Diversity where it counts
Updated: Feb 6, 2021
I recently read about a group of campaigners calling for more people of colour to be represented in media and government roles. They argued that integration solely through the likes of bonding via dancing, cooking and other cultural events, won’t level the playing field for black Irish people in this country (1). As a person working in the media industry myself, and as a black woman, it is a notion that struck a chord. Admittedly, this was not something I had ever given much thought to before — I simply accepted things as they were. But looking back at the past twelve months on both a global and local level, I can say with resolve: we need this. Anything less is just virtue signalling.
A politicians primary role in Ireland on both a local and national scale is, ultimately, to represent their communities and the people within them. By right, this should mean all people of all communities in the areas represented, but black people cannot truly be represented by someone who hasn’t had similar shared life experiences as them. Because let’s face it: no white Irish person will ever have to face being othered because of their complexion in this and most other countries. There are currently no senators of colour in the Seanad, while the only person with an ethnic background in the Dail is Leo Varadkar, who — born and bred in West Dublin — has said he has experienced othering growing up.
At a local level, things don’t look much better. There are just seven councillors with ethnic backgrounds across all 31 local authorities. To contextualise this, there are a grand total of 949 councillors representing our cities, towns and villages across Ireland. Of the seven mentioned, five are of Asian ethnicity and only two councillors across the entire country are black. You read that right, just two, and I was surprised at even that. That’s a non-white representation of 0.73%. For black people, the number is even more bleak at 0.2%. The Irish population is still predominately white, but that is changing. Five percent of the Irish population today is made up of non-white people, 1.38 percent identify is black (1). With the next Census due in April of this year, this number is likely to increase even more. What does that say about us and how much value we put on a growing cohort of our population?
The obvious retort to that question here is: ‘Well why don’t more black people just go for jobs in politics and media then?’. To answer that I’ll draw from my own recent memory of the local elections in Limerick last year, which is where I live and work. The first-ever Muslim deputy mayor of Limerick was elected and he goes by the name of Councillor Abul Kalam Azad Talukder. The Fianna Fail representative from Bangladesh deservedly took on this role at Limerick City and County Council in July of 2020 but what should have been a proud and historic moment for both this man and the city and county he represented, was quickly tarnished by a Twitter pile-on of hateful, racist and anti-muslim abuse. ‘He can’t even speak English’, I recall one nasty tweet saying, and that wasn’t even the worst of it. Similarly, Lord Mayor of Dublin, Hazel Chu, speaks candidly about her regular experiences of racism both online and in real life. I felt sick to my stomach and deeply upset when I was reporting on that one incident with Deputy Mayor Talukder in real-time and am equally disappointed any time I hear of incidents concerning Hazel Chu. I cannot begin to understand how they must feel experiencing this first hand. The thing is, when one person is subjected to this kind of abuse for daring to establish themselves in a role of authority in the public eye, we all feel it to an extent. Why? Because it shows us that deep down we are still not accepted, we are still considered lesser than by some or by many.
The same applies to people of colour working in media. Again, we are highly underrepresented and I can count off with one hand the number of people I know in my profession of broadcast journalism who are also black. Those that I do know, have recounted their own ongoing experiences with racism in Ireland, which most say has only been exacerbated by being in the public eye. When more people know who you are, it leaves you open to more abuse even though it shouldn’t be the case. It’s no wonder we don’t see more black people taking up these types of roles. Often it’s purely for the sake of self-preservation. I’ve had to mentally prepare myself for the possibility that I will face racial abuse on a larger scale because I work in the media industry — I’d be naive not to. I’ve braced myself, but many may not wish to and they shouldn’t have to in the first place. The sad reality is, in the age of social media —as we’ve learned from online bullying — there is no escape from our abusers. There’s no switching it off when you get home.
So the work to snuff out any sort of racism in Ireland continues and is never done. It’s all well and good saying there needs to be more diversity and representation within our government and media but it also warrants that we create that safe space for people of colour to put themselves forward without the consequence of being put down for their ethnicity. It means valuing all ethnic groups that make up the Irish people. I truly don’t believe we can call ourselves an anti-racist country until black representation in government and the media tallies with the ever-growing numbers we see in our community. Irishness no longer means whiteness after all.
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