"[The Irish school] curriculum needs a massive overhaul if it is ever to be considered inclusive."
Like many Americans, my understanding of life in Ireland was relatively narrow and limited to what I saw in movies, despite having been in a relationship with an Irishman for almost 10 years before relocating to the Emerald Isle. I envisioned views of green pastures filled with sheep, rolling hills, and bar taps flowing with Guinness in pubs filled with trad music and the laughter of White Irish folx. It would be an understatement to say that it shocked me when I first saw the ethnic makeup of my students in the secondary school that I was lucky to secure employment in shortly after moving to Dublin in 2017. I was so surprised to see the diversity in the student body of my school, especially since Ireland, as I had understood it until that point, was a place full of Whiteness.
Having grown up in Yonkers, New York, as a proud public school kid, diversity was a given. I knew life would be different when I moved to a predominantly White country like Ireland. But when I saw the reality of the rich ethnic and cultural identity that is here (and has been for some time), it all somehow made it easier to call Ireland my home. While the student body at my school in west County Dublin is incredibly multicultural, the teaching staff is decidedly not. And while the Irish pride themselves on being welcoming to all, there are limits to the general understanding of race and race relations that most White folx in Ireland just aren’t conscious of, regardless of how pleasant everyone can be. Teaching is a predominately White-dominated profession, so I wasn’t a stranger to being the only Person of Colour in the staff room. The difference here was that my White colleagues in America often at least had an understanding or appreciation for what it is like to be a non-white person in this world.
I think it’s safe to say that 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, was the catalyst for a period of racial reckoning. For me, this meant it was a time of introspection, conversations with my White husband and White-passing family about my own experiences, and a deeper look into my own ethnically diverse family tree and why we had not acknowledged our Blackness for generations. That pandemic summer was filled with evenings of me and those in my immediate quarantining circle (both literally and virtually) doing some deep dives into who I was and how I saw myself, and how that often contradicted how the rest of the world saw and defined me. While these things had been bubbling under the surface for me my entire life, I saw this period of reckoning as an opportunity to finally share these feelings and experiences with those closest to me, not because it was finally safe to do so, but because they were finally open to listening. And they were finally open to learning. And so was I.
The Black and Irish organisation also grew out of that reckoning. Beginning as a platform to celebrate the Black and mixed-race experience in Ireland, it quickly blossomed into an organisation spanning all aspects of society, from events to politics, and entertainment to community outreach. I found my place on the team as the Education Coordinator in Spring 2021 and my first assignment was to jump into the middle of a project that involved an investigation into the need for a more inclusive school curriculum here in Ireland. As you can probably assume, our findings from those surveys and focus groups were quite clear: the curriculum needs a massive overhaul if it is ever to be considered inclusive. A secondary revelation from that study was the level of racism school-aged people were facing in educational institutions and that teachers desperately needed training in dealing with these incidents and in how to be anti-racist themselves.
The vast majority (over 94%) of Black and Mixed Race folx who grew up in Ireland experienced racism in school. While that number didn’t shock me, what did was what came in a follow-up survey for teachers: only 50% of teachers claimed to have noticed racial incidents in their schools. How could that be possible? How could half of the teachers who completed the survey (over 1500) be that out of touch to not have noticed that pretty much all the students of colour they had ever come across had actually experienced racism while in their care? How could the gap be that wide? Where was the disconnect? What could I do to help?
It was these findings that led me down the path of spending a summer researching, learning, investigating, and ultimately developing a workshop for teachers on how to recognise and counteract bias and racism within themselves, and how to actively work towards a more inclusive classroom and whole school environment for their students. The goal of the training is not to point out flaws in current practices or point fingers at people for being racist or biased, rather, it is to showcase the fact that, as humans, we have all been socialised to have biased and racist thoughts. The trick is that if we acknowledge these faults within ourselves and work to counteract them, we can work towards empathy and the acceptance of the humanity of others who may not have the same lived experiences as us. We can all learn to be more empathetic and cultivate our vulnerability in a way that will ultimately bring us closer to those around us by opening up our capacity for understanding and connection.
I think one of the most important things in the training is that participants are asked to explore themselves and their internal thoughts and question WHY they think the way they do about people. If we don’t start with the individual and hold up a mirror to ourselves, we can’t even begin to change the systems that make up society. What’s fascinating about all of this is that if you start to see your own biases about a particular group of folx, you will notice how that might apply to other groups, and suddenly the intersectionality of how prejudice affects us all becomes wildly apparent. And once you see it, you can’t un-see it, which, of course, is the ultimate goal.
By September 2021, I had a training programme ready to go for teachers who were willing, a supportive team in Black and Irish who were excited and ready to help spread the word about this initiative. Fast forward to February 2022 and about 200 teachers have already received the training. We have significantly raised awareness in the community about this initiative through a campaign with LUSH, the world’s most delightfully smelling eco-conscious cosmetic company. We now have 40 schools and counting interested in the training. Both non-profit and private businesses have approached us across other sectors and industries about adapting workshops for their employees.
It appears the demand in our society for anti-racism training is huge, which gives me great hope for Ireland. While my social media feeds are full of campaigns to ban books and to end teaching the racist history of the United States back in my home country, I am pleasantly surprised to see the opposite happening here. Of course, as with any social movement and change, there are detractors, but they are most definitely the minority here, and the overwhelming consensus appears to be a desire to learn, grow, and get things right here for the generations after us. What could be more encouraging than that for a person who has dedicated her life to being the teacher she wished she had growing up, and for an organisation that truly wants to change the experiences of Black and Mixed-Race people on the island of Ireland?
I’m excited. I’m nervous. I’m grateful for the zeal and openness of the Irish people, who are thirsty for knowledge of this kind and who only want to be better. Because of this, I’m hopeful. I truly believe Ireland can do this right and that it’s one of the few places on the planet uniquely equipped to meet the challenge of converging cultures head-on because of its historical victories. I’m always quoting my hero, Maya Angelou, but she wisely once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” Those are words I live by every day, and I’m excited about bringing everyone else who’s willing along for that journey.