, taken one look at me, and walked back to the office to demand an Irish teacher, a native speaker.

Those who choose to stay will subject me to the following interrogation: “Where are you from, Miss?” they ask. “From Dundalk.” “No, where are you really from?” they ask. “When did you learn English?” “Do you ask the other teachers these questions?” I ask. “No, of course not. They are Irish,” they say.

I dream, think, swear, sing in English. Since I was a child. For as long as I can remember. I don’t tell my students this. Maybe they are curious about my heritage but their questions have “othered” me, making me yearn to be invisible. Funnily enough my colleagues from Europe do not usually get such questions. Why, I wonder? No prizes for guessing….

Sahara Kalmar-Nankan: ‘Being an immigrant is a precious privilege’

Sahara Kalmar-Nankan
Sahara Kalmar-Nankan

I am a South African Indian and have been living in Ireland since 2012. As the only newly arrived foreigner in my first year law class at UCC, I was surprised to find that while I stood out for being different and outspoken, I was soon able to distinguish between blameless curiosity from ill-intended racial discrimination, which I did not experience at all. Compared to any other country that I’ve lived in or been to, Ireland is by far one of the safest and most embracing.

I have often told my partner in pleasant astonishment over the years how welcoming the Irish have been. She is Hungarian and we were overjoyed when Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise equal marriage by referendum. As a couple we have been treated not merely with tolerance but admiration and respect.

Being an immigrant is a precious privilege not to be taken for granted (in the sense of a liberty that is granted at the discretion of the host state) and it requires the exercise of humility, respect and responsibility to one’s host nation.

Positive voices like mine are few and far between. For the most part it is often just mere exasperation. I sometimes find myself resorting to a disheartened, private head-shake when reading of unfounded wholesale racism allegations, or a new “anti-racism” campaign -are these gas-lighting narratives inadvertently manufacturing the very thing they proclaim to be against, by seeing everyone in colour, assuming the worst and viewing racism as intrinsically pervasive in Irish society?

The sloppy copy-paste style of American racial politics to Ireland and spate of finger-pointing in recent years, all seem to go beyond mere solidarity with a foreign cause and cumulatively appear to suggest that racism here is analogous to what is contested to exist in America-this would be laughable if it were not so serious, nor so baseless, an insinuation.

On the evidence, it is manifestly apparent that Ireland is not institutionally racist, that there is no systemic racist police brutality here and that instances of racism, which do of course occur since it is impossible to remove prejudice from the human heart, are not even remotely on par with those recorded elsewhere in the world, and are dealt with in accordance with the rule of law.

On the lived experiences of minorities it is important to understand the obvious; that our experiences are not homogeneous, and yet a one-sided narrative seems to be taking root. Very often it is those with overall positive experiences who are strangely, but understandably, the most hesitant to speak out. These voices are not heard for various reasons, from a fear of reprisal, to a feeling that positive minority experiences do not mean anything to the wider public.

But of course, such experiences do also matter. Indeed, it would be particularly bad faith for these voices to be deliberately silenced, down-played or dismissed.

Roisin Dillon: ‘My life isn’t a free tour where I’m the enthusiastic guide’

The Black Lives Matter movement has made many people think about the colour of their own skin. When I first saw the black squares on Instagram, and the never-ending BLM hashtags, I was sceptical. I am adopted from Vietnam and have felt the effects of racism all my life. It was as though my white peers had suddenly realised, overnight, that racism is indeed “a bad thing that needs to stop”.

I can’t count how many times in Ireland I’ve been asked, “But are you really from?” if I said I was from Kilkenny. Recently, I learned this question is considered a “micro-aggression”. I didn’t have a label for it until now.

I do not a have a simple answer. I was born in Vietnam, and was six weeks old when I was adopted by my Irish parents. Some Irish see me as Vietnamese, others simply accept me as Irish. And in Vietnam, some Vietnamese see me as one of them, and others less so. I do understand people can be curious about my background, but that doesn’t mean I am willing to converse with them about it. I am happy to talk about my ethnicity with friends or family, and people I know or feel I can trust. Not with strangers.

When strangers ask, “But where are you really from?” I’m made feel like I owe a public explanation for existing as a person of colour. But my life isn’t a free tour where I’m the enthusiastic guide.

Those close to me can also forget I am a person of colour. This feels just as bad because they aren’t strangers you can distance yourself from. Classmates have joked “All Asian people look the same”. A family member (whom I love dearly), has complained about “those immigrants taking over our country”. Once I told another family member about a boy I was seeing. The only thing she wanted to know was, “Is he Irish?” Which in my family, that can only mean, “Is he white?” Without meaning to, she had sent me a message that being a person of colour or having a non-white partner was lesser-than.

After that, I avoided contact with guys from racial minorities for a while. I avoided eating in Asian restaurants or attending any Asian cultural events on campus. I didn’t want to be seen as even more Asian than I already was, in a country that considers that to be lesser-than.

Recently I learned this is called “reverse racism”. A friend who is white once said to me, “but I don’t see colour”. It was a well-meaning sentiment, and it is also a colour-blind one. Because the colour of my skin isn’t see-through.

I’d like to end with an incident I had recently in Trinity. The Phil was hosting Margaret Atwood. I chatted to a young white man standing next to me in the queue. We talked about the mundane; college, our courses, and possible mutual acquaintances. Then he goes “Where are you from?” I immediately thought, “Kilkenny,” but I’m so used to this being followed by, “But where are you really from?” That I just said, “Vietnam.” “No,” he said. “Where are you from? In Ireland?” This was a first for me. I told him I was from Kilkenny. Is as gCill Chainnaigh mé.

James Smith: ‘I never felt any different than my friends’

Growing up as a darker skinned man in Ireland, I never felt any different than my friends. You would get the odd remark, especially from people from the country, mainly from men but nothing major. Only once playing football was I subjected to abuse from the sidelines. Because I was well known through football at the time, even the opposition team defended me. I didn’t take much notice of them. I’d be a well-known face around Dublin through work, and I found people aren’t really bothered about skin colour. I would disagree with anyone that says Ireland is a racist country, from my experience anyway.

Anonymous: ‘I go to work constantly worrying about what will happen’

I work as a taxi driver. The racism I go through daily has affected me psychologically. From people refusing to pay me, verbal and physical abuse, and damage to my car. Racism is alive and well in Ireland. I go to work constantly worrying about what will happen. Seven out of ten people skip my taxi daily. It’s a hopeless situation, I’ve resorted to going back to my own country as soon as my son completes his university course.

Anonymous: ‘I feel safer here than in the country I was born in’

I came to Ireland to start the life I’ve always yearned for - one without prejudice, racism, or exclusion. I feel safer here than in the country I was born in, the United States. I feel safer in a country that does not have serious far right sentiments or an armed civilian population and armed police force, and a history not marked with violent exclusion of ethnic minorities.

When people greet me in Ireland, they can easily accept that I am American or Canadian from the sound of my voice. They ask me questions about where I’m from, and I deflect the anxiety of knowing how to answer that question by making jokes comparing the weather (warmer), or prices of houses (cheaper).

But what I can’t talk about is how difficult it was to be the first generation in an Asian family to be born in America. That all my life, I’ve been called “chink” or “squinty eyes”. I’ve been told by men they don’t date “my kind”, that they’d “be embarrassed to be seen with me”, while also asking if I can give “happy endings” or if I can “love long time”. That I should feel ashamed of parents who run a restaurant, and get asked if they “cook dogs and cats”.

In my experience here over the past 10 years, racism and exclusion takes on many different forms in Ireland. When I have been assaulted on the streets of the city centre, I’ve always wondered if they were racially motivated, or maybe it was gender related. One assailant was a white Irish male. The Gardaí I dealt with acknowledged the severity of what happened and prosecuted this man. Another time the assailant was a white Irish female, and the Gardaí dismissed my incident and did not offer me the ability to file a formal report.

In my professional experience, the more equal an environment claims to be, the more insidious the xenophobia, exclusion and harassment becomes. I have been denied promotions because I “lacked experience”, but then saw my white Irish colleagues who joined the organisation after me get offered those roles.

Working in higher education, I have been questioned by a white Irish colleague if I had the experience and credentials to justify my position. Attempts at improving inclusion, safety and supports to minority students have been met with challenges around how “fair that would be to everyone else”.

Every passing day of the Covid-19 pandemic was one with my breath held and fingers crossed that I was not going to be subjected to harassment or violence. At the beginning, I was scared to go out. My family in the US experienced the very harassment I was fearing.

Ethnic identity will forever be an ongoing process for me. I can’t say it’s been all negative, far from it. It’s tremendously fulfilling to feel safer, included and supported by my Irish friends and colleagues. I believe a more equal and fair society is much more possible in a country like Ireland, particularly given the history of occupation and repression.

Jemie R: ‘Hate is taught’

I am 20 years old and living in Dublin. I’m currently a student at DCU. When I was still in primary school, we were playing some game in the yard, and I was asked by the girls in my class why my skin was “dirty”. “Do you not shower?” and they all proceeded to laugh.

I’m a strong believer in the idea that hate is taught, so I can’t imagine that a bunch of nine-year-olds knew how to say stuff like this if it wasn’t introduced at home. I hope to God these girls are different now and breaking a cycle.

It made me hate my skin so much. I hated being brown. I wished to be white so bad. This has changed in the last couple of years, and that’s mainly because I’ve learned that it’s not okay to listen to stuff like that. Different isn’t bad.