DEMI Isaac Oviawe was born in Nigeria and has lived in Cork for most of her life. She was a small child when she left Nigeria, her siblings have all been born here, yet she still encounters people who tell her to go back to her own country.
She has encountered racism on every level from serious name-calling to the less overt, yet no less hurtful, everyday racism.
She has played Linda on The Young Offenders for three seasons, and, as a young actor, she should be able to ride high on her success and enjoy the fun that comes with being a young TV star, but the issue of race keeps coming up because she is one of the few black actors on our screens.
In a country made up of hundreds of nationalities, our true diversity is rarely seen, and that is something Oviawe wants to see change.
“In our communities, we have diversity. It is not just black people and white people,” said Demi.
“On my terrace we have Polish people, Asians, members of the travelling community, we have other African cultures and that’s just one row. On TV, Ireland is portrayed with stereotypical blonde white women. That’s not the way Ireland is anymore. We are more diverse than television portrays.
“I’m not just talking about television and films. I’m talking about current affairs programmes or the musicians we see. It needs to change.”
One perk of being well-known means that people rarely say anything racist to her face.
“When you’re younger and you get into an argument or disagree with someone, the first thing that gets thrown back at you is the colour of your skin. Now that people recognise me they just wouldn’t have the guts to say something to my face.”
Fame does have a downside.
“My father taught me to call someone out if they said something insulting, but now that I am in the public eye, if I do that people start calling me the angry black woman. That is so often how we are seen. Strong becomes angry because I am a black woman.”
While being a TV star gives some protection from face to face racism, the internet is a mire of bigotry.
“When I first got the role of Linda, I was so happy. It was such a great opportunity. When the first season came out I read comments online and people weren’t commenting on my talent or my performance. They were giving out because I was black.
“It still happens. I try not to look, but sometimes you can’t help it. Most of them were older people. Adults in their fifties and sixties saying horrible things about a teenage girl. It’s disgusting. If that is what they say in public, who knows what they will say in their own homes.”
It is the effect of this attitude on younger people that the actor sees as causing many racist attacks and commentaries.
“Children are not born racist. They don’t see any difference, but they hear their parents, they listen to what the adults are saying. When they are small they repeat what they’ve heard because they are just children and children don’t know any better. When they are teenagers they should know better, but if that’s what they’ve been raised with, then that is how they will see things and they will act on it.”
A video that recently surfaced online in which a woman was verbally abused and pushed into a canal by a group of teenagers naturally incensed Oviawe.
“I watched it and the anger inside me was uncontrollable. It was disgusting. People need to understand that racism isn’t just white against black, it is against all ethnicities and particularly those in the minority. The Chinese community are suffering so much right now because of the pandemic. It is disgusting.”
The Mallow actor says it isn’t just extreme examples of racism that must end, casual racism can be just as exhausting and hurtful. Seeing diversity represented would help to change people’s perspectives, but she believes it is up to everyone to change the language they use when they talk about people from different cultures and backgrounds.
“I shouldn’t be called the black girl from The Young Offenders, I should be one of the girls. My colour shouldn’t be used to identify me. I hear it all the time, people are talking and they don’t think they are being racist, but they’ll say something about the black lad in the group or the black woman who works in the shop. That can’t be how people are identified. We have names. If you don’t know the name use some other way to describe who you are talking about.”
Oviawe says so many young people are on social media and it is important ‘influencers’ think about what they post. She says their approach to racism needs to change and it is important that if people do want to post their support, they should do so by listening first.
“Black Lives Matters became a trend for influencers when George Floyd was killed. Everyone was posting for a week or so and that was it. I’m not telling people to stop posting, but think before you do. Read what is happening. Share people’s stories and if you make a mistake or say the wrong thing then apologise. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen.”
“I watched an influencer’s video and she said she wanted to help black people use their words. We don’t need your help to use our words. We need you to listen to our stories. We want to show you what we go through every day. We want you to listen to our pain and our suffering. I’ve never been stopped by the police, but I’ve been called the N-word. I’ve been called the black this and the black that.
“I am Demi. Black people have names. It is time for people to start realising that.”