Looking different. Feeling Irish


The grown-up children of immigrants talk skin-colour, college fees, sport and national identity in multiethnic Ireland

Twenty years ago Gretchen Fitzgerald from Goa wrote Repulsing Racism, an insightful essay about living in an overwhelmingly white Ireland with dark skin. “I was stared at, often to the point of rudeness,” she wrote of her college years. “My social relations with other students became limited and distorted.”

She questioned “whether I had the right to bring a child, whose cultural origins would be as complex as my own, into such an unthinking society.”

Today there are many Irish children with complex identities. From 1992 Ireland experienced rising levels of immigration. The last Irish census records that 12 per cent of the population was born outside the country, with the biggest groups being Polish and British. More than 100 nationalities now inhabit our towns, cities and villages.

The children of those migrants have have grown up in a changed Ireland. The Irish Times asked six of them to participate in a discussion this week about their experiences of growing up in multiethnic Ireland.

They are Raf Diallo, who is 23, Lee Chin, who is 20, Veena Kumar, who is 16, Hailuu Netsiyanwa, who is 25, Daisy Onubogu, who is 18, and Nally Silva, who is 20.

Young people from immigrant backgrounds face a number of issues, from citizenship rights to cutbacks in language support at school and many pay higher non-EU third-level fees despite living here for most of their lives. They often find themselves without the community networks accessible to long-term residents. Some face explicit racism.

Their experiences are hugely diverse and differ depending on class, gender, location and luck. Of the six young people taking part in this discussion, one was born in Ireland and others came here in childhood or early teens. One is at school. Some are at college. Some were working. One had experienced severe racist attacks, two no racism at all. Some have a strong sense of having a double identity.

And if the conversation repeatedly returns to issues of identity and racism, this doesn’t mean their day-to-day lives aren’t concerned with the same things that obsess other young Irish people: sport, music, family, friends, college and work and the lack thereof.

The school years

Daisy: “In primary school there were me and three other people who weren’t Irish. I wasn’t really conscious of that. Now I know that it was quite a small contingent, because I teach sometimes in primary schools, and there’s massive diversity now. Then it was just girls with different types of hair. That’s the best type of categorisation I had.”

Hailuu: “I did my Junior Cert in a private fee-paying school, and in that school they had children of diplomats. I did my Leaving Cert in a Christian Brothers school in the inner city, and there were over 46 nationalities. It was extremely different. In the private school, difference wasn’t that big a deal, and it wasn’t looked upon as a negative. The bigger inner-city school was almost segregated. You’d know your place and what you’d be expected to be.”

Veena: “My school isn’t like that at all. In primary school it was all Irish people, and I got on well with them. In my school now there are loads of different nationalities, but everyone gets along.”

Nally: “I was one of three dark people in primary school, and they got the same abuse I did. So the three of us just stuck together and shut everyone else out. What we really should have done was gone out and talked to the others and told them we weren’t that different . . . but I remember coming home and asking my mom had we bleach, because I didn’t want to be dark any more. There’s a huge emphasis on bullying and suicide, but they don’t think of racism as something that could make you feel suicidal. I remember being suicidal because of the abuse I was suffering when I was nine or 10.”

Raf: “In Leitrim there are more cows than people. Back in the 1990s I was the only person who looked different. I see myself as Irish anyway, but I only ever hung out with Irish people. I was never made to feel different in any way. It never really came up. It still hasn’t come up. I guess it’s because I came at such a young age, and if you get to know people at that age I think they just accept you as you are.”

Lee: “I knew I was different, but I didn’t look at myself in that way. In primary school kids are going to be kids and wouldn’t know what they were saying. In secondary school it was mentioned once or twice. It was playing sport where I really got abuse.”

Identity and Irishness

Daisy: “I think I’d predominantly see myself as an Irish person. We had a very non-Nigerian-specific upbringing. My mum travelled a lot and so did my dad. She was an air hostess and he was a businessman. We always spoke English. We ate European food. I wasn’t immersed in Nigerian culture . . . All the things that make you a person or a grown-up I figured out in Ireland. I hung out with Irish people. There were more of them. I wouldn’t say there’s no Nigerian influence, because my mother is involved with the Nigerian community. But with the younger generation I think you’ll find a lot of people my age saying they’re Irish, because that’s all they’ve known.”

Hailuu: “I’d call myself Afro-Irish. I’m a lot more Irish than a lot of Irish people. I’ve spent almost half my life here, but I’m very conscious of my cultural education . . . I think a conflict does exist for a lot of young people with dual identities . . . My parents are economic migrants, so their reality is that they came here to work. It’s like they paused their normal life to come here. They don’t really mix or engage with society the same way the young kids do because they have to go to school and get the bus every day. For me a conflict between the two identities existed for a long time. [He laughs] That’s why I’m a rebel now, because I’m sure in my ways.”

Veena: “I don’t know how I got into the habit of it, but when I go out with my friends I act as an Irish person but when I step in the door I step into my own language and my [Hinduism]. My mum and dad are bringing me and my brother and sister up as Indians, but they don’t want us to become total Indians, if you know what I mean. They want us to experience both cultures . . . I don’t know how to explain it.”

Raf: “That cultural question has never been an issue for me. There’s no clash. My dad was a vet, so we were always part of the community. I was mixing with farmers and farmers’ children. My dad came over in 1993, after getting a job offer. It was kind of economic. But he was coming for something rather than running away from anything . . . I wouldn’t say I’m raised Irish or as a member of my parents’ own country. I would occasionally speak my parents’ language, but I’d speak more English with them and maybe some French. Growing up I watched Ray D’Arcy on The Den and learned Gaeilge in school . . . I can’t speak it now, though.”

Nally: “I was nine when I came here. When I’m in Brazil I miss Ireland and when I’m in Ireland I miss Brazil. We were very involved with the Brazilian community, but there’s not too much of a Brazilian community now. I was in school and had Irish friends, but we always wanted to keep that little bit of home with us. We went to Brazilian events. I even did Brazilian martial arts. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was a way of holding on to home, because I remembered my childhood in Brazil . . . Sometimes it’s hard being half and half. If I went back I’d be afraid I wouldn’t settle, because I’ve been here 12 years now. I’m two people now, I guess.”

Lee: “My father came here by himself 20-odd years ago. He has good English. He was probably one of the first Chinese to come to Wexford. His two brothers used to live here as well, but I was never really involved with my Chinese Malaysian family. All the relatives I know are Irish. I’m Irish.”

Experiences of racism

Lee: “The main place I would get racism was during games. It was a lot of heat-of-the-moment stuff. Pure jealousy, sometimes. I wasn’t one to go home and talk about it. I just dealt with it in my own way. I never really spoke out about, but recently, because someone else spoke out about it and then people got in contact with me . . . After [two players with Duffry Rovers club were suspended for racially abusing him] I was playing a game and a guy said, ‘I won’t say what you want me to say, so you can go to the papers.’ Basically, he hinted that he’d like to say something racist but was smart enough not to. For me it was the same thing, but what can you do about that? Nothing.”

Hailuu: “One time I was hopped on by a bunch of people I’d played football with. That was a bit crazy. Another time I ended up getting stabbed after some youths started hurling abuse at one of my friends . . . Last Easter Sunday I was living in Inchicore with my partner and my daughter and a bunch of youths kicked in the door. I had to fight them off. There are places where racism is tolerated. Sometimes I get abuse on the Luas and people will be sitting there like it’s normal. It’s a regular thing in Dublin for a lot of my peers.”

Nally: “I’m often called a prostitute because of headlines in newspapers about Spanish or Brazilian prostitutes. When I was 13 a boy came up to me and said, ‘How much?’ I didn’t know what he was on about . . . I was shocked. He kept following me, and I took out my phone and rang my friend and was explaining every single place I was, so she knew where I was. I’ve gotten it on buses from elderly men. My own mother’s gotten it . . . A man pretended to ask directions and then told her to get into the car.”

Raf: “I haven’t experienced racism. And I mix with all sorts of people. I go to the old-man pubs. It just hasn’t happened. I read in the paper that the whole place is getting more racist, but it’s not happening to me.”

Veena: “Yeah, it’s kind of shocking to hear the different things that have happened, because they’ve never happened to me.”

Daisy: “It doesn’t surprise me, because all of it stems from the same lack of understanding. If you don’t know and understand who these new people are you go to stereotypes . . . When we talk about different races we forget that they’re all just people. I remember someone asking, ‘So what’s it like living in a house now as opposed to mud huts?’ I could have flipped out . . . but she’d never met a black person.

I think there are different kinds of racism. A lot of racism isn’t malicious and isn’t intended to hurt or make you feel like an outsider. Everyone has a capacity to be racist if they don’t stop themselves, and the bulk of it is about ignorance. People think that only crazy American rednecks are racist; that I can’t be racist because I’m a nice middle-class person. I think if we categorise racism as this evil horrible word that’s only for bad people nobody will really engage with the idea of racism and talk about it.”

The effects of racism

Hailuu: “It’s like being in jail and you have to eat slop or something . . . It’s f***ed up, man. It’s not nice and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It’s really dehumanising. The worst thing is you have to explain it after it happens to other people close to you.”

Lee: “It’s embarrassing.”

Nally: “It still shocks me. I’ve been here 12 years, and some days I feel so much a part of Ireland and other days I feel like the elephant in the room. I could be sitting in a room full of Irish blond, blue-eyed people and I’m not thinking about the fact I’m the only dark-haired tan person. But if somebody points it out I immediately think, Oh my God I’m so different; I’ve got to get out now before I’m noticed.”

Lee: “I let it bounce off me, but I expect it for the rest of my life. I think racism will always be there. It frustrates me, and I get a bit aggressive in my game, although I don’t lash out or anything. But it never puts me off. It doesn’t affect me that much . . . But they should be ashamed of themselves.”

Hailuu: “There are a lot of different dynamics. Someone on the street will say: “Ah, you’re Bob Marley!” and I’ll say ‘You look like Paddy Casey.’ They don’t know what to say. In an upper-class setting racism is subtler.”

Daisy: “I was called a Paki once. It’s like they don’t even know how to be racist right.”

Lee: “I was called a black bastard. Then I was called a Chinese bastard a few moments afterwards.”

Daisy: “The amount of people who refer to me as African-American. I’m not an American. Nor coloured, nor ethnic. Somebody called me exotic once.”

Raf laughs. His Twitter page reads: “The most exotic thing to come out of Leitrim since boxty.”

Raf: “People say Ireland is getting more racist, but I don’t think you can brand a whole country as racist. I’d say there are some people in Ireland getting more racist.”

Hailuu: “I think it is a racist society. I get racism from strangers. It’s a common thing.”

Veena: “Maybe it’s based on where people live.”

Nally: “Maybe it depends on when you arrive here too. When I got here there were virtually no foreigners in Ireland.”

Daisy: “I think it’s worse in low socioeconomic areas, where there’s less education. In university there’s a lot less racism because there’s more discourse around it. The more you talk about it the more understanding there is.”

Hailuu: “It has different severity in different places.”

Is Ireland becoming more accepting?

Raf: “It always has been, I think. Look at Phil Lynott and Paul McGrath: there’s no question of them being outsiders. They’re quintessentially Irish.”

Hailuu: “At the same time any country would be proud to have those two. If you use that example, that Ireland accepts Phil Lynott and Paul McGrath, I’m not sure it proves Ireland isn’t racist.”

Diversity in media and politics

Raf: “My role models have nothing to do with skin colour, whether in music or sport or politics. I look at what the person does.”

Daisy: “The answer isn’t quotas. Quotas are stupid.”

Hailuu: “Quotas are necessary. A lot of cultural conflict is because kids don’t see themselves highlighted positively anywhere. And there’s nepotism instead of meritocracy. It might be evident that this kid is the best midfielder but because he’s not known as well as Tommo whose dad is the gear guy, or whose mum makes the sandwiches, he won’t be picked.”

Daisy: “Quotas won’t fix that though. Education will.”

Hailuu: “Education can’t win over nepotism.”

Daisy: “But if you just put people in positions of power for their skin colour or gender they’ll feel like tokens. Quotas devalue the idea you can achieve on your own.”

Raf: “If I was told I got a job because of my skin colour I’d go apesh*t. Skin colour has never been a barrier for me. Whatever I’ve achieved I’ve deserved and nothing more.”

Hailuu: “We take bad forms of discrimination day by day based on skin colour but this type isn’t okay with you?”

Daisy: “Discrimination isn’t any more okay because it’s positive.”

The benefits of multiculturalism

Hailuu: “Migrants don’t leach off countries. They help build countries. Difference is our biggest strength. We’re all the same, but we do things differently. Multiculturalism is the presence of different cultures. Interculturalism is better I think; [our discussion] involves different cultures talking together.”

Veena: “I suppose I do that. I try to inter-relate with every kind of person and every kind of religion. I’m Hindu, but I’ve gone to mosques with friends. I’ve gone to church with friends.”

Nally: “We come from different walks of life and have had experiences that other people haven’t had, and our experiences might be able to help somebody else.”

Lee: “That’s why I want to bring in a rule in about racism in the GAA. People from all over the world want to play it. We should be proud of that.”

Raf: “There’s always a danger that when you start talking about diversity that it ends up being a discussion of the negative side. There’s always a danger of focusing on difference and not enough on the things people have in common.”

The future?

Nally: “College is my biggest issue right now. I’m paying €7,000 a year for a four-year course because I’m not a citizen yet: the process is so slow. Even when I get my citizenship it won’t change the level of the fees, because there’s a glitch in the system. I’ve got this huge barrier in front of me and no tools to break it down.”

Raf: “I’d like to see Leitrim win an All-Ireland at some point. But that’s not going to happen soon.”

Daisy: “I’d like to see more discussion about what it means to be a person in general, about human relationships and figuring out how to be better as people. Identity is complex no matter who you are.”

Hailuu: “Without thinking about it, Irish society will take on a lot of colonial values. I genuinely believe that Irish people could be the coolest white people in the world because they don’t have all that colonial stuff. And I’m Irish as well, so I mean we could be the coolest white people in the world.”

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