'Don't feel guilty for being white – do something with it' Dr Ebun Joseph speaks out

Dr Ebun Joseph is the module coordinator in UCD, of the first Black Studies programme in Ireland. She is also one of Ireland's leading voices on race, migration, social policy and equality. Here she talks to Lizzie Gore-Grimes about bias in the workplace, the inhumanity of Direct Provision and the litmus test for racism in Ireland - Dublin airport passport control.


Dr Ebun Joseph is a powerhouse. I only spent two hours in her (virtual) company but came away electrified by her passion, knowledge and energy. An academic and activist, not only is she module coordinator in UCD of the first Black Studies programme in Ireland, she is also chairperson of the African Scholars Association Ireland (AfSAI), a career-development specialist and an author – determined to use her position and voice to defend those without one.

She is a citizen of both Nigeria and Ireland, and has lived in Ireland for more than 18 years.

I very quickly became aware that while my gender had held me back in Nigeria, the colour of my skin, my name, the way I spoke were going to be the barriers to break down in Ireland

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I HAVE ALWAYS HATED INEQUALITY. When I lived in Nigeria it was gender inequality I was fighting. As soon as I arrived in Ireland I realised gender equality was not the problem here for a woman of African descent, racial inequality was. Even before it became my career I was always a counsellor. People would confide in me; I was a good listener. I think it was because I was a middle child, I knew how to listen to both sides and help others make a decision. 

When I moved to Ireland I thought I better make it official and get my professional training. I had a microbiology degree but I knew I preferred people to the lab. The move to Ireland gave me the opportunity to retrain, so I became an accredited counsellor in 2010 and then went on to do a Masters in adult career guidance counselling. 

I very quickly became aware that while my gender had held me back in Nigeria, the colour of my skin, my name, the way I spoke were going to be the barriers to break down in Ireland. Now I had race and gender going against me! 

“WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” IS SOMETHING I AM ASKED ALL THE TIME. I am an Irish citizen. For the 18 years that I have lived in Ireland, people are constantly trying to locate me and establish me as ‘other’. I am also told my English is very good. A lot!

These small things, these lazy assumptions, these subtle slights are exhausting. You may never have experienced them but they are very real

When I walk down the street, people do not see Dr Ebun Joseph, they see a Black woman and immediately make assumptions. Every time I return home from a business trip and pass through passport control in Dublin airport I am told “Non-EU that way” by a gruff guard. I am an Irish citizen with an EU passport, but this happens to me. Every. Single. Time. 

These small things, these lazy assumptions, these subtle slights are exhausting. You may never have experienced them but they are very real.

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IN MY CAREER I HAVE WITNESSED, AND EXPERIENCED, OUTRAGEOUS BIAS. On one occasion I applied for a job in a major university here in Ireland (I am not going to name and shame). I was very well qualified for the post yet did not even make the shortlist. When I asked for feedback I was shocked to see that I had been scored 5/10 for knowledge of diversity! I have a doctorate in race studies. I should have taken them to court. It was so outrageous. But this is how it operates.

But the huge problem here is that it is up to the victim of discrimination to do all the work to fight it - and you become exhausted. They wear you down – if you let them.

A few years ago I applied for a post in a university which, again, I was highly qualified for. I didn't even get shortlisted. I later discovered that a junior colleague - who I had trained - was called for an interview. She had two years’ experience. I had eight. I had the required Masters, she did not. It is shocking.

But the huge problem here is that it is up to the victim of discrimination to do all the work to fight it - and you become exhausted. They wear you down – if you let them.  

Racial stratification will demand you “stay there” - do not stay there. If this door won’t budge, try another

I LIKE TO THINK OF MYSELF AS WATER. You can not keep water in a box. It will not stay put in one place in a room. It moves and flows. When I have come upon racial bias in the workplace my mantra is to simply refuse to take no for an answer and that is my advice to others. Never give up. Racial stratification will demand you “stay there” - do not stay there. If this door won’t budge, try another. 

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So many times I have seen black people downgrade themselves. They are qualified for a level 9 position, but end up, after multiple rejections, applying for lower level positions. 

I kept going. I was determined not be driven out

THEY WIN WHEN YOU GET EXHAUSTED. The minute you stop trying, you’re doomed.   No matter how much resistance I have been met with over the years, I kept going. I was determined not be driven out. 

MY ADVICE TO YOUNG PEOPLE OF COLOUR IS TO FIND ROLE MODELS IN YOUR INDUSTRY. Seek out people at a higher level to yourself in your industry and do your research. How did they get to where they are? What qualifications do they have? What are they working on? What values do they represent? They don’t need to know you, follow them on social media, watch videos of their talks. 

If you can create an opportunity for someone - who would otherwise be marginalised - to get an equal chance at the prize this is what matters

WE HAVE ENOUGH MENTORS, WHAT WE NEED ARE SPONSORS. In the business world the black community have enough mentors, but we need sponsors. If you can be both, then all the better. I have role models and mentors who don’t know I exist, but I follow them and learn from them. But a sponsor is someone who will actively advocate for you. They will stand up in a room and say this person must be considered. I am not suggesting people give a role to someone not qualified for it. But if you can create an opportunity for someone - who would otherwise be marginalised - to get an equal chance at the prize this is what matters. You need to make them visible. 

This creates a pull factor, which is much stronger than push. It compels me forward

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I MODEL MYSELF ON PEOPLE TEN YEARS AHEAD OF ME. I look at where I am currently in my career and look around, globally, to others who are ten years ahead of me, career-wise and I follow them, research them, aspire to be them. This creates a pull factor, which is much stronger than push. It compels me forward, demands I keep moving forward.

WHEN WE TALK ABOUT RACE, PLEASE LISTEN. If I could only make one plea when talking about race it would be this. When a Black person shares a story of racial abuse, it is not an invitation to critique the story or debate whether the intention of the incident was racist or not. When you question the insult they experienced it is the most damaging thing you can do. We need you to say “I believe you. Maybe I don’t understand it but I believe it”. If you try to brush off, or explain away, their story you become a defender of white supremacy.

The system breaks every conceivable human right and history will judge us on this. It must end

DIRECT PROVISION IS THE MAGDALENE LAUNDRIES OF THIS GENERATION. What is going on is immoral, inhuman and degrading. There are children of 15 years of age who have never known any other life than one compound and one room shared with five to 10 others. People in Direct Provision are constantly moved. Children have no proper access to education, no continuity of care or community. What will happen to these children? How will they develop any sense of self or belonging? Even in prison you can go to school. Direct Provision is worse than prison. The system breaks every conceivable human right. History will judge us on this. It must end. 

You must first identify the advantage of white skin, before you can see the disadvantage experienced by those without it

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POCKETS OF HOPE. I was driving around The Coombe area the other day, backing out of a little tiny road and I looked up to see a sign posted in someone's front window and it said END DIRECT PROVISION. That sign, on that day, was just one of the many pockets of hope I see more and more of in this country. Where can you start? Start with a sign. Start by making noise and demanding change. 

IF YOU CAN’T SEE IT YOU CAN’T FIX IT. You must first identify the advantage of white skin, before you can see the disadvantage experienced by those without it.

I AM COMFORTABLE WITH THE TERM BLACK. I identify as a Black woman and am unapologetic about it. I wear my identity with pride. But I prefer the term Person of African Descent. When you say someone is Black, it can feel very fixed, whereas when you identify someone as ‘of African descent’ it is more open, you are referring to their lineage, where they started from, but the future is still to be written.

You can’t do anything about the colour of the skin you were born into but what you choose to do with that inheritance is very much up to you

DON’T FEEL GUILTY FOR BEING WHITE. That is not what we want. You inherited your skin colour in the same way I inherited mine. You can’t do anything about the colour of the skin you were born into but what you choose to do with that inheritance is very much up to you. You can not change the past, but you can certainly change the future. 

Follow Dr Ebun Joseph on Twitter @EbunJoseph1 and on Instagram @ebunjoseph. Read Dr Joseph's paper on The Centrality of Race & Whiteness in the IrishLabour Market 


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Read more: 'I am privileged to walk freely in white skin but my children are not': raising children of colour in Ireland

Read more: Mental health resources for minorities trying to cope right now

Read more: 6 things to know about direct provision

 

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