Growing Up Black in Ireland: One man’s journey of how it feels to live and learn as a person of colour in a country with a very young immigration history.

Picture of Olatunji Solola – age 21

In this episode, I am joined by Olatunji Solola, to talk about his experiences of living, learning, and growing up black in Ireland. 

Click HERE for Accessible Transcript

Tunji is a 21 year old 3rd year student at Maynooth University in the Biotechnology programme. He and his family moved to Ireland when he was just five years old and he remembers everything feeling so new and different.  Getting used to his surroundings and starting school that was culturally very different from his birth home in Nigeria, was difficult for him but he adjusted very quickly.  Tunji identifies himself as black, Nigerian first and then Irish.

We talk about microaggressions, the concept of othering, racism and his earliest experiences of these in school, community, and society.  He tells a story of his family home being raided by the Guards when he was just nine years old, and the confusion they felt because of the way it had been handled and the mess they left in their wake.  It didn’t make sense to him that a single mother and two young sons, being the only black family in this neighborhood, must be drug dealers just because. 

Tunji talks about his school days and how conscious he was of being a ‘minority’ and the sense of tokenism.  He describes three responses that students had to him as being one of only two black kids in school.  1.  Kids who wanted to be your friend.  2. Kids that treated you differently because of the color of your skin.  3.  Kids who wanted to be your friend just to say ‘I have a black friend’.  

While his teachers and schools tried their best to make sure minorities felt included, Tunji believes that Irish people don’t really don’t understand how to deal with other ethnicities in general.  While teachers try really hard to make sure ALL students are treated equally, they don’t account for differences when it comes to policies.  He tells a story about how he was penalized for not conforming to the hairstyle policy which was written for ‘white hair’ and did not account for black hair.  Cultural integration, tolerance, and other lessons from other cultures and perspectives are not well taught in schools.  There is no such thing as ‘I don’t see color’.  Color and difference should be inclusive and embraced.

We talk about his role models growing up and how important education was to his parents, who arrived in Ireland as highly educated immigrants but whose credentials were not recognized and their treatment as ‘unskilled’ workers.  Quality education and working hard was instilled in him from a very young age by his parents.  Growing up, he wished he had someone in the schools who looked like him, that truly understood diversity and what it means to be black.  He wished he had someone that would advocate for him and make sure that his voice was heard and that he was seen as an individual.

In society, being heard is the biggest challenge that immigrants face in Ireland.  Going forward, Tunji will pursue his master’s and wants to continue advocating for the rights of people of colour.  He is even considering going into politics to fight for these rights and the voice of the unheard minority.  I hope you’ll join us.  Come, #ListenAndLearn

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