Emer O'Neill: I'm 37, Black and Irish. Why are people confused by that?

Racism is still prevalent, from the big bright stages out in public to the dark corners of the internet. Emer O'Neill called out racism and experienced the backlash.
Emer O'Neill: I'm 37, Black and Irish. Why are people confused by that?

A public statement from a powerful figure like Tommy Tiernan might help educate people. That statement hasn’t come but the abuse continues, writes Emer O'Neill. Picture: ©Fran Veale

There’s a lot I could tell you about myself if we sat down and chatted. I could tell you I'm a movie buff and I love jazz music. 

I could tell you that I’m from Bray and I play the bodhran and the tin whistle and spent many a day and night as a child at fleadhs all over the country, listening to Irish music and being surrounded by our culture. 

I could tell you I’m a mother of two young children and a former Irish international athlete, and a foster carer to an amazing young man who is now in college, excelling despite growing up in the system. 

All of those identities are hugely important to me, and still only a part of who I am. I could tell you all of that if we chatted but maybe we’d never get to that point. Maybe, when we’d meet, you would simply assume that I wasn’t even Irish, because of what you see.

I am 37 years old, I’m Black and I’m Irish, and in this predominantly white country, I’ve become used to some people being very confused by that.

Confused that my name is Emer O'Neill — a good solid Irish name — but a face that says differently.

Since the day I was born, my Irishness has been questioned, and I have been discriminated against.

Because I’m Black I’ve been assaulted physically and verbally. 

My experience is, I’m sorry to say, one that many from our ethnic minority communities here share. It took me until I was in my 30s to have the confidence to speak up about my experiences.

Hate and harassment

The hate and harassment that ensued after that was a terrible shock; my house was egged, acid poured on our neighbour’s car instead of ours, my name graffitied all over my hometown. 

Tommy Tiernan: Has since removed the racist joke from his set and apologised for using it.
Tommy Tiernan: Has since removed the racist joke from his set and apologised for using it.

Fast forward nearly three years and a global awakening to racism and anti-Blackness has supposedly happened.

But despite wanting to believe we have grown as a society, the past month for me has been horrendous. There’s been a wave of hate against me for speaking up for myself and my community.

A few weeks back, one of this country’s biggest and most beloved comedians, Tommy Tiernan, told a racist joke at his show in Vicar Street in front of more than a thousand people.

Despite him telling us the audience his daughter had warned him not to tell the joke, he did it anyway. In it he compared the African Savannah section in the zoo to being full of Black taxi drivers.

I was an audience member, right up the front, as far as I know the only person of colour in the massive room and it was his first joke of the night.

It was a terrible thing to hear — both the joke and the booms of laughter from the white crowd. 

After telling the joke, he said: "So it wasn’t racist, because you're all laughing."

My friends and I quietly left the show a few minutes after the joke. Later on, I called Tommy Tiernan out on social media. He emailed and called me personally, apologised, and removed the joke from his set. 

During the call he expressed that being a white middle-aged man he had no right to decide what was and was not offensive to ethnic minority groups, considering he had no lived experience as one.

I genuinely felt it was a moment of growth and learning and such a positive conversation. 

I expressed to him what happened next — a massive social media backlash that initially was a personal attack on me but quickly transformed into a widespread expression of racism against Black and brown people who are from or live in Ireland. 

A public statement from a powerful figure like Tommy Tiernan might help educate people. I hoped to give him an opportunity to be an advocate for our community. 

I knew what a difference he could make by using his respected voice and massive platform to echo what he had said to me privately. 

I hoped he would say that any type of racism is not acceptable, and that he might work to become an ally of ours. That statement hasn’t come, but the abuse continues.

But this isn’t a story about ‘me versus Tommy’. I am an anti-racism activist that heard a racist joke at a gig. It doesn’t matter who told it. 

What matters is how people who heard it that night, or heard of it afterwards, use it to make a changes in our own lives, homes, our places of work. It is hard to stand up to racism and call people out but unless we do things will never change.

The taxi company Free Now dropped its sponsorship and that was a huge step in accountability. It sends a message to us that we can use our voice, and sometimes people who say and do racist things will face some consequences.

But at the same time I’ve received threats, been told to go home (to Bray?!) and been accused of looking for attention or a career boost.

Abuse is not from anonymous trolls

Most of these messages came not from anonymous trolls, but people online under their real names, who have no problem showing the dark side of Ireland's supposedly progressive attitude to human rights. 

Coincidentally, Emma Daibiri — writer, sociologist and another Irish woman with a Black parent — appeared on Tiernan's TV show at the weekend.

The show had been recorded in November, and in it Emma spoke about the life-long struggle she’s had being accepted as both Black and Irish.

Emma’s appearance on the show was met with a big online backlash. 

She shared some of the more violent reactions on Instagram, saying: “My episode being broadcast in the middle of all of this and me having the temerity to say that despite all of the deeply hurtful experiences I had growing up there that I have rehabilitated my relationship with Ireland to the point I’m relearning the language, has provoked an avalanche of racism and vitriol, and I didn’t want to share this content without providing the context.” 

The irony of it isn’t lost on me — two Irish Nigerian women were being ripped to pieces for claiming their Irish heritage and standing up to racism.

But it’s a pattern. Before I was even born I was told I wasn’t wanted in Ireland. My mom wanted me, she was the only one that did. She told me that when she returned from Nigeria, pregnant with me, she had nothing; no money, no job and nowhere to live. 

She wanted me to have a good life, something she didn’t feel she could provide, so she visited an adoption agency. 

They told her straight out that I would never be adopted, that people in Ireland didn’t want “black babies”, that I’d stay in care and age out when I was 18.

My mom kept me and worked to give me the best possible life she could as a single parent. I thank God everyday she did, because if she didn’t I could have ended up in a mother and babies home. 

Had that happened, I wonder whether I would still be here now. But I am still here, and I’m proud of and happy with my life. 

Racism is still here too, on big bright stages out in public and in dark corners of the internet. 

But no matter how powerful racism is in Ireland, and it’s really rearing its head these days, I’m stronger, because I’m not on my own. 

Irish people, whatever our skin colour, know what’s right and wrong. The majority of us are outraged by racism, and we are ready for change.

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