Season 5 Episode 7 ‘Skin Deep’
What does it mean to ‘look’ and be Irish in contemporary Ireland? In this episode of Pantisocracy with Panti Bliss, the last in this season, Panti is joined by people who challenge the stereotypical Irish freckles and fair skin and talk of an Ireland where it’s cool to be Irish and proud, regardless of your skin colour.
Welcome to Pantisocracy and this is your host, Miss Panti Bliss.
Thank you. Thank you and welcome, or perhaps welcome back, to Pantisocracy. And despite what you may have heard, let me first start out by assuring you that my post lockdown covid curves look bloody good on me. And since this is radio, if you are the, show not tell, kind of person you can check me out on the videos that are on Pantisocracy.ie. And in today’s show we are going to be talking about skin, but for once not about my own facial cleansing routine, but more about skin in general, but in particular how here in Ireland we think about skin, skin color and what it means to be of Ireland and Irish, and particularly in the wake of George Floyds murder and the Global Black Lives Matter movement.
So with me today are three people who all have a story to tell. First up is Leon Diop. It is a fabulous name, I just want to say that to you, it has energy and bounce to it.
And he is 26 years old this month only, and he is one of the trio behind the new Black and Irish Instagram account. It only started in June. Yeah in June, just after the murder of George Floyd.
But it already has this huge following, forty five thousand or something like that at this stage, I think. And Leon, you are also no stranger to standing up because in fact, you took a sort of groundbreaking court case on racial profiling when you were just 22 years old. So welcome, Leon.
And then all of the way from South Carolina via Lisburn, is a beautiful woman in front of me here and someone who knows all about black history and the civil rights movement in the US because your grandmother was very much a part of that.
It is the beautiful jazz singer, Dana Masters. Welcome.
Now, Dana, you’ve toured, of course, with Van Morrison’s gang and all of that. But you’ve also had a kind of an interesting and I, I hesitate to say odd, let’s say intriguing route to Ireland.
Because you came here as the partner of a church pastor.
I do. I guess I yeah.
You’re the glamorous pastor’s wife. Just outside Lisburn. Well welcome down to Dublin.
And after the beautiful Dana, we have one more beautiful girl who is no stranger to us here on this show because she used to work with us. But nowadays she’s all corporate. She’s left us far behind. It’s Lisa Essuman. And Lisa says that, like so many people, that the George Lloyd murder was both triggering and awakening. And we are going to talk more about that later. So welcome, Lisa.
It is this idea of race and skin color, of black pride and standing up and speaking out is one of the things that we’re going to be talking about today. And before we get into all that, I’m just going to hog for a little longer because I can because my name is in the show’s title.
I am a talker. By nature I’m a talker. And it’s a characteristic or trait, I hesitate to say skill, but it’s a trait for which I’m often grateful. Yes, I’m a talker and sometimes I’m glad of it. And I come from a family of talkers. And I guess I’m also glad of that because ironically they’re not shy about telling you to shut up and listen sometimes. Because in a family of talkers, you learn quickly that if everyone is talking and nobody is listening, it’s just a lot of noise.
Listening and talking are both important life skills. And even if you have a natural gift for one, you still have to practice it, like any skill, and it’s unlikely you have a gift for both. So at the very least, you have to learn one and practice both because you need both.
You need one to tell and the other to hear. You need one to be able to tell your story and the other to be able to hear other people’s stories. And that’s important because it’s in the telling and the hearing of people’s stories that empathy is born. And empathy, in the humble opinion of this crudely drawn humanoid, is the most important of all our human attributes. Empathy, the ability to empathize, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to be able to imagine yourself in their skin is the difference between being merely a human mammal and being a person.
Empathy is at the root of all of our best qualities, kindness, generosity, fairness, charity, care, love, and an inability to feel empathy is one of the traits common to all psychopaths.
Empathy is central to the success or failure of our attempt at being decent people. And empathy is also central to the success or failure of this ongoing project that we call Pantisocracy. Now, I’m not sure exactly how many episodes we’ve made at this stage, and I’m too lazy to bother counting, but it’s quite a lot.
And this episode, the final episode of our fifth season, hopefully there’ll be a sixth, but that decision is made somewhere in the bowels of RTE, not here. This episode, prompted in large part by the Black Lives movement in the wake of George Floyds death seems like an appropriate episode to tell you exactly what we’ve been trying to do with this show. When people ask me what Pantisocracy is, I first give them the pitch line. It’s a show for and about the new Ireland for want of a better term.
And then I tell them that furthermore Pantisocracy is a real word. It’s a real word that means a society in which everyone is equal. And we take that idea as the lens through which the show attempts to examine what it means to be Irish now today, looking back to see how we got here, trying to see what we’ve done well, got right, but also what we’ve gotten wrong, where we messed up and then trying to look forward at where we’d like to end up and what we need to do or what we need to be better at to get there.
And I tell them that each episode attempts to examine some aspect of what it means to be Irish today. And hopefully taken together, they create an honest, unflinching self portrait of ourselves. And then I hastily add that it’s actually much more craic than that sounds, honestly. And that is basically what we’re about.
And I don’t know. We search out people whose story isn’t typical or the one that people imagine when they think of the mythological Irish person. So we have touched on race lots of times, many times, and heard all sorts of stories and given a lie to that idea that there was no black people here until recently, because we’ve met loads of them.
But it is, it seems like to me, that this show, in a way, has been leading up to this conversation that we want to have today. And just before we start, I want to say one other thing. People sometimes, I hear them all the last few weeks, wondering why people in Ireland are upset or triggered or whatever word you want to say by what happened in the US. And I don’t have to ask that question because I understand that part because I was in Sydney, Australia, do you remember, when the massacre happened in Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida?
And within a couple of hours, there was a candlelight vigil in Taylor Square in the middle of Sydney, Australia. And I could see on my phone that the same was happening in Dublin and London and Paris.
And at that time, lots of people were saying to me, why are you so, you know, upset about it? And they thought, because I’d never been to Florida, certainly never been to pulse nightclub in Florida. And that’s true, but at the same time, I felt like I knew Pulse nightclub like the back of my hand, I have been there.
I knew the kind of people who were there. I knew why they were there. I knew the music they were dancing to. I knew the boys they were kissing. I knew the feeling that it felt to walk into a place like that and not have to worry about holding somebody’s hand or looking over your shoulder thinking about all that stuff.
So I’d never been to Pulse but I feel like I’ve had some of my best weekends ever in Pulse, you know. Because I’ve kissed the same boys and I’ve danced to the same Madonna songs and I understand who they were.
And I also understood that they died because the hate that that guy who killed them was driven by the same thing that he would hate in me. That he, he didn’t care, he didn’t empathize with them, he’d never heard their stories. And he didn’t care if it was me or one of them.
And that’s why we all felt it. And I don’t have to ask why anybody would feel, you know, the George Floyd murder, especially if your skin is pigmented. I get that fully. So that isn’t a question I’m going to be asking you. And I hope that listeners can understand that it’s just a pointless question too anyway.
And the other thing is when I saw, when that happened in Pulse, there is a transnational, shared transnational experience of being queer. And I think there’s a shared transnational experience of the experience of racism. Which may be different in different parts of the world and in tone or whatever, but it’s still racism.
Actually I’m going to start with you, Dana, because you are the American story here and your perspective is different, but maybe that’s a good place to start. Just give us a little first about your story.
Yeah well, I have been in Northern Ireland for going on 12 years now. And when I came here, I remember feeling this distinct moment of relief because I grew up in the Deep South in America. And in the Deep South, our story is so thick with the theme of racism. And because also my family was a civil rights family, my grandmother was one of the leading civil rights activists in our state and her children followed suit. And you grew up, I don’t remember a time where I was shielded from some of the worst parts of what it meant to be black in the South. I have always grown up with that knowledge.
And your family steeped in Dr. Martin Luther King.
All of that. Exactly. My grandmother would have marched with Dr. King, would have worked a lot with the NAACP. One of our sort of Supreme Court justices, who’s now passed away, well he got his start being my grandmother’s lawyer when she used to get thrown into jail because of protesting or whatever else she was doing.
I’m already in love with your grandmother by the way.
I love her. I love her so much. But I think I moved here when I was about 25 and it was the first time in the 25 years of my existence that I felt like I wasn’t seen as a black person through the lens of someone assuming things about me. And I didn’t feel that weight and that heaviness of the super awareness of myself, if that makes sense.
I think a lot of Irish people would be surprised to hear that.
Especially Northern Ireland, no offense, but, you know, it’s a part of the world that has its own problems.
Yeah and maybe they were so, maybe they’ve been so distracted by their own things, because the reality is one of the major themes in Northern Ireland is sectarianism. And so I think maybe I benefited from them being very distracted with that particular conflict, that for me they had no grid of disliking me purely for the color of my skin. I think, you know, I’m not saying, it does happen in the north.It definitely does happen. But for me, I probably spent the last 11 years probably healing deeply from the first 25 years of my life when it came to racism.
But that could also be because you’re coming, you’re coming from such a racially charged place, that even even Northern Ireland, with all this baggage, felt like a holiday for me a wee bit.Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, well, yeah, because you’re explaining it to me. But I would, I’m surprised. I probably, I don’t know
I get that. I get that. I find that for the most part, Northern Irish people have been beautifully curious about me. And I think it’s lovely. I actually love people asking me questions about me and my family. I love talking about my grandmother.
I love talking about the civil rights movement. And for the most part, the people that I’ve met love asking about it and learning and hearing about it. And so I am encouraged by that because I do think there’s a lot of work to be done. But I love that I meet people who are ready to do the work. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, no, I totally get that. Yeah, that’s I’m glad to hear that. Yeah.
I know it’s been, I know it’s not everybody’s story. It’s not, because funny enough when this global awareness of the racial inequality in America just happened, just exploded. I had all sorts of emotions about that. And, but one of the things was I am no longer living in America. It is not my home anymore. It’s where I am from. But I have planted my roots deep in Northern Ireland. I have three very Northern Irish children who don’t look Northern Irish. But my God, do they sound Northern Irish?
That’s all that matters.
Exactly. I’m married to a Northern Irish man. That’s where our lives are at the moment. And so I had this one thing going on where I was trying to process and grieve what was happening, still, which was a normal part of the story. Nothing new happening here at home. But also going what is an appropriate way to respond here in my current context.
And I realized that in my current context, I really had no idea what other people of colour, their experience was in Northern Ireland. I didn’t know how to think about the current context because I hadn’t really been exposed to anyone else’s experience but mine. And so for the last few months, I have been proactively pursuing other people of color, whether they be Asian people, African people, and literally interviewing them going, what has it been like for you? What is your story?
You are from a part of the world which is steeped in racism. And America is a country that hasn’t quite had the conversation it needs to have about it. Although I would say, and I hate to diss my Australian friends, at least America has attempted to have that conversation. Australia has never even started.
Leon, are you surprised to hear that?
Em, like, yeah, a little bit like some of the anecdotal stories I’ve heard about Northern Ireland is that sometimes black people have faced different prejudices up there. But that could just be the experiences of the people that I know.
Do you know, there’s all sorts of reasons why maybe I have not experienced that. I also think I probably am not picking up on some of it. Do you know what happens when you come out of a place like the Deep South, OK, and then you transfer to another place where the temperature is not as hot, racially, I might, I’m just so callous. I’ve been thinking about this that maybe there are things that happened I’m not even registering.
I can only imagine yeah.
Do you know what I mean, because
Well that’s the, I suppose the racism that we would see mainly in America from I suppose watching videos about it. And what we would see mainly is the racism in America is more overt and can be like, you know, it’s more in your face, whereas racism in Ireland is sometimes a bit more subtle, like if you’re not picking up on these cues, you might not even notice it.
I think the queer experience was that we were so used to it, we never, we never talked about it. And sometimes you didn’t want to talk also because it was uncomfortable.
You don’t want to go home to your Ma and say, oh some bloke called me a faggot on the bus today.
And after a while, it all becomes so ordinary to you that it doesn’t seem worth mentioning anyway. And sometimes it takes some other outside incident, sometimes a big one or sometimes a small one. Do you think George Floyds death did that here?
Yeah, absolutely. I definitely think so. Like for myself watching that video and watching someone with a knee on their neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds was atrocious, you know. And because obviously I’m black too and if I was over in America that could happen to me or that could happen to my brother or a loved one of mine, you know. And initially I felt a lot of anger and I felt a lot of upset as well.Because that was a loved one taken away from someone.
And actually Leon can you just give us your story? Because it’s interesting, it makes me think about the fact that on radio you had to say, because I’m black, too. This is radio.And it’s kind of great, actually.
Sure. So my own story is I’m a mixed race man. Born and bred in Dublin. My mother is a white Irish Catholic woman and my father is a black Senegalese Muslim man. So quite the mix to grow up with. I would have grown up in a predominantly Catholic household. My mother and father would have split up when I was quite young. My father would have moved to France and subsequently passed away from lung cancer. So I wasn’t able to, I suppose, access my African heritage from a very young age.
My own story is I would have experienced racism a good bit in Tallaght. Like most of my experiences in Ireland have been quite pleasant. Like the majority of the time. It was a nice childhood. I would have faced, like playing GAA would have been called different types of slurs. Going into my college years, trying to get a house to live in when I was a student was quite difficult. I was once told that this house wouldn’t be suitable for people of African origin, which was quite difficult, myself and my friend Affi were looking for a house.
Where were you going to college, here in Dublin?
Maynooth university. So, yeah, out in Maynooth. So obviously, I was ringing up over the phone. My name is Leon. To them, I could have been a white guy who was just rocking up to look at a house. The house was available. And, you know, when I showed up, the tone was a bit different. It was like, Oh, because there were two of us and my friend Affi is black as well. The question, will there be anyone else of African origin moving in with yous? And we had planned that there would be another
Yeah. And then the letting agent was like, look, I don’t think the house is actually suitable for people of African origin. Obviously the two of us were like stunned, we didn’t know what to do or we didn’t even know where to go, because obviously, like, you know, when you’re first starting to rent, you don’t know about the RTB, you don’t know about the different people.
Also it’s a hastle too. Cause people say stuff like that, but you just wanted to rent a room. You don’t want to have to go to the bother of going through a whole court case to get one,
Of course. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And as a mixed race man, I would have faced discrimination from, I suppose, black people as well. You know, because I would have had white friends and black friends growing up and sometimes I was called like Mondele, which is like white boy by the group or like whenever they wanted to exclude me they’d just speak a different language around me. And I was like, aw OK.
JyellowL, you know.
Yeah, yeah I know.
And he like, you know, telling he chose his name because some people thought he was too white and some people thought he was too black, so he decided oh I’ll embrace being yellow.
That’s it. And that is, you know, absolutely power to him, because it’s sometimes very difficult to own your identity when you’re experiencing, I suppose, a bit of heat from both sides or your facing, name calling or whatever. And I would have definitely gone through that identity crisis as a mixed race person. That’s a way that you can feel as a mixed race person. But I definitely went through that process and said to myself, you know, I’m just going to own my own identity and run with it.
Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Now Lisa you, it seems like, the George Floyd thing did sort of open something for you or prompted you to vocalize all the things that you’d never really felt you had to or could before.
Yeah, I never spoke about my race, really, ever. I always knew I was different. So I grew up, I was born in 87. So my dad, you know, black man coming into Ireland in the mid 80s
He’s from Ghana is that right?
He’s from Ghana yeah. And my mam is white, so, white Irish. So for me, it was I always knew, obviously, I was different. But I always remember the first incident where I was in, we have family in Longford and I was in St Mel’s Cathedral, in Church.
We would have gone to mass every Sunday. And sitting in the church and I was probably about four or five and loads of people were staring at me and I couldn’t understand it. And I turned around to my mam and I said, why is everybody staring at me?
And it must have been so difficult for my mam to try and raise a child of mixed race because she just turned around and she said, it’s just because you’re really pretty, Lisa. And she just couldn’t have that conversation. I was just too young.
But for me, I was very lucky going to primary school. I went to primary school in Rathmines. It was very multicultural. Now there was probably about three or four people of of colour in the school. But what I did love is, it was that feeling of inclusivity.
I knew I was different, but I embraced my heritage and I learned a lot and we taught the other kids what it was like in Africa. And, as a result, I was learning too, you know. And then I just didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I just wanted to fit in. All my friends were white. I went to school, secondary school, basically everyone was white around me. I just didn’t want to talk about my race and I just wanted to get on with life.
Why didn’t you want to talk about it?
I suppose it’s like anything when you’re a teenager, you just want to fit in. You don’t want to be the other, you know, I don’t want to be the only. And then it was, yeah so I did experience, it was always covert for me. So it was always that subtle racism that I didn’t even realize until George Floyd’s murder and it was that awakening. Before I had one really overt situation where I was on a bus and it was, maybe I was around 12, and I was coming from town, probably one of the first times I was allowed to get a bus into town. And I was coming back and my friends had just got off the bus and I was on my own. And these gang of youths just turned around and called me the N-word.
And I was just so shook. Like, I’ll never forget it. It was just that moment. And the difficult part for me was nobody said anything. So I ran off the bus, ran home to my mother bawling crying. And then after that, it was more covert, so subtle. But I didn’t pick up on this until the murder of George Floyd. And then it was this awakening moment that I had. And I was like, whoa.
When people say I don’t see colour, that does make me feel like you’re not seeing the struggle, you know, that I have to work twice as hard as you. That I always have to Google a place before I go on holidays to check if it’s racist. You know, you don’t realize how much we think about our race every day. And it’s that point of the white privilege. Irish people like to say, well, we’re not racist because, you know, we went to London, we went to New York, we went to Boston and we experienced racism.
You know, I know you had and we talked about it in a previous program, and it’s like no blacks, no dogs, no Irish. And it’s like, well, we can’t be racist then. But it’s that subtle racism.
Oh my God. And not so subtle.
Yeah, and it’s that unconscious bias as Leon said. I remember, you know, I used to work in radio and it would be that, oh I’m going to come and interview you, my name’s Lisa or whatever. And then you come up and you go, Oh, you’re Lisa. Oh. And it’s that subtleness.
You sound white.
Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Would you think it’s fair to say that you found the last, since the George Floyd murder, like traumatic because that’s what, you know, reading and talking to you. That’s what I get from it. Is that fair.
Yeah, absolutely. I still haven’t watched the video.
I haven’t either. But, cause I felt voyeuristic or something even though part of me felt I should watch it. I read the transcript though and that was
It was enough.
Oh God yeah. Stunning in the worst way, I mean.
Yeah.Yeah. So definitely it was an awakening for me. I journaled everything that I’d experienced and my partner, we’ve been together a very long time and he’s, he’s white Irish. And he said to me, you know, Lisa, do you not remember that situation or do you not remember that taxi driver?
But are you saying that your boyfriend was listing off incidents that you didn’t
I had blocked from memory, from trauma or, you know, those subtle, covert or blatant racism remarks throughout our years together. And I suppose you’d get it from both angles as well. You’d walk down the street and you’d get it from Nigerian women looking at us holding hands and stuff like that.
Because you’re a mixed race couple.
Yeah, yeah. I do think it’s better now. I guess again, I was growing up in the very early 90s where there was very few black people around. My dad was always saying, you know, he used to get all the token jobs in fair city as the extra drinking a pint in the background.
But yeah, it’s gotten much better. But it’s still, there’s still that covert examples. And I guess that’s where I had that awakening. I was like, I started journaling and I heard the stories of people in America, in the UK. And then I realized, you know, that happened to me too.
I was in South Africa once at this big meeting of, you know, mostly queer activists and that. And lots of them were not from South Africa they’d come from other African countries but we’re now, you know, in South Africa. And a Ugandan guy said and it stayed with me really profoundly ever since he said, I never felt black until I came to South Africa.
And I was, that kind of blew me away. And I’ve thought about that a billion times since. Which is also, I think, part of the reason why I’m glad to hear your experience of coming to Ireland. Because I would have thought, you know, you would have come to Northern Ireland and though, God I’m black.
Well, you know. I am so proud to be black. I was brought up with this very rich legacy. And so there was a positive thing, a part of me is like I would never not want that. But at the same time, when I got here, I never realized how heavy the weight was on me mentally moving throughout America.
When the Ugandan guy said that I was, you know, I got the same reaction you vocalized there. I can’t imagine not being aware.But then I felt that that’s my privilege right there because I was never taught about being white. Growing up in Ballinrobe County Mayo, why would I. Anyway listen, let’s have a small break with some beautiful music.
Tell us about the song and the connection to your grandmother.
Yes. So my grandmother passed away when, before I turned 20 and before
And tell us her name because
Her name is Johnnie Ruth Jenkins. She was such an incredible woman. Yeah, she was half black and half white. She was a gingered hair, very light skinned woman. And she had the choice to move up north and pass as a white woman, which people did to survive in America. For whatever reasons she chose not to. She stayed in the South. She decided to fight for equal rights and all that good stuff that came with it. And married, my grandfather was a black man, had five children.
Her five children were the first children in their county to desegregate the schools in the Deep South. My mother was eight when she did that.
And I’ve seen the footage.
Yeah, it’s insane. The stories are crazy. So for an eight year old, you have now ended whatever childhood you had and you were enlisted on the front lines in a war for equality. And one day I was in, I think I was in San Francisco, on tour and it just, it hit me. There was a whole generation of children in America who were put on the front lines of a war, and just like any war, a lot of them did not make it OK.
And my grandmother’s children, there are a few of them that are not OK and they have been severely scarred. And I thought to myself in that moment, if my grandmother could write a letter to her children, specifically her daughters, what would she say? And that’s when I wrote this song called Little Girl. So, yeah.
Yes. Let’s hear it. It’s called Little Girl.
Dana Masters performs Little Girl.
Thank you so much. Absolutely stunning.
That was incredible.
That’s why it’s so amazing to me that you grew up thinking your voice is just ordinary. Like, that’s incredible to me.
Oh, the other thing I should say to listeners, go on Pantisocracy.ie and look at the video of that performance, because whatever you pictured when I said a Northern Irish pastor’s wife,
I ain’t it
Your pictures wrong. Yeah, your picture is wrong.
Leon. So one of the things actually is Dana’s grandmother, I believe, is taught in black history nowadays. So and then what you’re trying to do with the black and Irish Instagram account in a way is black history for Ireland, kind of, it’s one of the things. Tell me about it, because it’s stunning the success of it in such a short time.
Yes. It’s gone, it’s gone better than I expected. So after the death of George Floyd, I was shook and I was like, I want to do something here and I want to make a difference and stuff like that. So myself and my friend Boni, who’d regularly talk about politics and current affairs and stuff like that, we decided to have a call and have a chat. And in the meantime, I started thinking about getting people’s stories shared and giving people, I suppose, a sense of community to feel a part of.
So I thought of Black and Irish and just simple and, you know, hopefully people could understand and buy into it. So myself, Boni and Femi decided to have a call and just started spitballing ideas. And I gave my idea of what I wanted to do with Black and Irish. And they were like, that’s it, that sounds great. So we were like, all right, well, let’s see what we can do. So we set up an Instagram page, which was just I suppose to highlight and celebrate the struggles and successes of black Irish people and the black Irish community.
So we just started telling people’s stories. So we were like, look, if you want to, I suppose, contribute and you want to share your story, send it in to us and we’ll post it on our page.
And it just blew up, I suppose, you know, I wasn’t expecting it to do as well as it did. And it was incredible because, like, we wanted to share people’s stories. We also wanted to educate people who weren’t black to the issues that were faced by black people so.
Well, that’s one of the things about it, because it’s just fascinating reading, you know, regardless of the intent, because these are interesting people and interesting lives and they have another perspective. And, yeah, I’m sort of addicted to it in a way. But it’s also part of the success of it, I think, is because there’s a sort of a black history part to it
That’s it. We wanted to educate people on, you know, the I suppose, the history of black people in Ireland as well. So Boni came up with an idea to run a Black Irish History Week. So we were like, let’s do it. Let’s start researching, you know what’s gone on. And the stories that we found were incredible.
Like, you know, we came across a story of Rachael Baptist who was a black Irish singer in the like eighteen hundreds, who was like really famous across Ireland and the UK. And was like well renowned for singing. And was a celebrity, like a black Irish celebrity in the eighteen hundreds. And there’s these like, there’s this sentiment that, I suppose mass immigration started in the eighties and that is when the majority of black people came to Ireland. But there has been black people in Ireland for quite some time now.
I wouldn’t call myself a historian, so I’m not going to go too much into the stories in case I get something wrong. But it was interesting coming across those stories. And we have ideas to run more campaigns throughout, like on the page, around black Irish people in sport
And you would like to see it on the curriculum.
Yeah, absolutely. I would love, because that’s part of my history, too. As a black Irish man, you know, the only thing that I was taught about in schools was that, you know, black people were on Trocaire boxes or black people were slaves in America. I didn’t learn a whole lot else other than that about black people. So, you know, it will be nice to see that, you know, Frederick Douglass came to Ireland and toured and gave, like, speeches and stuff like that.
And, you know, I suppose what it would have done for me is given me more of a connection to, you know, Irish history as well. Because it would be celebrating both sides of my history rather than just the one.
But now Lisa when you were in school, you didn’t even want to talk about the subject if, for example, it had been on the curriculum. Do you think it would have given you permission to talk about this stuff?
Yeah, secondary school I just didn’t really want to talk about it. And I guess it comes down to the fact of that struggle with belonging. Where do I fit in? Who am I? Because constantly you’d get, “But where are really from?” You know. And I’m like I’m from Crumlin in my thickest Dublin accent.
I don’t have any other extra to give to you here.
Yeah, yeah, and I wouldn’t budge. I wouldn’t budge.
Absolutely. That’s it.
And that’s what I really struggled with when I was in my teenage years is, where am I really from? Where is my identity? But now I’m proud of both sides. I would consider myself Irish. But I’ve been to Ghana and I’ve been able to, and that was I think that was a big turning point for me, 2007. My dad wanted to bring my whole family to Ghana.
And I guess I was very lucky to be able to go and meet my grandparents, and they’ve since passed. So that was really special for four of us in the family to be able to meet my grandparents. And I remember my mam turning around to me and saying, now I understand why everybody stared at you and how you feel.
I’m interested, though, Dana, because we kind of touched earlier on that every part of the world has racism. It’s a global thing. But each part of the world has a different history that brought them to the kind of racism that they experience in that part of the world.
And it’s interesting to me, too, because often when I’m talking to Americans, black Americans, their ancestors, you know, ended up in America one way or the other by choice or not a long time ago.
And they often have no idea of where in Africa their line comes from. Whereas, you know, here you tend to know my father was from Senegal, my father was from Ghana, whatever. And that, to me, always seems odd, maybe that’s a European perspective or something, because we’re so little country focused.
Yeah. Well, it’s part of the black American tragedy, really. This wasn’t you know, this wasn’t an immigration situation. Do you know what I mean? Like, we were many, the majority, were stolen. In America as a black person you do, under the surface, always feel like they don’t truly believe that you are as a part of this place as they are. And I think it’s heartbreaking and I don’t think that’s fully understood yet by a vast majority of white America. And I would say here, I’ve heard that sentiment that you just said Lisa spoken to me from other people from Northern Ireland who are black Northern Irish people, that “well where are you really from?”
And I think Irish people all over this island could do such a beautiful thing by just rephrasing that question, finding a way that rephrases that question that assumes the belonging of the person that you’re talking to. Like you are ours. We love you. Like this is your home. But there is a curiosity, like how did you get brown skin? Like that’s what they want to know.
And there’s nothing wrong with that because they also want to know when somebody is from a different county, like, it’s not do you know what I mean. Like that’s why I’m so at home on this island. I love the nosiness.
Also I think because of American power in a sense. I think they know where you’re from.
They do. And so when they ask me, because I am actually a visitor here, I don’t feel that same sense of upsetness. But that’s because I am a visitor, like I am, that’s exactly who I am. So when they say, but where are you really from? I go, I’m from South Carolina. Now, where it gets hard is when they say, but where in Africa are you from. And I’m just like, yeah, no, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but we don’t all have that connection, you know what I mean? And so that’s
But I think for Irish people it’s especially odd to think about because we are, “Where’s your Ma from?”, you know, your cousin will eventually know my cousin and then, you know, really they want to place you in the feckin townland your from.
Yes, exactly. Exactly.
So that being a gray murky thing is odd to an Irish person. Yeah.
I can only imagine and I’m listening to Lisa and, that empathy, like I feel what that and how that must land. When you’re like this is my home. This is, this is me, you know.
And I think what I hear is that people, people of colour who are from here, it’s almost like there’s that missing of acknowledgement that you two are just as invested in this place as your white Irish counterparts. That you two share that story and more. Do you know what I mean?
And when you were talking about earlier about black history, Leon, it just struck me. Of course, you want that in the curriculum, because that’s the whole story, if that’s not in the curriculum. We’re missing a piece of the Irish history. It’s not just black. It’s actually part of Irish history. And it’s a beautiful part. And I want to see the day when people all over Ireland are like, yes, Did you know about that really famous black Irish dude? That’s our story. Do you know what I mean?Not just like that’s their story that we allow to be taught to our children. That’s not OK because
Well, Obama’s ours.
I was gonna say y’all they do claim some black people.
Well we have a petrol station named the Obama Plaza.
Obama Plaza yeah. It’s a great spot.
Well, actually, this seems like a perfect moment for the next song because it’s about home and.
Introduce the song for us.
OK so I wrote this song. I have to say, I love this island. I love this island. And I has been very healing for me to come from South Carolina and come here. And maybe I wanted to share this song because I wanted to encourage you all and anyone who’s listening that it is in you on this island to do this well.
Because people like myself have been welcomed and have been sort of accepted. And you’ve wanted to know my story. And so I know there are people who are hurting on this island who haven’t had that experience. But I want to say, you know how to do this well. And I want to encourage you to do this well, intentionally. But I wrote this song just as a thank you and almost like a love song to this island who has treated me well. And it’s called Call You Home. So yeah.
Dana Masters performs Call You Home.
Oh, my God, yeah, I hate singers. You know what I mean?
Leon, one of the things that I think is interesting about you using the internet or Instagram and all that is, and I think it contrasts maybe with Dana’s experience, is that Dana came from a part of the world that racism is endemic and structural. It’s the basis of everything. But there was solidarity in numbers. She had a church full of people who looked like her and sounded like her. And, you know, black people in Ireland felt very alone.
They didn’t have black neighbors and all that stuff, you know, and maybe that’s changed in some parts of the city now or whatever if you go to primary school or something. But is that the experience?
I think it can be for some, yeah. It can be quite a lonely experience. And I know of a number of people who, you know, working in different corporations, they are the only people in the room and feel quite alone in that respect. I think there’s a couple of reasons. Yeah one is numbers, I think, you know, black Irish people only make up like 1.6 percent of the overall population, and that is spread out throughout the entire country. So, yeah, it can be a bit lonely. But the main thing is that we have the means of communication with one another now. So it’s important that we build these communities around ourselves and say, well, like, look, we’re not alone because isolation is a massive cause for, you know, serious problems.
Clearly, things have changed and there’s a lot more that needs to change. As a sort of final thought, sort of a moment here for me, Lisa, I’ll start you. What do you want to see change?
It’s this listening and educating piece and really understanding the struggle of Irish black people and understanding their story and listening and then going, well, what can I do about it. And thinking, I need to go beyond the performative, beyond the moment and create a movement.
And for me, it needs three things to have that sense of belonging and it needs diversity. So I had no black role models growing up except for my father. You need to see diversity and then you need equality. So you need to understand those unconscious bias and become aware of them to change them. And then it’s the inclusivity. It’s that sense of, everybody deserves to be heard and to be seen. And I go down to that, I don’t see colour piece. And it’s you know.
Well then you don’t see me, you know, then you don’t see me because you don’t see that struggle.
Yeah. Leon, would you like to add anything to that?
No, I think Lisa summed it up really well. You know, educate yourself around issues. If you’re unsure on something, Google it.
Yes, don’t ask your black friend to do all the work for you. And Dana you’ve got your kids growing up in Northern Ireland with Northern Irish accents, and I’m guessing some sort of beautiful caramel colored skin. Like, what do you hope for the future for them.
Do you know, listen, there’s never going to be a future, I don’t think, that we will ever see the eradication of racist people. That’s just, it’s a brokenness in humanity that we on some level, we all struggle with wanting to compare ourselves and wanting to be better than the next person.
But what I do want to see and what I do hope is that if you adopt racist behaviors, racist beliefs, if that’s the way you want to move through society, I want it to be very difficult for you to move through society and succeed in society.Not difficult for me as a person of colour or any other marginalized minority group.
It shouldn’t, we should not pay the price for other people’s decisions to be racists, sectarianists, bigots, whatever the case may be. And so I teach my kids every day to have the kind of confidence that they can navigate situations with really difficult people because difficult people are everywhere and for all different types of reasons. But what I want is for the system to back them up, not to back up the difficult people.
Yeah. Well, thank you very much, listeners, for listening in to us today.
And that was the final show in this season of Pantisocracy. And I can hear you all saying, God damn it the summer must be over. And it is. But it’s been really fabulous. It’s been fun. It’s been interesting and educational. And it’s been good to be back in radio land and podcast land. And no doubt we will return around Christmas, I guess. Thank you to my beautiful guests today for joining us here. Dana Masters, thank you very much for the songs on the stories. Leon, you’ve been a beaut, and Lisa nice to see you back here.
And thanks to Helen and John for running the back office and to everyone who’s helped in the studio getting it edited and sounding so gorgeous. And thank you at home for listening in.
And finally, remember that if you want some more, if this hasn’t been enough, go to Pantisocracy.ie. And therein you will find videos of all the performances and links to every podcast you could possibly want. Everything Pantisocracy concern. Good night. Thank you very much.
Panti’s guests are singer and songwriter Dana Masters, who hails from South Carolina, USA, and moved to the north of Ireland ten years ago, Leon Diop one of the founders of the virally popular Black and Irish Instagram & Facebook account, and documentary maker Lisa Essuman.
Dana, who tours with Van Morrison, performs two of her own songs during the show – ‘Little Girl’ inspired by her grandmother who was a black civil rights activist in the Deep South, USA, in the 1960s, and a song ‘Call You Home’ that she penned for her new home – Ireland – where she says she has found peace and healing.