June 26, 2020
ELEVEN YEARS AGO, I went into hospital to give birth to my first child – the first of three sons (the daughter came later). During labour, a midwife told me to stop screaming. “Black people are strong. They don’t feel pain as much as the rest of us,” she said. I’ve broken my leg since and waited for over seven hours to go to the hospital because ‘black people shouldn’t feel pain’.
That same son has cried and I’ve wondered, ‘Why are you crying, black people don’t feel pain.’
The nurse told me I shouldn’t scream. Maybe she’s right? After all, she’s the nurse. I’m just the 18-year-old kid. I have carried that with me. It’s embedded in me. Remember, this wasn’t an isolated incident, a once-in-a-lifetime remark. We have internalised this hate, and the blame.
When that son was eight years old, when he still believed in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, he was told by another child at school that ‘black people don’t amount to anything’. He was told black people aren’t loved. He has been called the n-word.
In those 11 years (between having my son and talking to him recently about black and white), I’ve had my windscreen smashed, my windows broken, eggs thrown at my car, the n-word scrawled on my door.
The guards told me it was ‘fine’. “It was just teenagers,” they’d say. Incidents that keep you questioning your own sanity. So many things happen to us, we don’t talk about them all. But when we do, we’re gaslighted by white people who aren’t paying attention.
“Sure, that’s not that bad.”
“Are you sure it was racism though?”
“I’m only messing.”
We – black people – have been silenced for so long. The oppressor has constantly and consistently told us our experiences aren’t valid.
We’ve been silenced for so long that speaking up doesn’t seem to make sense anymore.
A lot of black people have accepted this fate. It’s a defence mechanism – to just let the remarks, the actions, and the attacks disappear through adopting a forget-about-it attitude.
It can be lonely, then, talking about it all the time. Being stuck in the middle – between white people who don’t listen or believe and black people who say it’s just part of life – because I don’t want to accept being treated as a lesser person because of how I look.
It’s a lonely place. It can be hard to breathe.
A switch flipped
Seeing that police man standing on George Floyd’s neck, that’s an image of what it feels like living in Ireland sometimes.
Racism stops us from breathing. When it happens over and over, and people don’t want to listen, it’s hard to breathe.
A knee on a black man’s neck – and then white people got angry alongside us. Somehow, George Floyd wasn’t just another black man murdered. The world saw it and got furious.
Everyone was with me. So in a way, I was given permission to not just be angry, but to also express my anger because white people were feeling it too. They had joined us in our emotions.
And in a way, just like everything else in life, they gave us permission to grieve.They gave me permission to acknowledge that what happened that day in Minneapolis was wrong.
Even in Ireland, the police man took his foot off the neck of the black man. White people have allowed us to breathe for the first time in a long time.
I’ve never spoken about this before but now I can share with you that when I was in school, the entire class went to Paris without telling me – the only black girl. I find that embarrassing now. I don’t want people to know that I was ostracised that much. It’s a shame on me – so I didn’t talk about it.
I can recall that conversation I had in college when I was asked why black migrant communities aren’t as welcoming as Polish ones. About how I queried if the white person blaming me had ever made any attempt to include his black neighbours. (He hadn’t.)
I can write about unspoken ways we mind each other. How if I get on a bus and there’s another black woman on board, I’ll sit beside her because otherwise the bus might fill up around her – except her neighbouring seat will remain empty. Because people might think she smells ‘ethnic’ or they won’t feel their bag is safe.
I can admit – out loud – that my first year studying for my Masters in Trinity as the only black student in my class was the longest year of my life.
The reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement in Ireland is giving us a green light to speak out now. But that in itself is hitting, and hurting, us deeply too. What about when it was one of our own? Where was the outrage? When 16-year-old Mia O’Neill died by suicide and her mother talked about the racist abuse she had endured, where was the anger?
Her mother said she was always being told to go back to Africa even though she was Irish. She let us know that people would make monkey faces and noises at her teenage daughter. Where were the protests? Why didn’t you want to listen? Why didn’t you want to dig deeper? Why wouldn’t you sit with those uncomfortable truths?
But now the world is watching. The world is angry. So now you want us to tell you. Now you want to listen. Now you want us to know we matter.
Because you’ve seen the knee on our necks. You can’t pretend you don’t know. You have heard us say we can’t breathe.
And that gives me hope. Yes, the anger is still there, but there is also hope.
Maybe now when there is a job that I deserve, my name won’t sound wrong. My accent won’t sound wrong. The way I look won’t be wrong. The fact that I’m a black woman won’t be wrong.
I might walk into an office and see people like me – black people – in positions of power. My children might see people on television who are black. They might know that black people write books.
Maybe you won’t see me – dismiss me – as a loud black woman when I’m telling you about a racist attack, or that someone hasn’t understood their own white privilege.
Maybe my children will go to all the birthday parties, and the Paris trips. Maybe. But that will all only happen if people address the elephant in the room and speak about their privileges and biases.
To Irish white people – and there are amazing white Irish people – I say: Listen. Don’t defend. Don’t be loud. Just sit with it. Once you’ve sat with it, think about how to organise to make it better. How can you use your voice and your presence and your privilege to change things?
Include us. Don’t ask to pick my brain, and not invite me into your organisation. Don’t talk on my behalf. Don’t use my brain, and my work, and my intelligence to benefit yourself.
Are you walking into an office with all white people? That’s not right. You know it’s not right. And, now, there’s no excuse. So speak up.
Call out your family and friends if they are being racist – even if they are “only messing”. Teach your children. When the Dáil debates racism, wonder – out loud – how they can do it without a black person in the chamber. When the world isn’t watching anymore, remember that black lives still matter. Remember our stories. Remember we are capable. Keep making noise. Keep supporting us. Keep wanting to change it all.
I’m tired, but I’m not allowed be tired.
I’m full of anger. But I’m also full of hope for the first time.
The leg is off my neck. I’m actually gasping in so much air. I’m just breathing.
Diane Ihirwe is an African-Irish mother and an anti-racism activist. She is waiting to graduate as a Master in Social Work from Trinity College and holds an undergraduate degree in Social Care from TU Dublin. She travelled to the UN in Geneva in December 2019 to advocate on behalf of Asylum Seekers and, in 2014, she co-founded the Young Mother’s Network (YMN), a support group for mothers living in Direct Provision Centres. She has just co-launched Rooted In Africa and Ireland (RIAI), an anti-racism network that aims to build understanding and pride of African Heritage especially for young African-Irish people.
She hopes for an Ireland inclusive of all.