Too Black, too white: being mixed race in Ireland
Where does the Black-Irish community belong and what is its future? Secondary school teacher Emer O’Neill (@emeroneill14) addresses the key questions with activist Claudia Hoareau, sharing their experiences of mixed race identity, institutional racism and interracial parenthood in a fast-changing Ireland.
IMAGE is publishing this article as part of World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development.
This article is part of a committed partnership between IMAGE and The Irish Network Against Racism (INAR). Each month IMAGE will work with INAR to shine a light on a person, or project, that celebrates and promotes diversity and equality in Irish life.
As an historically homogeneous country, Ireland has no long-term history of established communities of colour. As a result, widespread knowledge of the complexities of racial identity are limited. Historical records indicate that African people were first living in Ireland in the late 1700s, followed by thousands of Black and mixed race children in the 1950s and 1960s. While this history is being uncovered by organisations such as the Association of Mixed Race Irish and I Am Irish, for the most part, Ireland has always been considered a homogeneous country. Some 1.5 % of people living in Ireland identify as “Other,” which includes those of mixed race heritage: the country’s fastest growing ethnic group, with an annual increase of 14.7 % since 2011 according to the Central Statistics Office. But as ethnic minorities, many remain marginalised and face discrimination across all aspects of Irish life.
It’s often assumed that mixed race Irish people, especially those that look Black, share the same lived experiences as their more visibly Black counterparts. However, experiences can vary greatly, according to skin tone and phenotype (physical racial characteristics, e.g. hair texture or nose shape), even in those belonging to the same family. While many experiences of racism are universal, activist Claudia Hoareau, 34, knows only too well the nuances of the mixed race experience in both majority-Black and majority-white countries.
“As a child growing up in Kenya, I struggled to understand why certain people may have certain perceptions of me, based on my skin colour,” she says, referring to being a child of an interracial couple (Kenyan, Irish, Creole). “It was a complete flip, because here in Ireland I was a Black person, essentially. It’s not that I never considered myself Black, it’s that I never really labelled my skin as anything. I was a kid and didn’t really understand how that worked.”
With her Dublin accent, you’d never know she only moved to Ireland at the age of 14. This was when she became consciously aware of her skin colour, with new friends introducing her as their ‘Black friend Claudia’.
Irish-Nigerian secondary school teacher, Emer O’Neill, 34 – who has become firm friends with Hoareau – faced kindred yet different challenges. When her Irish mother fell pregnant, she planned to have Emer adopted because without a job and financial stability she worried she would not be able to raise a baby as a single parent. She also quickly became aware of the stigma of having a mixed race baby. “The services told my mum she would never find a home for me, and they’d take me until I was 18,” she says. “I’m so glad my mum changed her mind and kept me, because I’ve spoken with mixed race friends that grew up in Mother and Baby Homes and their experiences were horrific.”
A report in 2019 by the Collaborative Forum on Mother and Baby Homes – whose details remain suppressed by the government’s Department of Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth – revealed widespread racism and abuse towards Black and mixed race children throughout the 20th century. Says O’Neill: “As traumatised as I am now, I think, Jesus, it could have been ten times worse had I been left in a home for 18 years.”
When visiting family in Nigeria as an adult, O’Neill found it disheartening to be met with the same gawking and attention she faced in Ireland. “That’s the thing with being mixed race, you’re dangling in no-man’s land,” she says. “I was too Black to be white but too white to be Black.
“Claudia’s one of the first Black friends I’ve ever made and it’s just amazing to talk to somebody who gets what you’re saying: the anxiety, the loneliness, the struggles making friends, body image challenges … the mental health issues because you’re on your own.”
White-washed beauty standards
O’Neill became aware of her skin colour early on. “My mum remembers me being in the bath when I was little and scrubbing my skin ‘trying to get my brown off’. I was devastated to learn that I’d be that way forever. By then, I knew it was a bad thing, as if I was dirty.”
This persisted into her teens, and was a serious blow to her self-esteem. “I didn’t want to be more obviously different, I put relaxers in my hair to straighten it …” she says. “Anything to look a little more like the people around me. I really struggled with that whole European standard of beauty and never thought I was beautiful. And lads were always kind of afraid to be the one going out with the Black girl, you know?”
Hoareau also remembers wishing she were considered “more Irish” in order to fit in, but there were always subtle reminders that she was an outsider. “I moved to a society where the standards were completely white … I never saw myself represented in the media and it was years before I could even find foundation in my skin tone – things like that.” Indeed, only after recent scrutiny have leading makeup brands, from Estée Lauder to Covergirl – and most notably Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty – made it their mission to reflect a vast range of skin shades in their product lines.
While slow but sure progress is being made, Hoareau hopes her daughter won’t encounter the same self-esteem challenges. “I don’t want her to feel like she’s an outsider and that she can’t see herself in the media around her. I’m trying so hard – the books, the dolls, the affirmations every night when we’re going to bed: ‘Your curls are perfect, your skin is beautiful.’
“My mum remembers me being in the bath when I was little and scrubbing my skin ‘trying to get my brown off’. I was devastated to learn that I’d be that way forever.
“I feel this immense responsibility to fill her with so much love and confidence, hoping that when she goes out into the world, she’ll have this full cup of self-love. I know all parents do that to their kids anyway, but …”
“We have to do it just a little bit harder, though,” Emer emphasises. “Our kids have to carry the load of life and this massive backpack full of bricks, which is your colour.”
Hate crime and justice
Racism isn’t only insidious and institutional; it is often violent and criminal. Once, the downstairs of the Foley family home was burnt out and another time, neighbours flooded out the first floor with a water hose. “My mum recalls that period as the scariest time of her life,” she says, still frustrated at the lack of support services available during her childhood.
Hoareau also wasn’t aware of any networks to help her parents with integrating into Irish society. “My parents found it markedly harder than I did … understanding how to communicate in an Irish context,” she recalls. With a Kenyan accent, her mother was often misunderstood, which she thinks dimmed her confidence in social settings. She and her siblings picked up the Irish accent fairly quickly, and were even able to feign it for a while, which made everyday communication easier. “But my mum couldn’t do that … it was challenging to say the least. I had to be this very responsible communicator and translator for my parents to everyone else. It wasn’t like there was a language barrier, it was more of a nuance barrier,” she says.
Ireland is one of the only EU countries without hate crime laws, and with the sharp rise in such incidences in recent years, the United Nations has urged Ireland to take firm action. The Irish Department of Justice and Equality is subsequently working on new legislation, which O’Neill and Hoareau feel is long overdue. “It’s one of those things that feels personal because the lack of it feels like it’s almost impeding my and my family’s ability to live fully and safely,” says the latter. “It’s very hard to imagine living in a society where someone faces no consequence for perpetrating hate of a certain kind. It’s really unsettling to feel that as a minority. And I have no words for what that feels like as a mother.”
O’Neill is especially concerned about training in the education sector. “In schools they have anti-bullying policies but no anti-racism policies, which are a completely separate thing in their own right,” she says.
Moreover, the Irish government hasn’t renewed its National Action Plan Against Racism, which expired in 2008 and includes provisions on racism, inclusion and diversity within An Garda Síochána. While there are now designated Garda Diversity Officers in most counties throughout Ireland, only 30% of racist hate crime is reported to the guards, due to fear of racial bias, mistreatment, risks to legal status and so on.
Both women fear negative interactions between the police and their children as they get older unless this disparity is addressed. “To think my son could be pulled over and asked who owns the car or where he lives when he’s driving …” says O’Neill. “It breaks my heart because I know the guards will face no consequence.”
Adds Hoareau: “I also have a lot of white Irish friends with older mixed race children, who share this level of anxiety about their kids. They actually say they feel let down by their own country, like, ‘This is my child – I’m Irish, my child is Irish and they’re entitled to feel safe growing up here.’”
It’s very hard to imagine living in a society where someone faces no consequence for perpetrating hate of a certain kind. It’s really unsettling to feel that as a minority. And I have no words for what that feels like as a mother.
All lives matter
As racial justice has become a major point of contention in Ireland, many white Irish have struggled to understand the experiences of African-descent people, as evidenced by everything from hateful rhetoric espoused by the far-right to the uptick in anti-Black hate crimes. Worryingly, 50% of Irish-born adults also believe some racial/ethnic groups are superior to others, according to a 2018 report by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.
Both women have made regular media appearances in the past year – not least since the violent death of George Floyd – and have consequently, been subjected to online trolling. The “All Lives Matter” rebuke to the “Black Lives Matter”(BLM) slogan is especially popular amongst far-right groups. But what can we do better?
O’Neill knows that the slogan is well-intentioned but argues it undermines the centuries-long oppression Black people have suffered, and that not all people of colour face the exact same abuse. “Saying ‘All Lives Matter’ is like saying ‘All Cancers Matter’ in response to someone supporting breast cancer awareness. People across the globe need to be educated on the topic, given the tools to know how to identify it, do something about it and support those going through it. The important message here is that all lives can’t matter until Black lives matter equally,” she says.
It is worth noting the similarity in two seemingly disparate struggles, as white Irish, particularly poor, Irish Catholics, have historically suffered through classism, poverty and British colonisation. While unique challenges in their own right, Irish and African-descent people have faced similar forms of oppression throughout history. They’re not mutually exclusive and one group’s oppression does not negate the other.
Unbeknownst to many, the Irish civil rights movement of the 1960s was actually inspired by African American civil rights leaders in America. Just this summer, Irish leaders across the country, including President Higgins, paid tribute to the enduring legacy of the late civil rights icon and congressman, John Lewis, who marched across the Derry Peace Bridge in 2014 and inspired civil rights movements around the globe.
“No one said only Black lives matter. We need to raise Black lives to a level where they matter the same,” says Hoareau.
Studies have shown a correlation between the rise in anti-immigrant and racist sentiments amongst Irish people following economic recessions, and the very opposite during periods of economic growth. It’s no surprise Ireland has experienced its fair share of far-right activity as the economy is projected to shrink 8.5% this year due to Covid-19. Despite this, both women are appealing to ordinary people to reconsider how their experiences differ from others, even as they face their own battles.
“I wish people knew how difficult and lonely it can be as a mixed race person,” says Hoareau. “For the reasons Emer’s mentioned, you don’t actually have a community that you belong to so I wish others knew what that internal struggle feels like.”
“If white people could try to find that source of empathy and put themselves in your shoes …” adds O’Neill. “Just remember that they’re white by the grace of God and could have easily been a Black person. It’s not that they’re better than anybody; it’s just sheer luck.”
See it to be it
More young people are online than ever and the lack of diversity across Irish media is increasingly recognised as problematic for companies and consumers. For all of the decades-long idolisation of male Black-Irish icons, such as Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott and footballer Paul McGrath, representation of younger generations of Black-Irish and other ethnic minority groups are rarely front and centre. Says O’Neill: “If TV and billboards were to feature minority or mixed race families without making a big deal about it, we’d just get used to it. You’d no longer have to stare when you see someone different, because it’s all around you.”
I wish people knew how difficult and lonely it can be as a mixed race person… you don’t actually have a community that you belong to so I wish others knew what that internal struggle feels like.
Corporations and institutions across the globe have supported BLM protests this summer, and Hoareau recognises a sudden enthusiasm for diversity and unconscious bias training. However, she worries this newfound interest may only lead to the condemnation of isolated incidents of racism rather than promoting broader systemic change. “We definitely need to educate ourselves as individuals,” she says, “but this takes responsibility away from the institutions, and doesn’t address how inherently, or systemically, racist they are. Anti-racism and unconscious bias training has to happen everywhere – top down, bottom up, everywhere, and especially in the media.”
O’Neill specifically highlights the need for increased diversity in the education sector, where 99% of student teachers in Ireland identify as ‘white Irish.’ “From what I gather, there’s never been a Black principal or deputy principal in the whole of Ireland. I’ve actually never seen a Black secondary school teacher, except for myself. I want to be a principal one day so I just have to imagine myself there, as opposed to seeing someone and wanting to be like them.”
A brighter future
Even though it can feel like an uphill battle for Hoareau and O’Neill, who are at once actively challenging and simultaneously victimised by racism, Ireland is their home. They are proud Irish women who are fighting for a more promising future for their children. Hoareau is determined that her daughter doesn’t experience the same feelings of isolation and poor self-esteem she suffered in her youth. “I want her to feel like a beautiful Irish woman and like she belongs,” she says.
O’Neill, too, dreams of an entirely inclusive future: “I want my grandkids to say to me, ‘Granny, what did racism feel like?’ because they have no idea, because it’s a thing of the past – because it’s gone.”