07 Aug 2022

‘Denying existence of racism in Derry enables abuse’

Nkele Mushapho, 24, moved to Derry from South Africa at the age of 11 and she speaks about the racism she has faced in her home town

‘Denying existence of racism in Derry enables abuse’

A woman who has lived in Derry for most of her life says those claiming that racism doesn’t exist in the city are ‘invalidating’ the suffering of victims and ‘enabling abuse’.

Nkele Mushapho, who is 24-years-old, moved to Derry from South Africa at the age of 11.

She has been subjected to racist abuse on a regular basis through school, work and in her social life.

Speaking to the Derry News yesterday, Ms Mushapho said that not everyone is racist in Northern Ireland but her life here has been dotted with moments of racist abuse that act as a ‘constant reminder’ of her skin colour and make her feel like she’ll ‘never fit in’.

“Growing up I always felt my happiest when I was with my family.  I didn’t really do much.  I kept to myself a lot,” she said.

Ms Mushapho was the only black person who attended her primary school and it was there where she first became aware of her skin colour.

Her first experience of racism is etched in her memory.

“It was at school, when some of my classmates made fun of my name. I think that was the first time I felt truly different.

“When I was in South Africa my name was quite common so I never felt different.”

She did her A-levels at Foyle College then moved on to Ulster university.

Working her first job as a 17-year-old Ms Mushapho was repeatedly called ‘the black ‘b*****d’ by a colleague - an experience that gradually diminished her confidence.

“I got to the point where I didn’t feel comfortable going to work,” she explained, “to say that people don’t recognise colour here is wrong, when someone is calling me a black b*****d.”

While studying pharmacy at university there was a greater level of acceptance and friends supported her.

The 24-year-old said: “I had a great group of friends when I got to university that shared the same experiences as me so it didn’t feel as bad and our Irish friends would stand up for us too when we encounter any racist people.”

However, after graduating Ms Mushapho faced racism on an almost daily basis in the workplace.

Patients come in to the pharmacy and when she offers to help the customer asks for an ‘Irish pharmacist’ instead which makes her feel like she’s ‘not worthy of helping them’ as a black person.

To preserve her dignity at work she doesn’t react because she would carry the negativity with her and ‘always be having a bad day’.

She said customers asking for a white pharmacist belittles her making it seem as if her qualifications mean less than her white counterparts.

There’s a pressure, she says, to work ten times harder in order to prove herself.

Speaking about the way racism manifests in the workplace, she added: “Some people would be verbally abusive like the one I mentioned, with no shame or regard to anyone’s feelings and you have some that would ask someone else the same question I just answered just to double check if what I said was right.

“This really takes a knock on my confidence and self-esteem the most to be honest. I start to really second guess myself.

“When you’re looked at as less than, it affects your mental health.”

On other occasions she has faced racist slurs from people while out at night who then claim they aren’t racist because they have a black friend.


Photo caption: Nkele with Lilian Seenoi-Barr, Director of Programmes at North West Migrants Forum.

People have told Ms Mushapho that racism doesn’t exist in Northern Ireland. 

She believes that to make such claims ‘invalidates’ the experience of victims.

“Saying out loud that racism doesn’t exist is enabling people to continue abusing others, robbing kids the opportunity to learn because the information will never be available to them.

“You are allowing kids like TJ (her 9-year-old brother) to continue feeling that way and you are invalidating the pain that everyone people who have experienced it felt or are feeling at the moment.

“Honestly people who come out with comments like that probably would never have to worry about being discriminated against.”

The timing of the Black Lives Matter protests in the middle of the pandemic are ‘unfortunate’, she says, but people have reached their limits and need an outlet.

Over the years North West Migrants Forum has been an ‘amazing’ support network for Ms Mushapho.

She has taken part in activities at the centre since it opened in 2012 and described it as a ‘great asset’ to the city.

On how to tackle the scourge of racism in Northern Ireland, Ms Mushapho concluded: “I think the way forward is education. I think sometimes people are just narrow minded simply because the information isn’t there to change their view.

“Kids at school also need to learn about black people in a different light. They know what they see and hear at home or on the media and that picture doesn’t always represent who we are.”

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