EDIZEMI ONILENLA SPEAKS COMMUNITY, INTEGRATION AND RACISM IN IRELAND.
It is June 2020, and if you’ve been following the news, you will know that since George Floyd was brutally murdered by police officers in America, nothing has been the same. Black lives matters and apart from remembering on a daily basis that whiteness is not the default, one of the few concrete and immediate steps, I can take are to give my platform to the black faces and voices of the food industry in Ireland. There are very few and they deserve our support.
I put the below questions to Edizemi Onilenla from Mama Shee and she kindly shared her time and experience of living as a black woman in Ireland.
Why did you choose Ireland?
I did not plan Ireland. In 1999, a friend told me about Ireland but I was not familiar with its history, what I had in mind was to travel to the UK or the US whichever came first. My brother was already resident in the US as he won the American Lottery. He promised to invite me over but as fate would have it I got a UK visa first. It was when I got to London that a friend advised me to come to Ireland. I was pregnant with my 3rd baby then. I came to Ireland through the United Kingdom and I remembered when I got here, the first thing that jumped out of my mouth was “I am home.” I honestly didn’t know why, but I said it aloud to the amazement of my friend who came with me. This was over 18 years ago.
Do you feel at home or isolated here?
Before I regularised my stay, integrating was very difficult for me. I was not able to work or engage in any form of education. After two years of waiting for my papers, one day I took up the challenge to ask people how I could engage in education. My asking paid off. I got admitted to VTOS in Newbridge for a FETAC Level 5. I later got involved in community and voluntary work. Sometimes I miss home, my husband is in Nigeria and that made it more difficult for me. My children were very young and I had to cope with living here alone; however, my determination to succeed saw me through all the challenges. For me, the greatest challenge was getting a good job that will afford me the opportunity to pay my rent and look after my children without relying on state funds and while breaking those barriers I would have faced some form of racism but in a subtle way.
Racism in Ireland is very subtle you feel it more in people’s actions rather than words and when you voice out your thought, you are challenged that you are playing the race card.
What’s your family and social situation?
In order to give my family a comfortable life I did all manner of work, I started as a cleaner, to a healthcare worker, upskilled to becoming a professionally qualified Social Worker. In my journey, I met many people both professionals, clients and colleagues. I remember a particular a 6-year-old Irish client of mine, who looked at me on my first visit to her home and said “Edizemi I love your skin” I responded with a big smile and thank you. Now two things I learnt that day. One she was the first Irish to call my name very clearly at the first meeting to my amazement. Two she did not say your colour but rather your skin, for me, it meant that she knew that what made us different was my skin. She went on to ask how she could have my skin type. That tells us how innocent children are until we adults begin to confuse them.
The mother was kind enough to explain to her that I am an African living in Ireland, she was able to educate her on why my skin was different. Throughout my work with this young girl, she made me feel like a star in her life. Another similar incident was an elderly client I worked with, on my first day she looked at me with such amazement, rubbing her fingers over my skin, she looked at me and gave me such pleasant smile, saying nothing, but I could see on that day that this Lady had never seen anyone of colour in her life. So a lot of people in their shoes will respond differently and that is why we have racism against people of colour.
How difficult was it for you to make non-black friends in Ireland?
I am a very sociable person with a good sense of humour, I consciously made it a responsibility not to allow any form of discrimination to affect me mentally. I have worked with clients who called me names, but I embraced them all with smiles and indifference. I worked with a particular teenager for over 6 years that at a point I was going to give up being his social worker due to the level of racial abuse I experienced from being his social worker. One day after his usual ranting I said to him that today will be my last day of working with you since I have no dignity or respect so there’s no point continuing this working relationship. He looked at me and for the first time in 6 years I saw a different boy and then he shocked me by saying “friends fight and they makeup, family fight and they make up so why must you leave me now.” I just said simply but “am not a friend and not a family you treat your friends with respect and dignity. He walked away from me and said inaudibly “but I thought we were friends.” I was shocked to my bones because this was a boy who had spat in my drink not knowing that I saw him. When I eventually left that role I was told he missed me so much and declined to work with the other colleague who came after me.
I must confess I have met with wonderful Irish people who supported me in different capacities, my children have made more Irish friends than Africans. My children know their identity and are proud of who they are. I trained my mind and challenged myself to know my neighbours, to integrate as much as I can, before I got my residency, the worst period of my life was when I had to go to the post office to queue for my weekly allowance, I hated it so much that when I got my papers and wanted to hit the labour market the community welfare officer asked me how I was going to survive with 3 little children, I told him where I came from I was taught to work for money and not take it for free. I will survive. It was a big challenge but I survived it.
I have lots of good things to be glad for, my children started school long before I got my residency having the opportunity to give them that formal education was a privilege. I remembered being called to the school one day by my son’s teacher who reported that my son was ‘bold’ hearing that word I felt like a proud mother unknown to me that being bold in Ireland meant being naughty in class. When someone says you are bold in my country, it means you are a strong person, fearless.
It was easy for me to make friends among Irish people through my involvement in the community, people were friendly and interested in hearing my story. I felt more at home when I started building my relationship with non-Africans.
Were you expecting racism before you came and how has the reality matched your expectations?
No. Racism was not part of my dictionary of expectations, I was more excited to leave my country for a better life than anything else. The only one goal and expectation I had was to have a better life and be balanced emotionally, physically, and mentally so I was disappointed to see that an element of racism could play out in some cases in determining whether or not I succeed. However because I had such tenacity, I knew what I wanted, and I went for it; that was the driving force that helped me built that resilience to survive against all odds.
My slogan to my children daily is to remind them not to forget the sons and daughters of whom they are, I taught them to behave well and respect anyone they encounter. I reminded them of their identity in other to grow in this community without fear of discrimination. I educate them to be proud of their skin and not allow anyone make them feel less in themselves, I know sometimes they have faced racism in one form or another but I thank God that the racism they have dealt with has only made them stronger and has never stopped them from coming to me and by the grace of God will never be the case, however there are many black parents who are not as lucky, there are many black children who are not as lucky and there are many black people in general who are not as lucky.
Is racism in Ireland part of your daily life and how do you Deal with it?
My answer will be no. I do not experience racism every day, Irish people have shown generosity to me and I have met lots of tolerant people, loving colleagues made friends, and am still making friends. In life, I have a positive mind towards things generally so when something goes wrong I check myself first before looking elsewhere. I did not experience any racial confrontation as some people would even when faced with one I brushed it off because regardless of what anyone says about me it does not define who I am, my colour does not define my inner ability.
I challenged myself to educate my Irish friends and colleagues about my culture, my food, and openly share my story. Ignorance is the bedrock of racism if you know me, you know my culture you will be better informed and be inclined to treat me well. I will not disrespect you and will try my best not to give you a reason to disrespect me either, the feelings are mutual and so I get on well with everyone. Having said that not everyone will like me that is just a normal human issue that I will not allow to affect me in any way.
How does the current situation in America makes you feel and how does it relate to life as a black person in Ireland?
America has a problem which stems from generation to generation. I believe it is time for change. Unfortunately, it takes the brutal murder of an unarmed black man in broad daylight for that change to happen. George Floyd,may God rest his soul, paid the ultimate sacrifice needed for every privileged white person to see the depth of this sickness, this disease called racism. Not in my life or wildest dream could I imagine that a human being will be slaughtered in broad daylight. I watched the video in horror and fear for my children’s future. Black lives do not just matter to me but every life does. Every human being deserves to be treated with respect, dignity, and love that was the most undignified, disrespectful, and shameful way for anyone to die. A bullet in the head would have been quicker than such torture and humiliation. What I saw broke me, I wept as a mother.
From my analysis I saw in that officer an emotionally and physically distant human being, I saw a man killing his boss who probably is a black man, I saw a man killing his ego of unforgiving the fact that black people are occupying positions of authority, I saw a man killing himself because of jealousy and hatred. I saw an emotionally distant man who despite people shouting and begging heard no words. That man did not just kill Floyd he killed every single black man and woman in authority. The only way he could exert his own power was by doing what he did that day in public.
I felt extremely sad and cried like a baby and am still upset when I think about it that this is a human being, a father, a son, an uncle, and a friend that was being tortured and killed in broad daylight. That was an extreme form of inhuman treatment.
I pray for my children and for all African Irish children growing up here in Ireland, that those who have made friends and have made Ireland their home will never experience anything like this, in their lifetime and for generations to come. America’s problem did not just start today but started many years back, it has been entrenched in their system, things have not changed since then and I sincerely hope that George Floyd’s death will not be in vain but will bring about change.
Are there daily tasks that are more difficult or that will make you anxious because you are black?
Sometimes my ability to afford some luxury may be questioned because I am black, some years back I bought a car almost brand new from the North on getting to Dublin a Gardaí followed me for more than 30Km before pulling me aside to ask if I was the owner of the car. I said yes confidently and he responded nice car enjoy. I was proud the day Ireland produced the first African Mayor in Portlaoise, the day we produced the first Lady Counsellor. I have confidence that by the grace of God the few who needed to change their perspectives will do so sooner rather than later.
What do you hope for the future?
I attended women’s day celebration this year just before the Lockdown. There I met Mayor Eoghan O’Brien of Fingal County Council for the second time. It was such a great night. Eoghan related to everyone, he was free at that gathering, he came with some colleagues and friends, we all danced together, laughed together, and the atmosphere was loving and respectful. That is the type of Ireland I desire, I have colleagues who treat me like their sister, I have a boss who cares and respecs me not because I am black but because I am human, I deserve to be treated well. Don’t patronise me or give me something because I am black, just give me because I am deserving of it. So I pray that People will reconstruct their minds.
People will educate themselves about other people’s culture, if we are well informed about each other, the world will be a better place to live. No one is an island, no one person is superior to the other, and we just need reorientation. I hope for a better place for all to live, and be treated equally with respect and love. I hope for us to maintain dignity and cherish one another for all lives matter regardless of who you are.
I hope for a future where Black /Brown people are given the same opportunities in business, in getting promotions they deserve in their chosen careers. A future where our children will be free to relate with all races without fear or constantly watching their backs.
I used to sing a song to my friends and colleagues and it goes thus:
“Come let us be friends, let us forget our days of sorrow, come let us be good friends forevermore.
You may be white, you may be black whatever you may be, you may be poor, you may be rich is all the same to me, just come let us be friends, let us forget our days of sorrow come let us be real friends forevermore.”
What is the step every white person in Ireland can take to make black people’s lives easier?
Acceptance. Acceptance of the FACT. That there is only one race “the Human Race” that all lives matter when black lives are included in that ALL.
To consciously educate the mind-set as hatred or racism is in the mind of the uneducated and ignorant person because in the age of information, according to my daughter your ignorance is a choice. I want to see all stereotypical ideas disappear in our society, one thing we should understand is every culture has the good, the bad and the ugly, we just need to accept that fact and learn to tolerate one another.
Be an instrument of change and not an enabler if you witness it stop it, teach anti-racism, and introduce black history in schools from the beginning. Parents should accept their children’s friends from other cultures and encourage good relationships to be fostered.
Institutions and corporations should acknowledge the fact that racism does exist and must put plans and policies in place for fair recruitment process and promotions. Institutions that encourage diversity are institutions that encourage growth. Therefore we are stronger together.
Finally, Bob Marley said in Redemption Song “emancipate yourself from mental slavery” if we don’t re-educate ourselves by reconstructing our beliefs on racism things will never change.