"When the word n****r is said out loud by the teacher, the white kids look at you, and some snigger. It just feels really uncomfortable, and embarrassing."

These are the words of a 16-year-old girl who attends a mainstream secondary school in Ireland.

There was outcry when Green Party leader Eamon Ryan used the 'N' word in the Dáil recently, and he apologised unreservedly for his mistake.

Yet the word is bandied about in some Irish classrooms, during English and history lessons for instance, on a regular basis, and to the clear distress of many young black teenage students.

In recent weeks some black Irish students have been drawing attention on Instagram and other social media to what they believe is overt racism in a small minority of Irish second level schools.

But there would appear to be a much wider culture of 'soft' or systemic racism, a lack of sensitivity or ignorance to race issues, that young students of colour find upsetting and alienating.

Certainly that is the impression created in conversations I have had over the past week with students of colour who are attending, or have very recently graduated from, a number of Irish second level schools.

They are from different schools, of almost all varieties, across the country.

The relaxed use of the 'N' word in classrooms across the country is a stark illustration.

I kinda knew the connotations behind the word, but being the only black student in the class I just had to let it go. It was quite traumatic to be honest

The word appears in two novels that are on the English Junior Certificate course, 'To Kill a Mocking Bird', and 'Of Mice and Men'.

It also crops up in texts related to American history. It is used 48 times in To Kill a Mocking Bird, and 16 times in Of Mice and Men.

The discomfort it is causing among students of colour here seems widespread.

"Whenever the word would come up there would never be any warning", another student tells me. He was 13 when they studied 'To Kill a Mocking Bird' in school. The teacher would assign different students to read from the book.

"I used to dread going to English class when we were reading that book. The guys would say it and then they would look at me. I kinda knew the connotations behind the word, but being the only black student in the class I just had to let it go. It was quite traumatic to be honest".

Some black students feel that the fact that the word is being spoken aloud during class time, and in an unmediated fashion, is even giving a licence to some other students use the word against them on the school corridors and in the yard.

You are 'Irish' until you are 10 years old. After that you are 'black'

And it is not just the 'N' word that is a problem.

"I remember when I was in 3rd Year we got to the lynching passage", another student says. This is a passage in 'Of Mice and Men' where the black stable hand, Crooks, is threatened with lynching 'I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain't even funny', another character tells him.

"I remember wanting to finish the book fast and get it over with, especially that particular chapter", she says. "It was emotionally draining, and really, really annoying".

It is not necessarily the novels themselves that are the problem, these students say - both are acclaimed anti-racist texts. It is the way they are taught in the classroom.

Her teacher never discussed the word beforehand with the class, or the context of the novel, this student says.

"He never discussed the importance of the 'N' word, and never approached us (the black students in the class) about how we might feel".

Listening to these students it's clear that when it comes to issues around language and racism they feel unsupported by the structures of their school, by their teachers for instance, and by the school culture.

Regardless of the type of school they attend, they all describe the early years of second level education as a kind of awakening, as the time when they become quietly and painfully aware of their difference.

When I say this to race relations consultant Dr Ebun Joseph she laughs. "It's a standing joke among black people here", she says. "You are 'Irish' until you are 10 years old. After that you are 'black'".

Dr Ebun Joseph

"It wasn’t until I was in 1st year that it became a thing" one girl tells me as she describes a debate that arose among classmates as to whether or not the 'N' word should be taboo.

"I began crying and there was a whole hullaballoo", she says. When a teacher intervened and failed to support her she "went into meltdown" and had to leave the class.

"For a long time after that I felt like I had been in the wrong", she says. "I felt it was my fault".

This student is now 15 and will return to that same school in September. It is a mid-sized urban school that would cater to a mostly white middle class student base.

Since first year she says, things have gotten worse. She has seen the word 'N' daubed on walls, and once on her classroom whiteboard. She does not think that her teachers are racist per se, but she describes what seems like a complete absence of sensitivity and support on their part.

"Especially the older teachers", she says, "they should have courses on how to deal with racist students".


Dr Joseph says one of the key concerns that schools express to her about their minority students is that they 'segregate themselves'. She says school feel uncomfortable when students of colour choose to hang around together. The response of schools to this kind of bonding is another big issue for students.

John*, who is now in college, tells me that for the first few years in secondary school he was one of just a handful of black students.

But after the Junior Cert several more joined his year, and he was overjoyed. John mixed well with the white students. He excelled at sport, which helped, he says. But he had always borne the brunt of racist slurs, and now he felt less isolated.

"We would always be with each other", he said. "We felt like a brotherhood, because we felt it was us against them.

"But this was seen as scary to other people.

"Teachers would say, if we were laughing, to be quieter. They would say 'why you are always so far away from the other students'. Us being together was definitely frowned on."

A 16-year-old girl, who attends a different school, recounts an incident that occurred when she was just 14.

A teacher accused her and three of her black friends of segregating themselves by choosing to sit together at a table. "The teacher said 'how would that look if someone came into the classroom?'. Me and my friend we began crying.

"It was just really emotional to me. I felt really, really ashamed and embarrassed".

When I ask her what she was ashamed of she replies "I was ashamed of being a black person in that class".

There were very few of us but we were segregated. With white girls they would always say their names, Katie or Aoife, but for us often they would say 'the black girls'

She says the message they got was that to be accepted by the school authorities they must at all times have a white student with them.

The incident had a profound impact. "The three of us decided to never to sit with each other again. That happened when we were in 3rd year. Although we were always friends we never sat next to each other ever again".

Dr Joseph is not shocked when I recount these stories to her. She says schools need to stop blaming students for their own shortcomings. "Schools need to ask themselves, what is it about the environment in their school that makes the black students feel they need to stay together to be safe?"

Another group of students, all girls, who completed 6th year this year, make a complaint that is almost the opposite as they chat to me together on the phone.

"We were always categorised as 'the black girls', It seemed like we were different, like we were a 'gang'".

During our conversation the girls use the word 'gang' several times, disparagingly. They use it as the school's word for them, not their own, and they are aware of its negative stereotypical connotations.

"There were very few of us but we were segregated. With white girls they would always say their names, Katie or Aoife, but for us often they would say 'the black girls'".

"I felt lesser than everyone else in the school" one tells me.


It seems that few conversations with black teenagers about school are complete without a conversation about hair.

They feel that their hair is policed to a disproportionate degree. They say that what they and their families regard as practical and culturally appropriate hairstyles are all too often viewed as transgressive by some school authorities.

The girls have stories, but it's not just girls who are affected.

One male student tells me he was suspended once because of the way he had cut his hair - shaved at the sides but higher on top. They would say "you look out of place, you've cut too much off".

While it was never explicitly stated to him John feels that the school thought he looked too intimidating, "like a criminal", he says.

"I was one of the tallest guys in the school and plus I was black" he adds.

His mother becomes impassioned when she recalls the incident, over which she was called in to the school. "This was a decent cut for any young black man in Nigeria, but they look at my child - a decent child from a decent home - and say he has a 'prisoner's hair cut'."

Her son is at university now, but she has two other children currently attending the same school.

"How could they care so much about a haircut but not about students being racially abused?", her son asks. 

All of the students I spoke to show great forbearance. They tell me they have been schooled in forbearance by their parents.

"If you deal with it, you are seen as an aggressor. You just have to let it be", says one male student.

They describe having laughed along at racist comments, just to get through. "you say 'oh ha ha ha that's a great joke, and they say 'sure I’m only having a bit of craic with you'", one says.

There are of course schools that are striving to make themselves as welcoming as possible to students of all backgrounds, and doing their best to provide secure and supportive environments for all.

There are schools that celebrate Black History Month, and presumably there are schools that introduce texts like those on the English curriculum with sensitivity and care.

But the kind of wisdom and consciousness displayed by the young students I spoke to would appear to be absent in the structures of the schools.

"It's kinda weird to me that the book about racism in the English curriculum was written by a white women" one young student tells me, referring to Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mocking Bird'.

"There’s other books, and better books about race".

When schools reopen the delivery of education will have been transformed as a result of Covid-19. But these second level students and their parents believe it is high time for other fundamental changes too.

"Teachers urgently need racial training, and schools need to review their policies", says one former student.

These young students could teach their schools, and the system, a thing or two.