- 08 Jun 20
Dr Ebun Joseph, an ‘unapologetically black’ Irish woman of Nigerian descent, established the country’s first Black Studies university course at University College Dublin. Here she talks about racism in Ireland, the importance of black studies and bringing an end to Direct Provision
On May 25, the horrific murder of George Floyd took place in Minneapolis. The resulting protests against age-old racism in its most visceral form have since spread across American cities. The murder of George Floyd has led to the commitment made over the weekend by the city council in Minneapolis to dismantle the police force there.
The police officer responsible for kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, Derek Chauvin, has now been charged with second-degree murder. The other three officers present – Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng – have also been charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin in committing murder and in committing manslaughter. All four officers were immediately fired from Minneapolis police force.
This appalling, naked injustice and its brutal execution have stirred collective political consciences, from Washington to Dublin to Sydney. George Floyd has become a symbol of racism and how deeply ingrained it has been in America for so long.
In Ireland, a country that is itself a survivor of colonial oppression, murals of George Floyd and slogans have appeared on walls in different cities. The children of James Connolly flocked through the streets of Dublin, Belfast, Galway and elsewhere, to take a stand against the oppression of black Americans. In the process, Black Lives Matter came into focus as the new mantra of a generation too often wrongly accused of apathy.
But does the anger sparked by the murder of George Floyd mean that racism no longer exists on our island? Not by a long shot.
Dr Ebun Joseph, an ‘unapologetically black’ Irish woman of Nigerian descent, established the country’s first Black Studies university course at University College Dublin (UCD). Dr Joseph became a microbiologist in Nigeria at 20 and migrated to Ireland in 2002, at the age of 30. She focused her PhD on Social Justice and has worked her way up to become a lecturer in Trinity and UCD.
She says that we sweep Irish racism under the carpet.
Our colonial past makes honest discussions around the issue doubly complicated – we tend to see ourselves as the oppressed, not the oppressor. Yet the system, she says dramatically, referring to the barbaric way in which George Floyd was murdered, kneels on the necks of Ireland’s marginalised people, every day, frequently rendering them invisible.
Dr. Ebun Joseph hopes that the rise of Black Lives Matter will prompt sincere deliberations in Ireland, forcing us to admit that racism, in all its forms, is a global social issue – and that it plagues us too.
On The Lessons of Minneapolis
“Firstly, it should make us realise that racism is real, and it is bigger than we think, and if we are not addressing it – if we are sweeping it under the carpet – it is going to cause a lot of damage. We are in the middle of a [health crisis] that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, but what is raging now? Race and racism. I think we underestimate how important the issue of race is. If we want to learn from what happened in America, we should admit that racism is not something that just happens ‘over there’. It is right here. Here, we think, 'Oh it is American, it is in the UK.' I'm like, ‘are you joking?’ Racism it is here too. Yes, we are not being physically killed, but every day when we apply for jobs – people who look like me – we are being discriminated against. We're being called the N-word. You are kneeling on our necks, and that’s why I'm saying, we can't breathe.”
On Seeing the Murder of George Floyd
“I cry every time I watch it. My first reaction was sadness that we have to deal with this in 2020. For me, that video is evidence to the permanence of racism. A man puts his hand in his pocket and kneels on another human being. As African-Americans would say 'a grown-ass man’, was lying on the floor and crying for his mother. He was saying, 'Mama, I can't breathe’. His mum was dead. He knew he was being killed. That picture is etched in my mind. It's never going to go away.”
On Direct Provision in Ireland
People are effectively incarcerated in our Direct Provision system. You know it's like Donald Trump and his wall (laughs). Direct Provision is the same idea as Trump's wall. There is a base that wants Direct Provision to exist, and the Government wants to please them. We repealed the Eighth Amendment; we have marriage equality now, because there was a political will for that; but the Government doesn't have the same will to abolish Direct Provision. They’d rather pay billions of Euros to private companies to incarcerate people – and it is a form of incarceration – than to allow them to work and live in society. We are actually spending more money than we would if we were to give people autonomy to have their own lives and be a part of the community here and contribute to the system. We talk about how lockdown is hard, how we don't have our freedom – but people live five/six/ten years in Direct Provision. It should make us look inside – and (then) underscore the issue of race and racism in Ireland in academia, in our schools and Government. Race studies is the most under-resourced topic in Ireland. We don’t believe it is a big issue here.
On the Meaning of White Supremacy
The way we imagine Ireland is that it was the victim of British colonisation, of the Irish oppression in America, but we stop the history there. We don’t teach our students, our nation, that once Ireland gained independence when we became white and we became white on the backs and the necks of Africans. When we ticked that box of whiteness, we began enjoying our white privileges. Now, when we hear the word white supremacy, we think of KKK. No. White supremacy is when a white person places another white person above a black person: that's what white supremacy is to me. When you think because you're white you're superior, that's what white supremacy is.
On the Oppressed and the Oppressors
In Ireland, we think we can't be racist because we were once discriminated against. We were the oppressed. If you go and read Paula Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, it says, that when the oppressed is free, if they're not careful, they can become worse than their oppressors. When I tell you that the racism we experience in Ireland is of the worst kind, it is not because we are doing worse things than the rest of the world. No, we are not doing half as much they are doing. It is because, here, we still have to grapple with admitting that we have racism here. Nobody in the US would tell you that there is no racism in their country. In the UK, they agree with you if you talk about their racism. In Ireland, we can't even admit that we have racism.
On the African Scholars Association
Because we don't see many people coming out to report racism, we think we don't have it. When people don't come out to report, it is an indicator of the level of oppression within our system. People are insecure; they are afraid. In the US, people of colour, they became President, they are managers, CEOs. They're in the police force. They are also drug dealers (laughs): they are at every sector. So is the case in the UK. Here black people, Travellers, people who have a different name, who look visibly different, they are at the bottom of the ladder. So, there is no occasion for conflict. Here, black people are cleaners. Your cleaner won't confront you about your racism. They would be afraid. They know if they talk, they can lose their jobs. I set up the African Scholars' Association. I get emails from people who have PhDs in nursing, working as a care assistant. Do you understand? I’m being blacklisted, they say, if we get her, she’s going to bring her black activism into things. But, so be it. I am unapologetically black. I’m Ebun Joseph, and I’m willing to pay that price.
On the Influence of Leaders
Leadership is everything. The minute you do something or say something, you tell people that it is okay to do that or say that. Leaders are role models. Leo Varadkar made a statement just last night at about 8 pm or so, and it was not a strong statement. He forgot to mention to young people that he understands how difficult this must be, to make them feel calm. Many of us still look to Obama for leadership. He wasn't perfect, but I was still looking to read a statement from him. When Donald Trump said, 'When looting starts, shooting starts,' that is a 1968 racist comment – and that's what he is teaching his people. So, people focus on the looting. Who taught people how to loot? Who taught people that looting was a weapon of war? Who taught us looting, rioting and burning? The British and the French, when they went to Africa, when they went to Benin: the first thing they did was burning beautiful houses. They looted and rioted. They taught us how to loot.
On the 27th Amendment to the Constitution
In 2004, when we took away the citizenship rights of children who are born to non-Irish parents in Ireland, what we did was create classes of citizenship, categories of citizenship. That's why (racist) people can go out and call us 'paper Irish'. [The 27th Amendment] acknowledges that there are levels of Irish citizenship. That's why even if you have an Irish passport if your name doesn't sound Irish or you have a different skin colour, they can say you're not Irish. Remember the little, black girl who did Irish dancing and they went after her. It's like Africans telling white people you can't rap because we invented rap music. So, Irishness is defined on the basis of whiteness. So, we feel if we’re not white, we can’t be Irish.
On Feedback from Students
I was in a bad way because of George Floyd these past few days. But I got the most amazing email from a young man. I taught him in Trinity College. He wasn't part of my Black Studies course. I taught him Race, Ethnicity and Identity. I'm used to getting these emails from black students or white, female students. But I held this one so dear in my heart. He was a young, white male student. His email said, 'Thank you so much for teaching me so excellently’ that he's not somebody who normally gets a 70. But he wrote [his essay for me] on whiteness, the hypocrisy of whiteness. I didn’t give him that topic. He chose that topic. I had to go back and re-read his essay to see what he wrote, and it was brilliant again. I tried to encourage him to get it published. When I get that email from him, that’s exciting.
On Feedback from Students – Part 2
Last year, my Black Studies students emailed me – as part of black history month – that they are running a seminar on the significance of Black Studies. I was like, 'Oh my god'. They finished the course in June and on their own in November, they were going to do that. The course taught black students how they were programmed to be embarrassed by their race. It helped them to find pride in themselves. Now, they are unapologetically black. It was a mixed class though, half-white and half-black students. What I enjoy most about it is that in Black Studies, I'm teaching students that history is not about the amazingness of whites' achievements and black slavery.
On her plan for the Institute of Black Studies in Ireland
There was also a UN resolution in 2019 that schools should teach students African history, and Africans should teach it. No one is doing that here. But I put myself behind this, and I'm going to make it happen. UCD should not take any credit for the Black Studies course. All they did was giving me a platform, and that’s because I had people like [UCD Prof] Kathleen Lynch advocate it. They have no right to the glory of it. It’s my sweat and blood. I’m going to set up The Institute of African Studies in Ireland. All these colleges have Diversity and Inclusion officers. What does that even mean? How many of them reached out to their migrant students to see how they were doing during the pandemic? They just give themselves big titles.
On Online Harassment
I recently looked and realised that I had blocked 720 people. Do you know how draining it is to block 720 people? I think what triggers them the most is that I don't fit into the stereotypes. I’m confident. One of them told me that I should be grateful that they gave me an education. I’m like, no. You didn’t fucking give me anything. I paid for my education.
On the Race to Deliver Her Thesis
I stayed up for 78 hours, and I submitted my PhD dissertation, because if I didn’t submit that on time, I had to pay for extensions, and I didn’t have the money. My body was shaking from lack of food and sleep. I jumped into my car and drove to Maynooth to print it. They couldn’t print it there. I drove to the city. We had to submit it [physically] I think at 4pm. I got to UCD at 3.48pm. I was so hungry, I tried to eat, but I couldn't. And you want me to be grateful? I worked for it. I was working full-time, doing my PhD and raising two kids as a single parent. I wasn't funded by any organisation. When they tell me, we gave you these things, I'm like, then let's give them to everybody. Why are we not doing that?
On the Disproportionate Impact of the Pandemic on Women
We recently had a series of webinars, and one of them was the Gendered Face of Covid-19. You can see that we are taking all the flak. Even my son was telling me, 'Mum, I think you're actually cooking more now’. When I'm going to work, I'm like: 'Guys, sort yourselves out.' But when I'm at home, I feel like since I'm not commuting, I can use that one-hour to cook and clean because women still do over 80 per cent of the work at home. I also saw that more men were publishing academic work during the pandemic. In the academic world you get promoted based on your publications and research – so, what happens is that once the pandemic ends, these men are going to get ahead of women because women had to take care of the kids. You can't try to publish; you don't have time to write down anything. I'm not saying all the men, but a high percentage of them, are not taking on home responsibility. And when they do, it is called helping, and when it is called helping, that means you don't see it as your responsibility. Gender roles still negatively impact women. A vast majority of our nurses are women because it is considered to be a female profession.
On the Formation of a New Government
There are so many issues that opposition parties need to prioritise. Once the pandemic is over, we are going to try to make the health care system privatised again, and that is going to affect our marginalised groups. We're not going back to square one. We're going back to square zero. Before the pandemic homelessness was a major issue, but we saw that if we wanted to house the homeless, we could. So, parties must make sure we are not going back to having our men, women and children on the streets. Inequality of income must be addressed. I think the Government realised that the social welfare payment was not enough, during the pandemic. So, maybe it is time we had a liveable, basic income for everybody, if they need help, whether they are cleaners or consultants. Our health system serves the wealthy. Let's try to see if we can have an equal health service. Let’s abolish Direct Provision and help people actualise their citizenship. These are some of the things that the new Government should prioritise.
On The Possibility of Running for Office
No way (laughs). My dad was a politician. He was like a commissioner for education and finance, different things during his life. He's retired now. He's 82. But it made me realise that politics was dirty. You get there with all those amazing ideas, and you get disillusioned. I'm an academic. I want to teach future politicians and managers. If I can change their mindset, then I can have a bigger reach and have an influence on politics.