Emma: On Whether Irish Black People Are Woke, and on Changing "Foreign" Names

Emma Dabiri

Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian academic, writer, and broadcaster. She is currently a teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and is working on her first book.


Do you think Irish black people are woke? What’s being woke? Is there any civil-rights movement? You’re mixed race, so are you black? Africa: would someone like yourself get the culture? What did you get culture-wise from your father’s side? Irish people come across as just trying to look for one person they can say… Yes, here is our black successful person, as opposed to uplift black Irish people in general […] In Dublin, Pavee Point has a centre. The LGBT community has Outhouse. Why do you think ethnic minorities don’t have such a place?

Cheeky! This is like 10 questions but I like ‘em, so let’s go. Let’s start with explaining “woke”. “Staying woke” refers to questioning the dominant paradigm, and occupying a state of awareness about structural oppressions.

The phrase “staying woke” has some early references in the 1960s, it was then further popularised in the 2008 song “Master Teacher” by Erykah Badu, but really caught on following the wave of protest after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the subsequent rise of Black Lives Matter. In 2016, “woke” entered into the Oxford Dictionary.

Like so many words and phrases used throughout the Anglosphere and indeed beyond, (“hipster”, “cool”, “uptight”, and “bling”, to name a few), its origins are found in African American Vernacular English (sometimes called AAVE). In AAVE, the state of being awake is often spoken as woke, as in, “I was sleeping, but now I’m woke”.

The influence of African American language in Ireland and globally is vast, yet it is either unacknowledged or too often dismissed as “slang”.

For me, true wokeness would also require a basic critique of the neoliberal capitalism, which is part of the infrastructure that both produces and sustains racism.

The word has in a short time travelled far from its original meaning and is increasingly used in popular culture to confer an edgy activisty cool. I recently saw a top 10 list of wokeness, devoid of any black names, topped by someone like Taylor Swift. Appropriation 101.

Now are black Irish people woke? I don’t know. We can’t make assumptions that every person of African descent in Ireland is thinking in the same way; I have met some who are, and some who emphatically are not.

Certainly, I remember surprise as a teenager on occasions meeting other mixed-race people – girls especially – who didn’t want to be friends, often quite the contrary, in fact. I’m guessing they didn’t want to stand out any more than they already did, and my outspokenness made them uncomfortable.

I also think there was sometimes a touch of competition, rather than solidarity, a strange sort of territorialism, a bit like: “I’m the only (insert minority of choice) in the village.” But this was my teenage experience and Ireland is at a really interesting point now, where a black Irish culture and identity is starting to emerge.

I never thought I would have an opportunity to see my blackness expressed in a particularly Irish way, or my Irishness take on a black expression. A few years ago I remember hearing Irish-Nigerian rapper Rejjie Snow referencing Marcus Garvey, Doctor King, and Malcolm X in a Dublin accent, and being happily shocked. I was thinking, wait … this is happening, this is actually happening … there’s gonna be a reference point for us … it’s exciting.

Am I black? Gosh you aren’t shying away from the big questions, now are ye? But yes, I identify as black. The thing is, despite being told I was black (and often not so politely) my whole damn life, and often being reminded that I wasn’t “really Irish”, my claiming of my blackness still elicits occasional cries of “But what about your ma?” or “You’re erasing your Irishness!” Blah blah di blah blah blah.

I think what we really need to look at is why a person with a white parent can identify as black, but why a person with a black parent can rarely, if ever, identify as white. We have to stop acting as though racial constructions are rational or ordered. They are not. I always say that you cannot be “half white”. You are either white or you’re not. And I’m not.

When the imperial European powers started colonizing the world, the white racial category was invented as a function of capitalism to consolidate resources for one group, while extracting resources from others, and justifying it, because according to the racial hierarchy “blacks” were barely human and as such their (our) enslavement by a “civilized” (lol)  race was actually an improvement on previous conditions.

It’s key to remember that in the early history of the social category “white”, Irish people were not included, although eventual entry into the category was to prove very beneficial.

Whiteness is sustained and preserved through a myth of purity, exclusivity, and restricted access. Blackness in contrast – in spite of the narrow tropes of blackness that are peddled to us via mass media – remains diverse and dynamic.

No doubt I am mixed, but I’m mixed and black. Blackness can accommodate mixedness, in a way that whiteness, with its myths of purity cannot. In some contexts I am black, in others mixed, sometimes I am Irish, others Nigerian (white is still off limits), but I am always me, always with the potential to identify as any of these things.

A lot of white people seem to assume that being black is all just a bit shit and characterised by banging on about racism. Well, much as various parties have tried to make it thus, it’s about a lot more! I love being Irish, but I also love being black.

There is a diasporic black cultural world formed of West African, black American, Caribbean, and European influences, that is just so innovative and adaptive and creative, and which produces so much culturally. That heritage is a constant source of inspiration and strength to me. It’s really wonderful to be able to call that space home.

Now, what would a centre for ethnic minorities look like? Ethnic minorities are extremely diverse, what with making up the world’s majorities and all that. People tend to come together out of similar needs and shared cultural orientation. The cultures, needs and experiences of different groups cannot be conflated.

A 2015 report, “Afrophobia in Ireland”, published by the Irish branch of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), highlighted the severity of the racism that black and African people, in particular, face.

Moreover, anti-black racism often remains virulent in other ethnic minority groups. So something as general as an “ethnic-minority centre” would not be particularly appealing to me.

However, I certainly agree that spaces for more specific groups can be be powerful indeed. I craved black companionship when I was growing up, that sense of understanding, and reassurance, the space to not always have to justify my existence.

Having that black support network now that I didn’t have growing up, helps me to be a more grounded and secure person, even when I am in entirely white environments as I often am. Could you get something started in your community?

***

I moved to Ireland a year or so ago, and I’ve got decent qualifications. But I’m finding it hard to find work. Some friends have said that I should make my name sound more Irish on my job applications. Should I? I’m just worried about how I’d explain that if I did get a job. Or if I got an interview, would I still pretend at that stage? I think I’d always wonder if I would have gotten it otherwise, too. Any advice?

Listen my heart goes out to you, because the reality is that it is highly likely that your name is having a negative impact. There’s a huge amount of research that shows that names that sound “foreign” or “black” have an adverse effect on employment.

Names, especially on a CV, are one of the first indicators to trigger a whole set of assumptions about a person’s race, class and, culture. In America, studies have shown how people with black and Latino names are affected, while in the UK, another study highlighted biases against those with Muslim-sounding names.

I made a TV show where we explored unconscious bias and one of the experiments we constructed explored how daters responded to potential dates based on that person’s name alone. It served to highlight the various prejudices that existed and how they impacted on people with Muslim names, Chinese names, black-sounding names, and so forth. It was very sobering. “Emma” was one of the names we included and most people agreed that “Emma” was a middle-class white woman.

I know I have certainly been advantaged by my name when it comes to employment. When I have turned up and not been nice blonde white woman, the surprise has been evident, but by then the defenses are down and I’m in the door! (Stealth attack, ha!)

I remember turning up for work experience in a well-respected Irish company (I’ll say no more on where). I had already done an interview, but by phone, so the man I was going to be working with had never seen me. And his face when he finally did! “Are you Emma?? Can you read in English?” he asked. I kid you not.

“Most likely a great deal better than you pal,” I remember thinking, but kept that to myself. The work experience passed without further incident, and I even got offered a job, which I declined. But the point is, was my name more distinctly “different”, would I even have gotten the opportunity in the first place?

I’m emphatically not a person who believes we should disguise ourselves in order to try and assimilate into a dominant culture. It’s no way to live, and is ultimately soul-destroying. However, on the real, we all need to eat, and you need a job.

Personally, what I would do is go with the Irish or more generic-sounding white name *temporarily*. Stay with me. Say it’s your middle name. I don’t know what your background is but I know a lot of Yorubas, my ethnic group in Nigeria, have a “Christian”/European name, and a Yoruba name. We have a tradition of lots of names anyway, so it makes sense.

Once I had the job I’d say, “Look this is my ‘Christian’ name but I’m more comfortable using my other name.” I would then try and use my position in the company to address internally a system whereby some of its employees have to adopt different names in order to even be considered.

From that point, the company can engage in some serious reflection so it can start to address the subconscious bias that informs its work culture. You won’t be able to make that kind of impact if you’re not even in the room.

P.S. If this sounds fucked up to any readers: GOOD. IT IS! But its the type of crap ethnic minorities have to grapple with because of racism, and which people with privilege generally do not even have to consider.

It is also something that Irish people should be particularly sensitive to. I have seen numerous Irish people in the UK anglicise their names for the sake of easier pronunciation, something that always saddens me when I see it.

While I understand “temporary name-fluidity” as a strategy to get a job, I struggle with it as a permanent state of being – a new identity, as it were. Legacies of slavery and colonialism are far too close to hand. There is too much power in our names to give them up so easily.


Every two weeks, Emma Dabiri will field your questions on race and identity in contemporary Ireland. You can send her your questions through this form.

Author:

Emma Dabiri: Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian academic, writer, and broadcaster. She is currently a teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and is working on her first book.

Reader responses

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Dorothy
at 27 October 2017 at 12:56

This is a refreshing and positive article, brilliantly written.

Tom
at 31 October 2017 at 10:14

Are you ok with people not identifying as black?

Because it sounds like you’re not. Perhaps they identify more strongly with the parent and culture they were raised in?

The piece just seems rather one sided.

AD Powell
at 21 November 2017 at 23:58

I am as white as Emma is black, more so really. Both my parents are part-black whites. I totally reject Emma’s claim that whiteness equals purity. I have fought for multiracial whiteness for decades. Other whites are not a problem. The fanatical opposition consists of blacks and mixed-race people who THINK they are black.

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Ife
at 7 May 2018 at 17:11

Well observed and experienced Emma. As a Black American who visits Ireland frequently (yearly since 2006), I have not found one Irish person of African/Caribbean ancestry to be “woke.” I’ve tried to speak with them and it just doesn’t happen. They seem to act as if it’s “guilt by association,” to even be seen having an interest in even acknowledging me. No issue with Irish who are “white.” My “white” Irish friends are always puzzled, when I try and reach out to say “hi” to black folk there and they snub me. I gave up trying to connect years ago. Personally, I think there’s some secret competition for attention going on that I’m not privy to. My last trip was January 2016 and I finally met and spoke with a brother from Dublin (of Nigerian ethnicity; who grew up in London), he was “woke.” The word “woke” makes me laugh, but it’s the current modern pop-culture vernacular. shrugs I try to be “hip.”

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