I can see the world as a white person and as a black person.
Sometimes people are caught out by the accent, the cognitive dissonance of the image and the sound, so I hear: “Are you Irish?” a lot, and more often than not that is immediately followed by “I didn’t think there were black people in Ireland.” But then they get over it. People get over it much quicker in London, and I’m asked a lot less in London where I am really from.
There’s no doubt that having more than one identity gives you a broad perspective; I can see the world as a white person and as a black person. I was raised in a largely white, middle class, socially conservative family and I know and appreciate the way they think. But I can also see the other side, because I’ve been called “nigger” on the street, people have made offensive assumptions about me because of the colour of my skin, I get ‘randomly’ security checked in the airport and followed by security guards in shops all the time.
I was born in 1975, so Ireland was really white at the time. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just the way it was. They are fantastic people, the Irish, it’s my home, all the people I love are there, but it was very homogenous. Nearly everybody looked the same, thought the same and practiced the same religion, so for someone like me, someone who didn’t fit the definition of what Irish was, it was suffocating.
I remember my parents took us to London when I was fourteen; we got off the tube at Piccadilly Circus and just the diversity of people around me – I saw women in saris, African ladies with traditional headdresses and Muslim men in their outfits, and I thought ‘Where did all these people come from? And why aren’t any of you in Dublin?!’ I thought London was the centre of the world (still do!) I decided there and then that as soon as I could leave my country, I would…and I did.
Our family isn’t your standard Irish family. My mother is Canadian so I think that’s where the progressive idea of adopting two mixed race daughters came from – because no one else in Ireland was doing it at the time. I had a great childhood; I had lots of friends, played lots of sports, and got an excellent education. But I always knew I was different; I was frequently told to “Go back to the jungle.” It was, of course, upsetting and confusing for a child to deal with but the love of my family insulated me against other people’s ignorance. I was always raised to believe that prejudice was someone else’s problem and that what I had to say or what I felt was as valid as anybody else’s. The single greatest thing my parents gave me was my sense of self-worth.
My father’s mother – very Irish, very traditional – was deeply perplexed that her son and Canadian daughter-in-law, who already had three biological sons, were adopting children, when they could still produce their own. When she found out we were mixed race, she wouldn’t come and see us for the first couple weeks… And then, of course, she came, and fell in love with us!
I got comments throughout school that reminded me I didn’t really belong. I remember my first history teacher, a nun, saying to me; “I used to work in the villages in Africa and they all shaved their heads because they had lice. Do you shave your head as well?” That was day one in secondary school.
We had a house on the south west coast of Ireland. Very few there would have seen or come in contact with a person of colour in the 70s and 80s. So I would get thoughtless questions and curious stares, but there was not much malice. I learned very quickly to spot genuine curiosity from the “But you’re not really Irish, are you?!” brigade. As I got older and started dating I was accused, on more than one occasion, of being “a reverse racist” if I didn’t date a particular (white) guy. Of course, when I did eventually meet, date and marry my – now – husband we got grief over our mixed-race relationship mostly from black people who considered me a traitor to my race.
When I think about it now that I’m older, having studied and worked in the social policy and equalities fields, I think there’s no doubt I did struggle with my otherness and often had a profound sense of aloneness. I couldn’t see myself in anywhere in Irish society at large; no one looked like me and the representation of black people in the media in the 80s and 90’s – drug dealers, prostitutes, single mums on welfare, deadbeat dads or poverty and famine stricken ‘natives’ in need of saving – were not flattering. And that’s how you grow and you learn and you develop – you mirror the behaviour and attitudes of the adults around you till you are old enough to think for yourself.
I used to stick out like a sore thumb at home. But in London I was anonymous, I was just another mixed-race face in the crowd and it was such a relief. I know people who hate London for that reason, but it was exactly what I was looking for. Finally, I just blended in somewhere; in London I was no longer “exotic”, I was just me.
Ireland is changing; significant cracks are appearing in the homogeneity of Irish society. But many people in Ireland can’t understand it’s entirely possible to have more than one identity without conflicting loyalties; they genuinely struggle with it. I understand the more homogeneous a society, the higher the fear of the “other” but in 2017, there is no doubt in my mind, ignorance is a choice.
I did a Masters in Ethnic and Racial Studies which helped me intellectualise and articulate my contradictory feelings and incomplete thoughts. I had read books on my own about the ‘other’, identity, race and ethnicity and the minority mind-set. My studies gave me the basis of the intellectual: where did racism come from? What is it that creates these divides? Why and how are these divides perpetuated? How the long-term intergenerational impact of discrimination and oppression impacts on people and communities and how society is structured around white advantage/privilege.
I always thought I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but actually looking back it’s pretty clear that I did. I’ve worked in the third sector, in international development and I now work in the public sector, to make London a fairer society for all who live here. I’ve always felt that if I’m doing something from 9am-5pm, five days a week, for fifty-odd years then it has to be something both interesting and useful. I appreciate that having that choice is a huge privilege that many aren’t afforded.
I’m also a mother of three who works full time and that is a balancing act that I was unprepared for! I have a five-year-old daughter, and the twins are two-and-a-half. Having twins and being on maternity leave…once you survive that, you actually feel bulletproof! Nothing at work is ever going to be as challenging or important as raising my kids right; so you think ‘I can do this’ and you get on with it. You do get so much more organised and productive at work because you now have two jobs and there are still only 24 hours in a day!
My kids are mixed race, African-Caribbean Irish, but they’re effectively white. I always hesitate when it comes to ticking ethnicity boxes as there’s never one for me. I am forced to tick the ‘other’ box which is a constant, if innocuous and unintentional, reminder of my ‘otherness’.
I moved to London sixteen years ago, I stay because of the tolerance, diversity and difference of people, thought and opportunity. My heart belongs to Ireland but my soul belongs to London and its people. It’s a ferociously complex city; it’s staggeringly unequal, dirty and crowded and the air is probably literally killing us, but I am willing to trade that for my kids growing up with diversity and tolerance as standard. I said to my husband recently, as we debated the implications of Brexit for our EU immigrant family, “I want to stay here until they know what ‘normal’ looks like. Until they understand that ‘normal’ isn’t all white, conservative, middle class and Christian…that difference should be celebrated rather than feared.”
So I’m confronted with the next generation of ‘other’. They’re the beautiful, hopeful future. And there’s no doubt in my mind that families, communities and countries that break down walls and build bridges together are the future of the human race.
We have, after all, more in common than not.