Since the 1990s, Ireland has witnessed a large wave of social change, including in schools, universities and workplaces. The majority of current Black Irish university students are the children of first generation immigrants that made this place their home – a country that prides itself on immigration. They integrated into Irish society and brought up their children with dreams of a promising future.
Yet, this has birthed another obstacle that they have to face: the issue of racism and its denial. Black people, and people of colour are no strangers to the feeling of being treated differently. This is the reality that the black Irish youth have been and are facing while getting an education.
When Ireland is talked about from a global perspective, “diverse” is not the first word that would come to one’s mind. However, the republic has an amazing mix of cultures and backgrounds that make Ireland, Ireland.
From food, to clothes, to music, culture plays a part in the factors of life that Irish residents and citizens enjoy and should be proud of. Yet still, young people tell a different story of how “proud” people truly are of this diverse mix. Instead, Black Irish and other Irish POC children grow up hearing that they don’t belong and that they’re not Irish because they don’t “look” Irish. Even though for the majority, Ireland is the only country that they have ever known and are proud to call their home.
“I don’t see why they think [racism in Ireland is] not as bad as in other places when I live in Texas (Republican state, known for having racist people) and haven’t experienced, I will say, 90 per cent of what I’ve seen and heard [from black Irish students]. But also we’re super outspoken out here so open racism gets shut down”, Lenisha Shelton, an American student, tells The University Times.
From food, to clothes, to music, culture plays a part in the factors of life that Irish residents and citizens enjoy and should be proud of
This creates an inevitable divide within the youth population especially when it is enforced by people that are supposed to be in positions of authority like their teachers, and principals.
Trinity is renowned for its academic excellence. However, Trinity is more than a producer of iconic alumni and world-class teaching: it is a place that has shown an – at times – questionable record on race.
For Kudakwashe Nengiwa this led to him having to drop out of College altogether.
“I was admitted into Trinity for the 2019/2020 school year however when it came to registering, Trinity’s Academic Registry (AR) made things extremely difficult for most of the immigrant – mainly African – students”, he tells The University Times.
“And whilst most students eventually got sorted out after hours in AR, I wasn’t so fortunate. I have lived in Ireland for the past 5 years, yet the college refused to see me as a resident. So when I provided documents to prove my residency, I was shocked to hear that they had turned up missing.”
“I was in AR almost everyday during the first two weeks of school and there was always one issue or another with my documents even though I had handed all of them in multiple times”, he says.
So when I provided documents to prove my residency, I was shocked to hear that they had turned up missing
“My friends even went in on my behalf but were turned back and refused service. I had been emailing back and forth with the head of the Academic Registry, however closing the registration deadline I was ignored, causing me to miss registration and my first year of university.”
Aside from experiences such as Nengiwa’s, Trinity students also experience microagressions of discrimination from staff and security.
“My friends and I being asked to show our student ID while on campus is not the experience that I envisioned”, says Joy Osakioya.
Several students from various third-level institutions have shared similar experiences of covert and overt racism in their universities. Students repeatedly report feeling as if campus authority is prejudiced against them.
Craig Chiko had a similar experience to Osakioya in Dublin City University (DCU), where campus security are “always asking whether or not I attend the uni and for proof of ID”.
DCU’s Chief Operating Officer Declan Raftery said in an email to The University Times: “Dublin City University is committed to equality and social justice. We are an open and inclusive University that welcomes students from all races, religions or sexual orientation with 120 nationalities represented on campus. We cherish diversity and actively embrace inclusion.”
He added: “The university has not received any reports of racism and we are clear in condemning any form of discrimination including racism.”
Being a student nurse is hard, but being a black student nurse is even harder
Maynooth University student Michael Oyetunde similarly felt targeted by on-campus security.
“We were in one of the computer labs and security came in and asked all the black people to show their student cards or leave the lab”, he says. “We all showed them our cards but he ‘forgot’ to check the white people inside the lab too.”
Black students commonly feel that they are usually outnumbered, and rarely feel welcomed or comfortable, especially in medical and STEM based courses.
“In my earlier years, I have been quiet on racial issues that have troubled me, however looking on to the future I will be vocal about any racist encounter, no matter how ‘small’ it may be. My voice will be heard”, says Christiana Diyaolu, a Trinity student nurse who shared her story of being told that she should “be careful of this patient because he doesn’t really like people of your colour”.
Another Trinity student nurse, Florence Nwajei, had similar experiences of racism during placement. “Being a student nurse is hard, but being a black student nurse is even harder”, she says. Whether it’s facing microagressions from preceptors – who instruct student nurses on placement – or patient or even fellow students, placements are hard and isolating.
“Although you have fellow students most don’t really want to talk to you, they mainly speak to each other and I’m speaking from experience. Most times you are always separated from your friends, which makes the experience of placement even more isolating.”
Away from other students, things are still tough for Nwajei.
“In terms of preceptors, they have usually been harder on me than my fellow students”, she says. “Sometimes I feel underestimated by them. There have been incidents where I have reported issues with a patient but have been undermined by the nurses, it isn’t until I start pushing more and more before they finally believe me.”
“With nursing, we aren’t taught how to deal with racism that we will face on the ward by patients. I’m guessing Trinity just assumes that as a non white person we automatically know how to deal with racism. It’s not right, I think lectures need to be held on how to deal with racism on the ward, and how our fellow white nurses can assist us.”
She says students simply aren’t equipped for dealing with harrowing racial slurs and microaggressions said by patients.
With nursing, we aren’t taught how to deal with racism that we will face on the ward by patients. I’m guessing Trinity just assumes that as a non white person we automatically know how to deal with racism
Responding in an email to The University Times to the difficulties black students have faced within the walls of College, Clodagh Brook, Trinity’s associate vice-provost for equality, diversity and inclusion, says: “We are deeply sorry when any student or staff member encounters racism and we recognise much more needs to be done now to tackle the roots of racism and to bring about structural change.”
Currently, she is working on a number of initiatives, including a race and ethnicity working group to help eradicate racism in Trinity, a new equality office set to open in autumn and another working group to support students who are placement.
“We will work with student input to stamp out racism where it exists, to protect our students while recognising diversity and to encourage full participation in all Faculty of Health Sciences’ activities”, she says.
Back on campus – away from hospitals – things don’t get easier. Students explain how they feel black spaces are perceived and are not encouraged on their campuses.
“The amount of times TUD Tallaght tried to separate black people from being together in groups by changing the sitting arrangements, closing certain areas at certain times so people would be forced to leave. On top of that forever making new rules every semester to separate us”, says Technological University Dublin (TUD) student Emmanuel Denuga.
“One of my lecturers (economics) was explaining something and I didn’t understand and I kept asking questions in order to get it.”
“So he proceeded to explain it by using bananas and KFC as the examples and had all the other students laughing their heads off.”
“Caretakers and security shouldn’t be watching black kids like criminals and separating them. Lecturers shouldn’t treat anyone differently either”, Denuga adds.
In an email to The University Times about racism on campus, TUD Communications Manager Lisa Saputo said that the university “has a diverse and inclusive student community, and the University is very aware of the role our students and staff can play in rejecting racism in all its forms”.
“The President of TU Dublin recently called on the whole university community to express solidarity with everyone affected by racism, exclusion and discrimination and joined with the Students’ Union in calling for a zero-tolerance approach”, she said.
In his remarks TUD President David FitzPatrick said that “It is up to all of us across the TU Dublin community to educate ourselves on structural racism further. We must all take responsibility for raising our own awareness for ensuring that prejudice and inequality have no place in our University or in the Higher Education sector in Ireland.”
The amount of times TUD Tallaght tried to separate black people from being together in groups by changing the sitting arrangements, closing certain areas at certain times so people would be forced to leave
But without a safe space, such as African-Caribbean Society, Muslim Students Association or Asian society – which are recognized in universities across the globe – students no longer have a place to express their own culture, invite others to learn about their backgrounds, and socialize with people that share common interests.
Students also express concerns about tokenistic or performative acts by universities, societies and their students in terms of addressing racism and appearing “inclusive” or acts which trivialised the black experience.
One of the greatest challenges of being a black university student at a predominantly white university is the pressure or responsibility to represent and speak for an entire race positively. However, many students don’t speak out as they don’t want to give further reason for discrimination – or even penalisation from college.
Witnessing prejudice and discrimination on a daily basis is not an ideal setting to study in – and attempts to fight racism can often come across as unhelpful or ham-fisted.
For example, DCU student Esther Fadare says that students likened problems they had with bus stops en route to the university to the struggles of Rosa Parks, saying that “even Rosa Parks was able to get on the bus”.
Students constantly endure derogatory remarks from their own classmates including the use of slurs, references to bigotry, and receiving videos and pictures containing racism. There are rarely any consequences for perpetrators.
Such disadvantage is not exclusive to university students, starting even at primary and secondary school – usually, at the hand of school teachers and principals. As children’s voices are viewed as minor, microaggressions are easily masked and are often harder to prove.
However these instances shape both the social lives of white and non-white people. By separating children on the playground and depicting students of color as troublemakers, schools create an environment of seclusion that follows in society for most people’s lives.
“When I first started primary school I was bullied both physically and verbally every day. My mum would go in and complain to the principal who always said they would sort it out but ultimately did nothing”, says Chiko.
Zainab Said had such a traumatic time that she “couldn’t be around crowds anymore”.
“I started believing everyone hated me for being a POC and everyone wants us gone or dead and there’s no value to our lives” she says. “It took me 4 years to unlearn but I’m still terrified of crowds.”
When I first started primary school I was bullied both physically and verbally every day. My mum would go in and complain to the principal who always said they would sort it out but ultimately did nothing
In addition, there are restrictions put on the way people of colour can style their hair and the friends they can spend time with.
“My principal only let black girls do black braids because she said black was our only natural hair colour although the school rules said you were allowed to have natural hair colours”, Emma Mose says.
“She accused black students of being affiliated with gangs because they are black and stuck together.”
Tay black men and women style their hair is deemed “unprofessional”. This teaches us that people that look like us and embrace their culture are unacceptable. Such restrictions are not imposed on Caucasian people.
As a result, it is enforced that black expression, culture and identity is not as important as the expression and identity of the rest of classmates: all at a young age. Telling a group of black friends that they resemble a “gang” and they should disperse is damaging. Ultimately, it stifles black culture and perpetuates its association with unruliness.