Nobody Talks About Being Black in Belfast (but I will!)

Happy New Year from your favorite almost-Irish twins! (We are exactly a year and 18 days apart)

As I write this, I am in my room at my Dad’s house in South Carolina. The same place I once prayed to whatever God might hear me to please let me one day be writing a blog about my Mitchell year in Ireland. I decided to use my last US-Ireland Alliance-funded plane ticket to come back home for winter break and I moved my flight to the U.S. up so I could come home earlier, and my flight back to Belfast further, so I could spend a little bit more time bee-bopping in the comforts of familiarity.

It’s now been 5 weeks since I’ve been in Belfast. I’m starting to get emails about Students’ Union meetings and events to RSVP for and information about the first day of my internship (which I’m missing because I’ll be on a plane) and picking an advisor for the 20,000-word dissertation that I have to start writing pretty soon… And I feel terrible admitting that I feel dread thinking about going back.

It has been difficult for me to admit that my first months in Belfast have been as challenging as they actually have been. I want to give everyone the glowing review they’re hoping for. And I feel icky even feeling frustrated and disappointed at all because I know how unique and privileged this experience is in the first place.

The weeks between my last blog post and the week I left Belfast were some of the worst weeks I experienced all year. After 10 weeks of rowing, struggling to find community and feeling out of place socially and culturally, I made the decision to quit rowing. I felt rejected and like I’d wasted my time desperately hoping people who didn’t really care to know me would like me and make space for me in their circle. I struggled all semester with frustration from the academics of my program, not feeling challenged, not feeling like I was learning, and again, feeling like I was wasting my time and energy in a space that was not anything like what I expected. I also was getting Booker T. Washington-ed and Angry Black Girl-ed left and right!

Short story time: after sharing details about my experience getting death threats at sixteen all for petitioning to change the confederate namesake of my high school (an issue of public history and therefore relevant to our class discussion), a white lady (who was there as a representative of career paths we could take with the degree we are pursuing) not only flippantly moved past my larger point— which was about how white people should not force/let Black people be martyrs in justice work, but she also found me after to specifically tell me that any working (white) woman will experience aggressions and that because I “seem strong” I should just suck up any micro-aggressions and “work harder” (basically saying it’s not about race and my experience is just how things are).

Another short story time: I spoke up in rowing about a problem the beginner team was having after receiving some really intense passive-aggressive messages from student leadership and made a suggestion to fix the problem. Said leadership goes on to invalidate and minimize the problem and complaint by saying, “It’s not that hard; just do it.” That doesn’t sit right with me, and I say, “Well, since we’re having a conversation about all of this, let’s also talk about the tone of the messages you’re sending to us– please speak to us with the same kindness and respect that you (leadership) are asking of us (the novice team).” They did not like that. Immediately I was a pariah. Later, a coach tells me (he’s laughing, I’m not) that he heard about this “drama” and was told that I have “anger issues.” No matter how polite I was, because I’d stepped out of the role I was supposed to play & asked for basic respect, I was the angry black woman. I was the angry Black woman because I was the only Black woman there. (This was also the final straw in realizing this could not be a community I continued to invest in.)

These are just two instances that happened less than a week apart. There have been many more. There is something every single day– a challenge, a frustration, a micro-aggression that seems too oblivious and/or well-meaning to address. And this is just a part of being away from home, especially in a basically all-white country. But at least at home, I know the shapes racism takes on a daily basis. Here, it sneaks up on me. Here it’s presented, again, as oblivious well-meaning white people. And that hurts worse because I think I can be comfortable, and then I realize that all along, I have never been as safe as I thought, and I have never really been welcome or included either.

So, as I write this, I’m a couple days away from going back to Belfast. I am ready to return with a fresh mindset about the experience, even as I’m dragging my feet to go. I keep reminding myself that at least I know what to expect now, and I do have friends who have kept me afloat through all of this. There are things I’m looking forward to, like training for the Belfast Marathon and exploring new places and who knows– maybe I’ll find the right kind of community I was searching for in the first place. I have hope that things will be better this time around… I’ve just gotta keep plugging along…

Ps. I also write my own newsletter-meets-blog where I post about my life in Belfast and other girl-in-her-early-twenties-type things. You can check it out here if you’d like to read more about my experience.

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