Louise O'Neill: 'Growing up as a white child in a predominantly white environment, race wasn’t something I gave much thought to'

Louise O'Neill: 'Growing up as a white child in a predominantly white environment, race wasn’t something I gave much thought to'
Keela Duffy Naughton pictutred at Black Lives Matter protest outside the Embassy of the United States of America in Dublin. Pic Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

As white people have been forced to acknowledged the ugly truth of white supremacy, I have found myself wondering if this is how men felt during the #MeToo movement. Agonising over every off-hand remark in their past, remembering when they stayed quiet instead of speaking up, looking at every advantage afforded to them and wondering if it wasn’t, as previously assumed, a result of their hard work and talent but instead, a reward given by a insidiously unjust system working to maintain the status quo.

Growing up as a white child in a predominantly white environment, race wasn’t something I gave much thought to. When the first arrival of asylum seekers came to this country, and a Direct Provision centre was set up in my home town, I simply assumed that the residents must have been relieved to have found somewhere safe to live at last. 

I didn’t think about how traumatising it would be to flee your home and to arrive to this small, damp country, then to be packed into overcrowded centres barely fit for purpose; to struggle with grief and loss and PTSD and to be kept in a holding cell for an indefinite period of time, with so little done to integrate you and your family into the local communities. My education, both primary and secondary, was blindingly white – the teachers were white, the vast majority of my classmates were white.

It was only when I moved to New York in 2010 that I formed close friendships with people of different ethnicities.

I listened as Black friends in interracial relationships talked about the looks they would get on the subway when they were with their partners, as my Korean-American friend explained about ‘ethnic plastic surgery’ and the pressure Western standards of beauty put on women of colour. 

Another intern at ELLE, a young Black woman, sat me down one day and gave me a thirty-minute lesson on the history of white supremacy over lunch. I mentioned this recently, thanking her for her patience. My friend laughed; said she didn’t remember but it sounded like something she would do. And I wondered then, how many other times she’d had to have the same conversation, how many other clueless white girls she’d had to school, and how exhausting it must have been, explaining her reality over and over again. The emotional labour of that, and what it must have cost her – what that labour costs all people of colour.

 It isn’t their job to educate us, and it never was. We have been the beneficiaries of white supremacy and now it is us who will have to dismantle it. I’m sure I’m not the only white person who has cringed as they remembered all the careless, insensitive things they’ve said and done, who feels shame at their blithe obliviousness. 

But as the poet Yrsa Daley-Ward wrote this week, 

Whether we like it or not, it is very convenient to be sorry. To sit in the constant regret of a thing means that we remain in a place of inactivity and self-interest. It means that we continue to centre our own feelings and experience rather than someone else’s… Accept responsibility and take action.

It is not time for white people’s guilt; indeed, it is not time to centre ourselves at all. What action will we take to be true allies? To sit with this discomfort without looking for forgiveness from our Black friends, seeking reassurance that we’re one of the Good Guys. To keep listening to, learning from, and amplifying black voices, especially black women. 

We have to acknowledge our internalised racism – and we all have it. It’s almost impossible to grow up in a world that centres whiteness and be unaffected by that in some way - and to look at where we’ve benefited from white privilege, no matter how uneasy it makes us feel. 

Look around our workplaces and our dinner parties and our children’s playdates, and ask ourselves why, if all we see are white faces. We have to pledge to call out microaggressions, regardless of how subtle, or how powerful the person responsible is.

We’ve heard from many black Irish voices over the last few weeks. These men and women were brave enough to share their stories of the racism growing up in this country. They showed us the veins of their trauma, and I don’t want their courage to have been for nothing. 

The Black Lives Matter movement cannot be something we talk about when it’s fashionable to do so and then discard as easily as an old winter coat when it’s not. This is not a trend or a fad. How could it be, when people’s lives, their very humanity, is at stake?

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