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Black is the colour
Tarisai Chidawanyika

16 Jul 2019 / People Print

Black is the colour

Everyone’s story is different, and mine is very simple. So many people always ask me where I’m from, when I moved to Ireland and – most frequently – why I moved to Ireland. They want to know my story when they hear my accent, see the colour of my skin, or are fascinated by the style of my hair. 

Last year, I spent the summer travelling around South-East Asia with my friend. Even across the world, people still wanted to know my story. They always asked how an Irish person and an African person ended up hiking the tallest mountain in Vietnam together. I moved to Ireland when I was 13 years old and I am still here today – my story continues. 

I was born and raised in Zimbabwe. My parents emigrated to Britain about 20 years ago before finally settling in Ireland. Then, I moved to Ireland to be with my family and to advance my education.

My first introduction to the Irish education system was at my secondary school, St Raphaela’s, Stillorgan. Here, I was lucky to have been taught by Ms Kinsella, who believed in me so much. Even though I was so introverted, when she looked at me, she saw potential and always pushed me to achieve more.

On the other hand, there were people who just assumed I did not speak or understand any English, just from looking at me. Students and teachers alike always asked me whether I understood English.  I would simply reply with a ‘yes’, but what I really wanted to do was to give them a quick history lesson and educate them about how Zimbabwe had once been a British colony, with a similar history to Ireland.

Young, gifted and black

I went on to receive many academic accolades. I decided to study law, which was an easy choice for me. I loved to read, enjoyed over-thinking simple things, and consistently challenged people.

I chose University College Dublin because of how international it prides itself on being. This was crucial to me as a result of the confusion of cultures I was experiencing. Being in a multicultural setting is what I thought I needed.

During my first two years at UCD, I noticed that there were few people of colour studying law. It was very hard to ignore that I was in a lecture hall holding up to 300 people and yet I could use one hand to count the black faces.

This motivated me to go on Erasmus during my third year, to immerse myself in a different cultural setting. I was selected to go to Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and to this day I am forever grateful, because it was a time of personal growth. At Christmas time, I was introduced to ‘Black Pete’, Santa’s friendly helper. To the Dutch, Black Pete is culturally acceptable, as he is just a man with soot on his face helping Santa deliver presents. For me, however, this was an awakening of the realisation that bigotry exists, and even though I had never experienced it first-hand in Ireland, I recognised then that, in my chosen profession, I would not be able to escape it.

A year later, I graduated from UCD. It was a proud moment because education is always the greatest achievement. However, it was also a bleak moment, because I was the only black person to graduate in my class. Starting out on my career, I realised that I would constantly be one of the very few black people in the room, wherever my career took me.

Don’t let me be misunderstood

Afterwards, I successfully completed the FE1 entrance exams to qualify for my course of study in the Law Society of Ireland. During my studies there, I realised, once more, that there were very few black trainee solicitors in the entire class of 448 students – two others to be specific. This did not bother me at the outset but, towards the end, I was very frustrated. The need to continuously prove that I was qualified to be in the same room as my peers
upset me.

Some tutors would remark on how good my level of English was, which reminded me that things had not changed much since my secondary school days. I wanted so much to remind them that I took the same exams as everyone – in English.

I waited six months for a solicitor or barrister of colour to come and give a lecture or tutorial, to show that there were some people of colour out there in prominent spaces. It never happened.

What I am trying to show is that the same issues have followed me since I started my education and my pursuit to become a lawyer. I have experienced subtle and explicit racial insensitivity, and those who know me know that it is no secret.

I have asked myself so many times, and now I ask you: should I compromise who I am in order to navigate the workplace and fit into occupational structures?

Imagine realising you are the ‘diversity’ in the organisation and being reminded of it every single day. This comes with a lot of pressure to represent the minority and to perform accordingly. There is also pressure to conform and to mould yourself to fit a certain image that is expected by the majority.

The more I see you

Today, I just want to be a young black lawyer in Ireland. I want to be able to have lunch at work with the other black person without being asked if she is my sister. I try to create my own identity every day, but other people just see my colour – they don’t see me.

I want to advocate for equality and representation in the legal industry, and to develop strategic moves to raise the visibility of other black lawyers. I did not ask to be an ambassador, but it seems that I have taken on some responsibility to bring about inclusivity – after all, change starts with me.

I invite you to ask yourself: how meaningful would it be to make a change in someone’s life and to abandon your misconceptions of the anonymous black person trying to make it? How meaningful would it be to confront inequality and to understand the persistent struggles that face many promising black lawyers in Ireland every day?

I am genuinely overjoyed to be part of this space, conversation and movement. We desperately need this conversation, and the dialogue starts now.

Tarisai May Chidawanyika
Tarisai May Chidawanyika is a trainee solicitor at Matheson