Half-white, half-Asian, but no less Irish

Half white, half Asian Dubliner Dean Van Nguyen speaks to other mixed-race Irish people in their twenties and thirties about growing up in a primarily white culture, being subjected to racist taunts, and coming to terms with their own sense of self.

Who am I? It’s a simple question, but one we as human beings frequently ask ourselves – it defines our sense of self identity, from childhood right throughout our lives, and can play a major role in shaping the people we become.

When it comes to self-concept, there are some obvious factors that we know from an early age just by examining our circumstances. 

For generations of people born in Ireland, many of the key questions seemed pre-answered: You were Irish. You were white. You were Christian. 

As African-American comedian Reginald D. Hunter joked at a Vicar Street gig in 2011, Ireland is “where they make white people”.

While the country is becoming ever more pluralist as we get deeper into the 21st century, for those of mixed-race now in their twenties and thirties, the answers to these questions of self-identity have been less simple.

Growing up in a place where for so many years anyone who wasn’t 100 percent white was looked upon as something ‘other’ or ‘different’, the mixed-race population has been exposed to cultures that have given them a unique sense of the world, while simultaneously facing many challenges in both coming to terms with their own sense of self, and having others understand that view.

For example, in January’s high-profile interview that saw him speak publically about being gay for the first time, Leo Varadkar also discussed the influence growing up with an Indian father had on his career as, first, a doctor, and now, a politician. 

Fijian-Irish GAA player Seán Óg Ó hAilpín has in the past been moved to speak out in condemnation of the racially charged abuse he’s received.

I understand these challenges because all my life my fellow countrymen have quizzed me about my background. 

I’ll be 30 years old next month, born to a mother from Sligo and a father who was among 212 Vietnamese refugees to arrive in Ireland in 1979.

As the only kid I remember in my primary school not completely Caucasian (tellingly, the census didn’t start compiling data on different nationalities living in Ireland until 2002), coming to terms with my own sense of self-identity has been a life-long process as I’ve sought to answer many of the internal questions my classmates would have taken for granted.

Growing up I absorbed two very different cultures. 

While in many ways mine was a typical Irish upbringing, I was keenly aware of my Asian background and spent a lot of my time with my dad’s side of the family and the Vietnamese community, who all brought their traditions, customs and faiths over with them.

To my friends, a lot of this might have seemed strange, but being exposed to another culture did open up a whole other world to me. 

Speaking to other mixed race kids of my generation, there’s the sense that having a broader background made the world seem bigger when we were children.

Like me, 28-year-old photographer Ruth Medjber grew up with parents culturally far apart. 

Her Irish mother married an Algerian man who came to Ireland in the late seventies to study aircraft engineering and the pair raised two children in Marino, Dublin.

Growing up, Medjber would pester her dad for information on her Algerian background and, at around age five, tried to learn the Arabic language.

“Even my school projects, people were doing theirs on Wexford and I’d be doing it on the Sahara desert because it just fascinated me,” she says.

“I think it was a curiosity that there was a whole half of me that I had no real access to apart from what I could get out of my dad. That kind of stuck with me. When I graduated from university, my degree show was portraits of Muslim women in Ireland.

“I think I just wanted to find out more about them because I have this whole side of Muslim women that I don’t know.”

While many mixed race Irish people are keen to embrace their backgrounds and see both sides as significant in how they define themselves, almost none born and raised on this island would claim to be less Irish than peers with two native parents.

But for many, answering questions on who they are and where they’re from because of their appearance can be tiring. Grating, even.

To look at, I don’t instantly appear to be anything other than an Irish person with darker than average features, but being asked about my surname has become part of the background hum of my life. 

Fielding questions about where you’re from can make fitting in tough for mixed-race people, particularly during childhood.

Waheed El Miladi was born in Ballyfermot to an Irish mother and Libyan father and says his Irishness has been questioned daily throughout his life. 

“You’re made aware of it by others,” he says. “When [people I’ve not met] talk to me, they’ll ask me where I’m from and I’ll say ‘Ballyfermot’. They’ll say, ‘No, where are you really from?’.

Basically they want to ask me, ‘Why are you brown?’”

Born in Strabane, a small border town in west County Tyrone, Jayne Olorunda was the youngest of three sisters growing up in the 1970s to a Catholic mother with a strong nationalist background and a father from Nigeria. 

Tragically, Jayne’s dad was killed by an IRA bomb when she was just two, and she was forced to grow up with little knowledge of her African heritage, while finding it difficult to fit into an all-white community.

“I definitely think it affected us in the sense that you were always aware you were different,” says Jayne, who wrote the book Legacy as a memorial to her father, Max Olorunda. 

“It’s that experience of being the only one in your class at school, being the only one at different events growing up – you stood out and you really, really felt it. I would say more so as I became a teenager I would have struggled a lot with my identity. There was always that little part of you that knew you didn’t quite fit in.”

Olorunda’s experiences were heightened by living in what she describes as a “divided society”, with many communities during the troubles adopting an “us versus them” mentality and being particularly wary of what they didn’t recognise.

“Bringing someone else in from a whole different country, that would have put everybody on edge,” she says.

For Waheed, his background has provided those who have wanted to hurt him with verbally ammunition.

“Maybe it’s because they didn’t have the intelligence to think of anything different. It would be the first thing and the easiest thing they could point out to you.”

While working in a bar in Enniskerry, half Filipino student Rafino Murphy experienced some abuse from customers.

One that stands out in his mind particularly involved a regular elderly patron who, unprovoked, shouted a racial slur to him as he stood behind the bar. As someone who identifies himself as Irish, it was particularly hurtful.

“I am, for all intents and purposes apart from maybe a shade of my skin and some other physical attributes that might make you think that I’m somewhere else, I’m completely Irish,” asserts Murphy.

According to Jennifer DeWan of NASC Ireland, a Cork-based immigrant support centre lobbying for hate crime legislation in Ireland, similar instances are quite common.

“Certainly people born here in Ireland, people who are citizens of the country and people who are mixed race are certainly experiencing racism, and we have taken reports from people about that,” she says. 

“People who were born here, grew up here and consider themselves Irish are still being impacted on that sense of otherness that comes from being the victim of a racist incident.”

Following the Charlie Hebdo shooting Paris last January by Muslim extremists, Medjber admits feeling anxiety about her and her family’s safety.

“When you hear about revenge attacks on Algerian families in Paris you’re like ‘Oh, ok’, and then you hear it happening in Germany and you hear it happening in the UK, you hope do Irish people have more sense that.”

Medjber, like me, was actually baptised Catholic but now identifies as atheist (in my case, my mother told me as an adult that the motivation to have me christened stemmed from fears that, growing up already different, I’d be isolated further if excluded from religious ceremonies).

Having your core ‘Irishness’ questioned raises issues when attempting to get to grips with your own sense of self.

As a teenager, I referred to myself as white, perhaps in an attempt to fit in with my peers.

Today I define myself as half-white, half-Asian, but no less Irish.

Similarly, Olorunda would have always referred to herself as black, but in just the last couple of years has redefined herself after having an open conversation with her mam.

“My mother said, ‘By identifying yourself as black, you’re cutting out the whole other side of your heritage. You’re not acknowledging the fact that half of you is white, that half of your background is white.’ That I wasn’t acknowledging that she existed.

“I’m starting to see myself as mixed. If I’m asked my identity, I will say Northern Irish and it took me a long time to say that and to feel comfortable saying that.”

While Olorunda would have grown up at a time when seeing a mixed-race child was relatively rare, it’s likely to be far less unusual as Ireland becomes increasingly multi-ethnic.

According to the 2011 census, 15 percent of the resident population do not identify themselves as ‘White Irish’.

The fastest growing ethnic group between 2006 and 2011 was non-Chinese Asians, with an annualised growth of 13.3 percent.

Padraigh Keogh from Kildare is the father to one-year-old Caitlin, whose mother is Filipino.

The parents regularly travel back and forth to the Philipines are are eager to make sure their daughter grows up culturally aware of both sides.

Still, Keogh is anticipating a time when he’ll need to explain to Caitlin why she is unique among her friends.

“In a few years time, in school she’ll probably see most of her classmates, both parents are white or both parents are Asian or both parents are black,” he says.

“She’ll probably be curious how come her mother is Asian and her father is caucasian and will ask questions. We’ll just have to talk to her and take account of her age and make things separate for her, and [explain that] it’s nothing to be ashamed of – it’s a good thing.”

These are conversations that are likely to be less pronounced as the years go by, though.

As we become more mulicultural, the core tenents of what it is to be Irish are changing, and the feelings of otherness the mixed race kids of my generation are, hopefully, going to disappear.

There will, of course, be challenges. Issues like race relations and ethnic discrimination continue to blight countries with far larger minority populations than us.

Speaking to a variety of people with a wide range of backgrounds, the one constant was that every one was proud of their mixed heritage.

We all want to be proud of our homeland too.



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