Most Irish adults grew up in a country (Ireland) where the presence of other races was a novelty. So many of them only developed relationships with non-Irish people as adults. For someone coming from South Africa where there has always been a diversity in ethnic cultures, this was something to get used to.
When I still worked for an ethnic page of a local newspaper (pre-recession), I interviewed many foreign nationals (from Nigeria, California, Milan, Sudan, South Africa, Poland etc) for different articles I wrote on how they settled into living and working in Ireland.
Once I interviewed a guy from Sudan who works for the University here, and he told me when he arrived only 12 years ago, late 1999’s, people would actually stop on the street and stare to look at him. Now this guy is over two metre tall, which would draw attention anywhere, I suppose. But he said they (their family) were probably among the first black Africans arriving in Limerick, Ireland, and some Irish people had genuinely never set eyes on a black person before.
Another black guy, from Nigeria, agreed that Irish people in general were definitely not used to foreign nationals living in their country when he arrived in 1998.
People asked him ‘strange’ questions, he recalled. He put it down to a lack of knowledge about other cultures. For example someone had asked him once if people lived in trees in his country and another person, also totally ignorant, asked if there were toilets in his country!!
This guy made it his mission to get involved in local politics because of all these misconceptions and lack of information about his home country. He believed in this way local people would be able to learn more about his own country and culture. A way to do it!
And if these misconceptions continue it usually leads to stereotyping and racism. This kind of stereotyping does not only refer to those from Africa, but from anywhere in the world.
The thing with Ireland is that it is an island and in the 80’s many Irish people had never even been outside their country. Nowadays it is just so much easier and affordable to fly out to different countries or get a ferry to England or France or wherever. Also the borders of other countries have been opened which has seen a huge influx of people from different European countries, like Poland, Lithuania, Russia et cetera into Ireland.
Ignorance of other cultures is something one can work on and a way to help people change their views is to give them knowledge. But this requires education and information throughout our lives.
And with the world being virtually so much closer, it is essential to teach our children and make them aware and accustom to other ethnic groups. In this way we will have a better hope for a less racist and more open society in the future.