- 21 Dec 21
Fionnuala O'Connell shares her thoughts and experiences as part of the 100 Voices #AllAgainstRacism campaign.
Youth Project Worker at Cork Migrant Centre
Racism in Ireland is both violently loud and violently quiet. It is the criminalisation and the exclusion of the Traveller and Roma community to access basic services. It is the isolation – and the inhumane treatment – of people seeking asylum in Direct Provision Centres, and the scapegoating of migrants and anyone else that does not fit in with the white Irish narrative that populates our screens.
Racism exists in our schools, and is being practiced by our teachers, with many perpetuating stereotypes and lacking in cultural sensitivity. When I moved back to Ireland to start secondary school, it was assumed that I was not intelligent enough and that my written English was not good enough as I recently arrived from West Africa, I spoke Liberian English which was labelled by my teachers as ‘pidgin’ English. I was put in a class lower than my education standard and way below my age. My school life henceforth was marked by efforts to try and prove myself in everything and to everyone, and in the process, I ended up suppressing some integral parts of me.
Today many of the young people of colour we work with at Cork Migrant Centre at Nano Nagle Place are subject to this ignorance. They are assumed to be less intelligent, and they have to jump twice as high as their white Irish counterparts in all spheres of life just to get ahead. The negative mental health impact of racism on these youths, and indeed on all people of colour in Ireland, is not highlighted enough. Among other vulnerabilities it erodes their self-esteem, self-worth and self-confidence. Skin colour or ethnic features should not subject one to having to perpetually fight for basic human rights, dignity and respect.
Combatting racism is not a once-off action. It is an acknowledgement that racism exists in Ireland, the understanding of racism and the unlearning of racist ideology, which has created a single story of negative stereotypes and generalisations about people of colour and countries of their origin. We need to tell the other side of the story, which is the history of colonialism and how this constructs the reality of people of colour; and also the story of resilience and indomitable spirit that is key to everyday lived experiences of people of colour.
It is important that the approach to creating an anti-racist society is holistic and inclusive of people that have lived experiences of racism and discrimination. It is the training of teachers in cultural sensitivity, and the making and implementation of policies that have a zero tolerance with regards to racism and discrimination.
Ignited by the killing of George Floyd in America and the consequent global Black Lives Matter protests, young people who are directly impacted by racism and discrimination are increasingly taking the lead in initiating positive change. The work being done at the Cork Migrant Centre by the CMC Youth Initiative Against Racism is a testament to this. This is a group led by young people from migrant backgrounds, who have first-hand experiences of racism. The amount of support we have received at national and international levels has been amazing and really motivating with special thanks to CYPSC, Cork, Cork City Council Social Inclusion Office and DCEDIY.
However, this work places a heavy emotional burden on the storytellers and is exhausting. It is reliving the trauma over and over. This is probably the high cost of change for a better Ireland. But it does not have to be – and that is why allyship is important.
Allyship is not just a support system that advocates for – and with – those experiencing discrimination, but requires individuals and systems that are self-reflective and acknowledge positions of privilege to those who lack it and advocate for equity. Frederick Douglass said: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Let us heed these words. Ireland belongs to all of us.
Read Part 2 of 100 Voices: #AllAgainstRacism in Hot Press:
Special thanks to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission for their support in this project.