Diversity, my experience and thoughts on our school staff-rooms

*all opinions expressed are my own

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA at the hands of the police, has given many of us pause.  It comes as no surprise that the killing was totally unjustified and senseless. His supposed ‘crime’ (for which he paid with his life) was to present a counterfeit $20 as payment in a store.  However, unlike many other deaths of black men at the hands of police in the United States, his was captured on camera by a bystander and we see an entire eight minutes of him begging for his life saying “I can’t breathe” as a white policeman kneels on his neck.

It’s just yet another example of countless racial incidents where excessive force has been used by the police and it has prompted protests around the world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, including in Syria and Palestine, where citizens there have also experienced oppression and violence at the hands of the State.

The incident and the reaction to it has held a mirror up to our societies and made us ask uncomfortable questions of ourselves. Chiefly among them, does racism exist in our society and if so, what are the reasons for it, how do we tackle it and how do we create more equitable, fairer and more compassionate societies? Are we really listening to the voices of black people and other ethnic minorities when they tell us about the discrimination and/or racism they have experienced in their lives? 

As a white person who grew up in Zambia and moved to Ireland at the age of eleven, I experienced difference but never the sort of difference based on my skin colour. I was able to adapt and fit in to Irish society and even though I had attended an international school, spelled ‘colour’ differently and had an American accent, nobody ever made fun of me or insulted me because of that. When we lived in Zambia, we had a (black) gardener and housemaid/cleaner who worked for my parents and when I was a toddler, my mother employed a black nanny called Christine Daka to mind me when she went back to work. She later died of AIDS sadly but I didn’t learn that until I was an adult. I don’t remember her much in any case as I think I was too young. When I tell people about that now, it reeks of ‘white privilege’ but actually it was quite normal in Zambia for white expat families to employ cleaners, nannies, housemaids and gardeners.  We weren’t rich by any means, at least compared to some of the other white families living in Lusaka who lived surrounded by high walls and had tennis courts and swimming pools, but I suppose in relative terms we might have been, at least from the perspective of the average Zambian.

My parents were teachers and both worked in government schools. My mother taught French and my father Maths. As a child, we had a lot of freedom and independence and I have vivid memories of my brothers playing ‘cars’ with some of the local kids on our veranda and playing ‘chicken in the den’ (dodgeball) for hours on end with some of the neighbours kids.  I remember an Indian friend (a boy) called Joby whose main hobby was stamp collecting and a Sri Lankan girl I used to play skipping games with. I remember also spending hours outdoors climbing trees and hiding in the bushes with other members of the secret club I was in (I was a big fan of the Famous Five around this time!).  My childhood friends were local Zambian kids, Indians, Sri Lankans and an Italian-English girl who was my best friend.

When we returned to Ireland in 1990, my parents decided that the best way to ‘integrate’ me back into Irish society was to send me off to the Connemara Gaeltacht for the summer. It was my first experience of real homesickness and I remember writing several letters asking them to visit me. I also remember being surrounded by crying kids (mostly girls) on the last day as they said goodbye to their new friends and ‘crushes’. I remember being delighted to go home.

My experience of ‘integration’ wasn’t particularly enjoyable when I think back on it. When we first returned to Ireland, we lived in a housing estate in Tallaght where my parents had bought their first home before moving to Zambia, and it was a bit of a rough area, at least that was my impression. I had little in common with my peers and remember a girl I was friendly with, Rachel, who was perhaps a year or so older, telling me that I was a “bit weird”. She was much cooler than me and smoked and always sat on the back of the 75 bus that we got together with the boys. She seemed older than her years (at least to me), rebellious and streetwise and I must have seemed incredibly naïve and innocent to her in comparison.  I attended a private girls secondary school in Dublin at this time and as I had already completed Form 1 in Zambia, excelled academically in First Year and was nominated Student of the Year. I’m not sure what made me seem ‘a bit weird’ though I suppose I must have seemed different and perhaps a little exotic as a result of having grown up in Zambia…

Then we moved to a small village just outside Kells, as my father had secured a permanent teaching job in a school.  It was a quiet little village where nothing much seemed to happen and we rented there for a year or two before moving again to Navan, where my parents had bought a new house. I was now attending a different school, another all-girls school in Kells and completed my Leaving Certificate there. I don’t have particularly happy memories of that time. I suppose adolescence wasn’t an easy time for me and I seemed to change friends on a yearly basis. I lacked confidence in myself and was struggling with a lot of the angst and self-esteem issues common to teenage girls and didn’t feel I fully fitted in.  Perhaps part of it was adapting to a new way of life and the trauma of being uprooted from a place I was happy in. In any case, I’m glad I didn’t have to worry about my skin colour on top of the other ‘issues’ that made me anxious at this time.

College was a much better experience overall and by and large I enjoyed living away from home and getting to know new people and more importantly, boys!!! Having attended an all-girls school for so long, it was a revelation to discover that boys (shock horror!) were people too as prior to that the only boys I’d known while at secondary school were my brothers and the odd lad I’d ‘shift’ at a school disco, only to be overcome with mortification and never speak to them again. It was a time when I discovered sex and drugs for the first time, made new friends and lost my inhibitions through alcohol and dance music. Studying was simply a distraction and I recall a close friend who used to be disgusted by how late in the day I would sometimes get up! Amazingly, I got my Honours degree and spent a few years drifting I suppose, teaching English abroad, working in awful jobs that I hated, returning to study and trying to settle on some sort of career path.  Eventually I decided to train as primary school teacher and completed a postgraduate course in Dublin in 2007.  

Over the years I’ve  done a lot of job-hopping as permanent jobs have been difficult to come by and I suffer from anxiety and occasionally depression which has had a huge impact at times. Thankfully however, I’ve never had to worry about being discriminated against because of my skin colour. Schools have policies on everything from Special Education to bullying and child protection but I wonder if they’ll now need to introduce policies on racism and discrimination?  In the thirteen years since I qualified as a teacher, I’ve only once met a black primary school teacher at a CPD course in Dublin last year. I remember being slightly taken aback as she so obviously stood out amongst all the white teachers in attendance. I’m sure she must have felt that way herself and it can’t have been a particularly pleasant experience for her. Growing up in Zambia and being part of a minority, albeit a privileged minority group, I can honestly say that I didn’t really notice skin colour. It was only when my family returned to Ireland and I was now part of the ‘majority’ that skin colour stood out.

 I can’t recall where that black teacher I once met was from, I ’d love to know if she had experienced any difficulties getting a job in Ireland and what her experience of teacher training college and the interview process was like. I think we badly need more diversity in general in staff-rooms, particularly at primary level; more men, more teachers of different ethnicities, more LGBT members of staff etc. Racism is a learned behaviour and I think one of the best places outside of the home to start tackling it is in our schools but how can we really teach it in a meaningful way if our staff-rooms are full of middle-class white ladies?  Talking about diversity, racism and tolerance is just ‘tokenism’ unless you model it in a way that really matters…

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