“I’m a black British woman of Irish-Nigerian heritage, thank you very much.”
It’s easy to make presumptions.
Our initial conversations had been the stuff of genteel civility. The compliments about the podcast, the light hint of Birmingham in the accent, the repetition of my name – “Doug” – like a reassuring touch on the arm.
After all, this woman is a Dame, an Emeritus Professor. She’s discussed favourite records with Lauren Laverne. How establishment does anyone get?
But then there’s the sentence I’ve repeated like a mantra when promoting our interview.
It’s there at the top of this post.
And it’s the last four words that do it.
They don’t stem from anger or resentment. But they do come from defiance. Elizabeth Anionwu is not a woman to be told who she is meant to be or where she’s supposed to go. Whether calling for more to be done for BME health provision or confronting those that see mixed race Irish as not “proper”, she is still the girl who challenged her stepfather – even though she knew what would happen – all those years ago .
Not that she has always been so certain of herself. Far from it. But when she talks about washing her face ten times to try to be white like the other girls in the convent, or being told she’s not Nigerian enough for not speaking Igbo, we are clearly in the presence of someone who may not fit in, but who will be damned if she’s going to be side-lined as “other”.
Elizabeth Anionwu’s story is notable in that her sense of Irish identity (raised by nuns then cared for by her Irish grandparents) preceded her black one (reading Frantz Fanon, developing a political consciousness in the 70s).* It is also notable that she still seems surprised by it all. Her website talks of “delights” and “being honoured” and it’s a sense you also get from listening to her. That she is still on a quest: to learn, to understand and to change the world around her.
Dame Elizabeth Anionwu remains defiant. And that’s not a presumption at all.
*That’s a sweeping generalisation: of course she knew she was black when she was younger and of course her Irishness remained with her in her 20s. But the point remains.