AFL player and former Kerry minor star Stefan Okunbor has opened up on the shocking racism he endured as a young black man living and playing football in Ireland.
Okunbor, who also played for Kerry U20s, admits he has found it difficult to talk to friends and teammates about episodes of racism. But amid the global wave of outrage following the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, he hopes his story will educate people that real change will take more than social media posts.
Born in Moldova, Okunbor moved to Ireland as a three-year-old, with his Nigerian father and Moldovan mother.
He tasted All-Ireland success as a Kerry minor in 2016, before moving to Australia last year, where he is a rising star at the Victoria based Geelong Cats.
But before he left Ireland, Okunbor endured several racist episodes that stunned and hurt him.
“I have been extremely fortunate to grow up as a proud black Irishman, I love Ireland, it is home," he says, stressing that racist episodes have been infrequent.
“On the occasion that they did (occur)…they stuck”, he says, “a constant reminder that I was a minority.
“It has always been an uncomfortable topic to converse about with my peers because the majority of them are ‘white Irish’ and although they would listen and be supportive, they simply could not understand the profound effect that some of the derogative insults that I have received have had on my life."
The incidents happened both "on and off the pitch".
"The first racial incident occurred while working during my gap year pre-college, it was my Kerry minor year.
“It was at the ripe age of 17 that I first questioned people’s views on a black man’s place in Irish society after being called a "black b*****d by an elderly colleague who later claimed in a meeting with management that it was just ‘friendly banter’.
“I have never taken part in this type of racist banter at my expense with anyone and I certainly didn’t condone it.
“It made me wonder if this is what being out of the relative safety of secondary school and going into the real world felt like? Is this how all old Irish men act towards blacks?
“A few of my friends may be shocked because I have always shied away from speaking out about any racial incidents I’ve had. In the past I found it difficult making my colleagues, who respect you, aware of incidents where I have been belittled and made feel miniscule.
“I wouldn’t have dared to share it with my teammates on the Kerry minor panel, a place where I and everyone who put the Kerry jersey on was respected for who they were.”
Okunbor first donned the jersey of his beloved Na Gaeil club in Tralee as a six-year old. That move marked “an effort by my mother to integrate me into the Irish culture and society, as Gaelic football is extremely family and community orientated”.
“I instantly fell in love with the game and have made lifelong friends along the way. Football is engrained in Irish culture and I always felt like I ‘did my bit’ by playing it”.
But two separate incidents of racial abuse on the football pitch in the year prior to moving to Australia “really hit home”.
“Whilst taking a shot against ‘Team A’, which I will not name out of respect, an opposing player began to make monkey noises.
“I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t want to believe it. Several of my teammates who were nearby and heard him scuffed him up as I steered clear. I didn’t want anything to do with it, I just wanted to block it out of my life and hope I didn’t have to endure the embarrassment ever again.”
The perpetrator ultimately received an eight-week ban.
“For once I felt justice has been served,” Okunbor says.
The most recent episode of racial abuse served as a reminder “of the views towards blacks that I was very much willing to forget”.
“The third incident was more shocking than anything as I had played with this player on a different team.
“It was a very tense game, but I never anticipated it would get this heated. There was a moment in the game in which bodies were clashing in a ten or so man melee. I engaged with this particular player only for him to turn around and yell something all too familiar, ‘what do you think you’re doing you black b******d?’
“I was lost for words. All my life I had done nothing but give my all for my club, county, and community and this is the respect I was shown. I could see that other players had heard it, but I didn’t know how to react. I stayed calm and reported the incident to the referee, but he didn’t send the player off as he hadn’t heard the insult.
“I couldn’t concentrate for the rest of the game as I questioned the referee’s integrity.”
Okunbor didn’t address the issue after the game, not wanting to face the hearing process that would follow, nor “the embarrassment of the case going public”
“I did not want to feel more marginalised than I already was, so I brushed it under the rug. It has been a chip on my shoulder ever since.”
He says his experiences are not unique.
“My black friends share similar experiences, my father has also been a victim, which hurts me to say.”
He stresses his experience of Irish life has been mainly positive, but warns that the current Black Lives Matter movement will mean nothing if it just amounts to social media posts.
"If it is seen as a box ticked by jumping on the bandwagon, in fear of being labelled a racist if you don’t, it means nothing.
“I’m not painting a whole nation with the same brush, I can't generalise a country due to the ignorance of a few.
“I cannot stress enough how lucky I was to have forged my life in Ireland. Ireland is a beautiful and great place to live and raise a family. I just hope that the incidents I have shared and the realisation that everyone globally is coming to terms with can make people act differently when witnessing any form of racism as it is an issue that can be easily overlooked.
"These are just three incidents from my life that I felt would be most important to address. There are countless deeper ways people's comments could segregate and affect minorities.
"I hope people can come away from reading this with more awareness and understanding about the issues of racism and stomp it out for good".