RACISM is uncomfortable to talk about, and before I witnessed the negative online reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests in Cork, I tried to pretend that my encounters here hadn’t in large part been defined by race.
I’m a Black American who has spent a lifetime convincing people that my experiences are real, and it’s exhausting.
I’m hopeful that we’ve reached a point where we can stop debating about whether racism exists and instead begin to acknowledge the time and energy that racism takes away from people.
From micro-aggressions to obvious slights and transgressions, even Black lives not in immediate physical harm are cut short.
Let’s take micro-aggressions, for example. A few weeks back I said hello to a woman in my building and she looked me up and down and moved away from me in disgust.
Did she do that because I’m Black? Honestly, I have no clue. But my history with these kinds of rebukes far outnumbers that of my non-Black counterparts, and after each one I lose hours of joy.
In this case I was leaving the building to meet a girlfriend and I spent the first two hours of our date barely listening to her. I kept replaying the incident over and over again in my head, trying to figure out what I could have done wrong.
That’s the crazy thing about being mistreated, even if I intellectually know it has nothing to do with me, after the 1,998th time, it’s hard not to emotionally invest in the rationalization that I must somehow deserve it.
More than a few bus drivers in the city have rolled their eyes at my greetings, while saying hello to the white person entering the bus after me.
People in shops sometimes talk to me very slowly, after talking in a normal cadence to white patrons, assuming perhaps that English isn’t my first language (which is rich, considering how offended someone from Cavan would be if I mistook them as being from Kilkenny, yet I’m constantly supposed to brush off people assuming I’m from a country or continent that I’m not).
But even when people know that I’m American, that privilege only goes so far.
When I first arrived at Cork Airport, I was held at customs longer than anyone else on my (otherwise non-Black) flight. The officer spent at least 20 minutes examining my documents and questioning me about my course. He eventually stamped my passport with a 60-day visa instead of the standard 90 days that Americans receive, meaning I only had 60 days to gather all of the required forms to register with the Cork Garda station for my residence permit.
This would have worked out, if the station wasn’t overwhelmed by requests and handing out appointment dates past the 60 days I was given.
So, to stay legal, I had to spend a week turning up at the station on standby, hoping that someone would cancel their appointment so that I could take their spot.
I ironically met the only other Black student in the creative writing program at my school (also American) waiting in line at the garda station because she was also only given a 60-day visa.
A few months later, at an international student conference in Dublin, I took an informal poll and found that, while students from Mexico and Brazil were also only granted 60 days, every single white student I asked was given three months.
The days I spent waking up as soon as the garda station opened, in line with nervous asylum-seekers and other drained students running out of time on their visa, was time I could have spent acclimating to a new country. But that time was stolen, along with my confidence in being treated like everyone else here. That loss of energy and trust can’t be quantified.
This is just one example, of many, where disparate treatment based on my skin colour seemed pretty obvious, but when I told some acquaintances (and friends) stories like this, they’d routinely acted with shock and or disbelief.
There’s a resistance to acknowledging racism, yet so many of these same people would joke about having at least one racist uncle or neighbour — the disconnect is baffling.
I shouldn’t have to spend time persuading people that there’s no racism-free utopia, and I shouldn’t be tasked with teaching this through examples of my humiliation.
I’ve luckily made some amazing friends here who have helped me through unnecessarily complicated situations. I’ve found defenders and allies with hearts of gold.
I just wish my experience didn’t feel so extreme in terms of positive and negative. For every Paul Hewson-like leader I’ve met, there’s an agitator around the corner. For every Anne Enright post I like, there’s a far-right video I have to erase from my timeline.
I don’t have a quick answer for solving all of this because there is no quick answer for a problem that’s been festering for centuries.
I just know that, without teaching people the proper history of structural racism, capitalism, colonization, and migration, we’ll never be able to truly move forward.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that even small, island nations cannot hide from the world’s woes and diseases.
We are all guilty of avoiding painful topics, but we need to start listening and actively working to protect and corroborate each other before we all run out of time.