Racism in Ireland is something which AONTAS members recognise and know needs to be addressed.

3 Jul 2020
In this blog, AONTAS information and Policy Officer Sam O’Brien-Olinger reflects on last week’s weekly membership update webinar (24th June 2020) which saw Shane O’Curry, Director of the Irish Network Against Racism, present and build on the conversation started by AONTAS Board member Joy-Tendai Kangere at the webinar on 10th June.

Racism in Ireland is something which AONTAS members recognise and know needs to be addressed. The adult and community education (ACE) sector plays an important role in combating racism through a variety of educational activities. Over the past fifty years ACE can be proud of its strong track record in making invaluable contributions to challenging negative stereotypes, increasing social inclusion and cultural integration, improving civic engagement, strengthening democracy, and fighting

xenophobia. A healthy and necessary response from the sector to recent events surrounding the murder of George Floyd and racial inequality has been to reflect on its role and further interrogate how it can improve on its core social justice work.

The analogy of racism being a virus long predates COVID-19 but, with members of ethnic minority groups across the world suffering disproportionality during the health emergency, it is now even more imperative to contain and eradicate both epidemics. Anti-racism is an essential strand of the sector’s efforts around social justice and change; and to bringing about equality through education provision that empowers those who are excluded from full participation in society. In this blog, AONTAS information and Policy Officer Sam O’Brien-Olinger reflects on last week’s weekly membership update webinar which saw Shane O’Curry, Director of the Irish Network Against Racism, present and build on the conversation started by AONTAS Board member Joy-Tendai Kangere at the webinar on 10th June.   


This week the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) marked the 20th anniversary of the EU’s Race and Equality Directive by calling on the new Government to ensure that the elimination of racial discrimination and promotion of equal opportunity regardless of ethnicity is “core” in future policy decisions. Reporting in the Irish Times, journalist Sarah Pollack wrote that

‘The Black Lives Matter movement has shone an “uncomfortable light” on the unspoken reality of racism and racial discrimination in Ireland…This country’s treatment of Travellers, in particular, has been “a dark shadow on our democracy for generations”’ (Click Here to read more).

One organisation that has continued to shine an uncomfortable light on racism over the last decade is the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR). INAR was invited to educate and empower AONTAS members on the range of issues surrounding Racism in Ireland at last week’s Weekly Membership Update Webinar (for more details on the previous 12 webinars Click Here). Some of the high-level policy demands INAR has been lobbying Government for include:

The 11th and 13th chapter of the AONTAS webinar series followed the international outpouring of outrage triggered by the murder of George Floyd. While it may be tragic that this is not the first time that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has had to fight back and raise the world’s awareness about racial inequality and injustice, it does seem that its most recent wave of activism and iteration of righteous indignation has gripped a wider audience on a deeper level. This time BLM has increased its number of allies and made an unprecedented impact. One positive and clear indication of this wider recognition and increased understanding that we must rid ourselves of racism is how last week’s input from Shane O’Curry, Director of INAR, was the second instalment on this topic in the last three weeks. A summary of all the learning imparted at last week’s webinar is simply not possible, such was the range and depth of the presentation given and the discussion that ensued. Here will be a very brief glance at just some of the salient points made to encourage more AONTAS members to learn about racism and to get involved in anti-racism.

What is Racism?

Shane recognised that adult and community educators are used to questioning all manner of topics with learners. He mentioned that similarly to his own work to educate people on issues surrounding racism there is usually already a lot of knowledge and experience in the room to draw on. One simple and useful method for exploring racism and getting the ball rolling is to ask ‘if an alien landed on Earth and wanted to know about racism, what would I say?’ 

While there are many ways to explain or describe the phenomenon, in its online resource Understanding Racism, INAR defines racism as

Any action, practice, law, speech or incident which has the effect (whether intentional or not) of undermining anyone’s enjoyment of their human rights, based on their actual or perceived ethnic or national origin or background, where that background is that of a marginalised or historically subordinated group. Racism carries connotations of violence because the dehumanisation of ethnic groups has been historically enforced through violence.

‘In other words’, as the resource states, ‘racism is when an individual, group, structure or institution intentionally or unintentionally abuse their power to the detriment of people, because of their actual or perceived “racialised” background. It’s important to understand that racism is an ideology from a colonial past which “holds one race superior, while another inferior” in the words Bob Marley in his song ‘War’’.

Racism is something that AONTAS and its members recognise needs to be addressed in Ireland. Adult and community education play an important role in combating racism (Click Here for more) by:

A healthy and necessary response from the ACE sector to this historical moment has been to reflect on that role and to further interrogate how to become better at stamping out racism in Ireland. In taking steps to ensure adult and community education becomes a leader in anti-racism, AONTAS is joining the 100+ civil society organisations that are members of INAR.


The decision to become a member of INAR follows a powerful presentation at the weekly Wednesday gathering given by Joy-Tendai Kangere, AONTAS Board member. Her presentation was entitled ‘What role does Adult and Community Education play in the process of anti-racism?’. Joy-Tendai reminded us that extreme overt racism, such as racially motivated murder, does not only happen in other jurisdictions like the United States. Referring to the Dublin teenager and student Toyosi Shittabey, who was murdered on 2 April 2010, she drew the link between hate crime and how the Irish Criminal Justice System is certainly not immune from racial bias. As both Joy-Tendai’s and Shane’s contributions made clear, the idea that Ireland somehow does not have a problem with racism is simply untrue. The outpouring of personal experiences from mainly Travellers, Black Irish people and People of Colour living across the country on social media in recent weeks is testament to that fact.     

To view the webinar with Joy-Tendai click here, and to read the blog click here.

Building on the discussion which Joy-Tendai helped AONTAS to start, Shane took AONTAS members on a journey through the reality of racism in an Irish context. He spoke about older forms of racism in Ireland related to anti-Traveller discourse and antisemitism, as well as how women from minority groups experience racism in a markedly different way to men. He also covered what we can do about racism as individuals and professionals, and how to approach racism from an organisational perspective and as a sector.  

Racism in Ireland

‘According to the 2016 Census, education levels amongst Travellers remain low, with 62 per cent having primary education or less, 13 per cent having completed second level and only one per cent having a college degree.  Eighty per cent of Travellers reported as being unemployed, compared with 13 per cent for non-Travellers.’  (Say No to Racism, 2019)

Shane pointed out how the lived experience of members of ethnic minority communities is essentially different to those who benefit from being part of the dominant ethnic majority. The exclusion of minority ethnic people from all of the taken-for-granted benefits that the ethnic majority enjoys has been termed ‘white privilege’ by many commentators and experts. From going to the local shop, being at work, taking the bus, interacting with police officers and, yes, to attending educational institutions, the everyday lived experience of people from racialised minorities in Ireland is different to that of people from an ethnic majority, settled, white background. There’s a serious lack of awareness in the ethnic majority about how detrimental racism really is for those on the receiving end of it and how we as a society all suffer. As Shane described this ignorance:   

“if you’re from a minority background you’re going to experience life differently and you’re going to experience things that people from the majority population take for granted, that they are not going to experience. And it may not occur to them [the majority] that they are not going to experience it…In the BLM moment that we’re in, the veil has been slightly lifted and the majority population is catching a glimpse of the reality”

INAR’s iReport system offers more than just a glimpse into this reality. It provides the most robust data on incidents of racism and hate crime in Ireland and has been hailed as an example of best-practice in Europe. In fact, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) uses the data provided by INAR to compare racism across nation-states. The OECD does not rely on statistics from reports made to An Garda Síochána. On the basis of January-June 2017 data: only thirty percent of those reporting crimes to also reported them to An Garda Síochána. More than two-thirds chose not to report to Gardaí, which represents some indication of how Government, the Department of Justice and police in Ireland must engage more with members of ethnic minorities to improve their record on addressing racism.

To fully understand racism in Ireland Shane encouraged webinar participants to explore the range of freely available resources INAR has produced. To help fight racism it is vital to the work of INAR that everyone reports racism, not only people from ethnic minority backgrounds who directly experience it. Witnesses are also very much encouraged and supported to come forward because the information gathered through iReport helps INAR to inform decision-makers and the public about the nature and degree of the problem. Ireland needs more people to come forward and contribute to an evidence-base which allows INAR to lobby for change through its various advocacy campaigns.

Anti-racism: resources

Shane also carefully explained how racism breeds within and across four main interrelated areas: it operates through the legacy of colonialism and present-day outcomes of historical slavery; it exists at a structural level within systems and bureaucracies; it also works within institutions and organisations; and it manifests itself between individuals in every day settings.

Regardless of where and how it infects our lives and spreads, we need to arm ourselves against racism by using resources that deal with it on every level. Webinar attendees were introduced to INAR’s Responding to Racism Guide. In this guide are resources that you can use to confront, report and tackle racial discrimination; learn how to support someone who has suffered racism; and find out what is best to do when you experience racism or witness it in person, online and in the media. In urging everyone to report any incidents that you consider to be racist via iReport, Shane also debunked a number of myths surrounding racism, or the lack thereof, in Ireland. In doing so he covered a range of essential principles for addressing the four mutually reinforcing dimensions of racism. One of these principles was to understand the vital difference between the question of what is, or is not, considered intentionally racist on the one hand, and on the other hand what the very real outcomes are for the person and community on the receiving end of it. Situating any understanding of, and judgement on, a racist system or interpersonal act must first look at, and prioritise, the impact racism has.

In short, whether racism is intentional or not is just not a useful way to approach the problem. Sadly, but truthfully, the connection between things that may seem unintentional such as banter and bias, is just too close and the consequences are all too real. As the ‘pyramid of hate’ below demonstrates, jokes and genocide are fundamentally connected.

Stopping racism in its tracks

INAR’s ‘pyramid of hate’ illustrates the relationship between the most extreme acts of racial violence, including genocide, and other lesser acts of violent and verbal hatred and prejudice. These are all part of the same racist process, “every escalation of hatred is more likely to occur if the context includes the presence of ‘lesser’ manifestations of prejudice and hatred. The people responsible for escalating acts of hatred, do so under the pretext that they are expressing the views of the group they claim to represent; they are enabled to escalate to the next level by the normalisation of prejudice around them. As each level of hatred becomes accepted as normal, society moves up the scale of hatred towards genocide” (See Shane drew on the example of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland to illustrate how hate travels up the ‘pyramid’ so that racism escalates to genocidal organised violence: “when you don’t tackle ethnic hatred at its root, you get open ethnic conflict erupting”.    

As Joy-Tendai previously pointed out in her presentation, Shane referred to the ‘Pyramid of Hate’ to explain how a string of ‘micro-aggressions’ can, and does literally, result in murder when left unchecked. Early intervention is very important in stopping racism in its tracks. Shane said that in INAR’s work to remind Gardaí about the importance of reporting racism that “even if something doesn’t reach the threshold of a criminality, even if it is not yet a crime, we should have ways of reporting it”.

Anti-racism: taking action

At the breakout room section of the webinar, Shane provided participants with a real-life scenario as an exercise to get everyone thinking about how to respond to racism when it happens:  

While some answers to the above questions may vary case by case, depending on certain factors and specific details, one thing became very clear to webinar participants: not having answers is not good enough.

In the breakout rooms participants identified significant training and knowledge gaps that needed to be addressed in order for them and their organisation to adequately respond to racism when it occurs. Many did not know that iReport existed and that there was a way to report racism without going to the Guards. Others mentioned that their ‘go to policy’ for racism was really designed for bullying and that this was not fit for purpose. Interpersonal responses such as listening and sympathising with the person being harassed were said to be very important. However, when it came to taking action many were less sure of how best to respond.    

Whether racism affects learners, colleagues or you personally and your own family, the consensus was that adult and community educators need to have answers.   

Making adult and community education a racism-free zone and safe for everyone

AONTAS will be carrying out more work to make adult and community education a safe learning space for racialised minorities. This work will require AONTAS members to also stand up to the clear and increasing levels of racism and xenophobia that have gone unchallenged for far too long.

Through adult and community education adults from all kinds of cultural backgrounds come together and are empowered to tackle all kinds of personal and social challenges. The sector provides unique opportunities for organic social ties between people of all ethnicities to grow and flourish. However, we need to take great care of this space. Celebrating diversity as a strength and facilitating social integration represents just one side of the coin, albeit an incredibly important one. The other side involves a duty of care to ‘racism-proof’ every learning environment. This can be achieved by developing and implementing anti-racism policies and practices that permeate every dimension of your organisation. AONTAS encourages its members to explore the resources INAR has produced and to contact INAR or AONTAS about implementing anti-racism strategies and training.     

Racism not only requires our attention and action because it is morally unacceptable and ethically unjustifiable, it requires an urgent response because it also represents a direct threat to the sustainability and fundamental mission of the adult and community education sector. Working alongside our allies and fellow INAR members, AONTAS will contribute to changing the culture, policies and structures that reproduce bias, microaggression, discrimination and violence against racialised minorities in Ireland. To move to a new reality where racism has been eradicated thanks to our joint opposition and proactive intervention will require collective determination. Fortunately, as a sector we have an innate advantage over racism that can be traced back to our shared values and practices. These values and practices define adult and community education. As a sector we thrive on and excel in empowering individuals and communities to overcome inequality and injustice.

For more information please contact Sam O’Brien-Olinger, AONTAS Information and Policy Officer via email or call 01 4068220.  


AONTAS is organising a workshop for adult learners called ‘Black Lives Matter and Anti-Racism: What does it mean and what can I do?’ This is part of AONTAS’ European work and the Learners as Leaders EAAL programme in partnership with EPALE. To find out more and to get involved please email

In order to effectively and comprehensively feed the issues learners and members are currently facing AONTAS relies on your support and input to continue its work with, for and on behalf of the sector (Registration for the upcoming webinars is available on our Events page.)

If you are an AONTAS member and can contribute to the weekly online gathering with your experience, suggestions and solutions to the common challenges facing the sector then please get in touch via email: or call 087 114 9278.