'It's up to you to accept it and listen to me': Growing up black in Ireland

In recent days, the issue of racism has been discussed globally as protests in the US and beyond erupted after the death of George Floyd while he was in police custody.

In Ireland, there was a Black Lives Matter march in Dublin on Monday, with thousands of people attending. The aim of the protest was to show solidarity with those protesting against racism and police brutality in the States, as well as to highlight racism in Ireland.

Many black Irish people have taken to social media in recent days to speak about traumatic incidents of racism they have experienced.

The Irish Examiner has spoken to two young black women who feel now is the time to share their experience of growing up in Ireland.

Miriam Olamijuwon and Tobi Lawal
Miriam Olamijuwon and Tobi Lawal

Tobi Lawal is a Masters student, currently studying Law at the University of Limerick.

She has decided to speak out against the racism she has suffered while living in Ireland.

"The [incidents] I remember from primary and secondary school were more covert.

"There were girls saying to other girls 'I think she smells', but I could hear it. People touched my hair without my permission, or commented on the texture of my hair."

Tobi Lawal
Tobi Lawal

As Tobi got older, the racism became more aggressive, she says.

"During my college years, I have experienced horrible racism which I don't think I will ever forget."

"On international night at UL, a guy spilled a drink all over my friend, and I said 'what are you doing, please stop'. And he turned to me and said: 'would you just go back to your f****** country.' I was gobsmacked."

People persistently asked Tobi where she was "really" from, and wouldn't take Offaly as a valid answer.

"I've also been told I am very pretty 'for a black girl'. One of my old housemates said to me on a night out when she was drunk that she was really racist before she met me, but when she met me, she realised black people were really sound.

"A few months ago I was walking with my ex-boyfriend to the pharmacy, and this fella sped through a zebra crossing, nearly knocking us down, and I said 'hey, watch where you're going'. He rolled down the window and said 'you dirty black c***'. I just broke down in tears.

"One time I brought my traditional Nigerian food into work and a colleague said it smelled like cat piss."

Nights out are another time when Tobi worries she will have to deal with racism.

"When people suggest going to an old man pub, I immediately freeze up and think somebody is definitely going to say something to me, or look at me differently."

On a recent trip to west Cork, she got chatting to an older man at the bar, who told her "he'd never met one of her kind before" and expressed surprise that she was doing a Masters.

"He then said back in his day, they said the black man would steal the penny from your pocket, but he knew I wouldn't do that," Tobi says.

Often when Tobi speaks about these incidents, she is brushed off by others and told not to take it personally.

It's not up to you to debate with me, it's up to you to accept it and listen to me.

"People say things like 'they didn't mean it that way' or I took it up wrong... it is a way of excusing the behaviour. I almost feel stupid or invalidated for feeling how I feel, and that I shouldn't get annoyed."

"If you're out on a night out, and you hear someone making a comment about me, call them out on it. Ask them to explain themselves. And they will think twice about doing it again.

"They know that it's wrong. Normally when something like that happens, people laugh, or change the subject. Being uncool for two minutes of your life [by calling someone out] is better than allowing this racist behaviour."

Miriam Olamijuwon who lives in Galway has also experienced this racism while living in Ireland.

Miriam Olamijuwon
Miriam Olamijuwon

"I feel like in Ireland [racism] is not usually out loud, it's quiet stuff. When I first got to Ireland in 2002, I used to get on the bus, and people would move away and change seats to get away from me, or they held their bag a little tighter. I was three years old and I can still remember that happening."

She is always conscious of the fact she may experience racism. "Even just going outside, I think I am black, this could happen and this is how people could treat me.

"I came here at a very young age. I have three siblings who were born in this country, they are literally black Irish, and people are still going to treat them differently.

My siblings have never been to Nigeria, all they know is stuff from our parents. Ireland is their home and their country, yet they will still face racism.

"It's not just in school, it's when you go out for a walk, it's applying for a job. It's knowing we could get skipped over when employers are looking at CVs because of our last name."

Growing up, Miriam felt that she couldn't speak up as she wasn't in the majority. "I thought: 'I am a minority, I stand out, I stick out, I have to do this much to fit in and assimilate'. I thought I just have to bear this [racism] and they will accept me, but this should never have been a concern of mine in the first place.

"Being a child is already hard enough, with wanting to fit in, but adding being black on top of that and being so aware of it, it was hard."

When Miriam did raise concerns, people often told her to not take it too seriously, or that the racism was not intended.

"There's always excuses. I should be able to say when I am uncomfortable, and shouldn't have to worry about whether the other person will be uncomfortable with me saying that."

Miriam says people need to start calling out racism when they see it. She uses the example of an incident she experienced while working as a nightclub promoter.

"I saw a drunk white Irish man giving out to a homeless man, who wasn't white or Irish. He was giving out to him for asking for money. I went over and said: 'excuse me, this man is on the floor, and asking for money. He isn't trying to argue with you. Even after [the homeless man] stopped asking you for money, you are still abusing him.'

"Immediately, the [white] guy turns on me, saying 'your parents came here on a banana boat' and other racist things. And I should be okay with that? Being drunk is not an excuse, some people are just waiting to say it."

Miriam's employers consoled her and asked if she wanted to go home, which she appreciated, but she says this doesn't get to the root of the problem.

"Why isn't it just as important to call this man out on his behaviour? It's not fixing the problem. I'm okay and I will have to deal with the effects of it, but that man is going to continue acting like that."

She says consistent racism has to take a toll on people's mental health.

She feels like a lot of people in Ireland don't understand that racism is a real issue.

Miriam also adds that asylum seekers are coming to Ireland after fleeing from persecution, and shouldn't have to face racism in their everyday life.

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