Black Voices In Conversation: Angel Arutura on growing up black in NI

A young black woman who was born and raised in Northern Ireland has spoken about her struggles with her identity, growing up feeling like she didn’t belong in such a predominantly white country.

Angel Arutura, 20, has Zimbabwean heritage, but has only found the confidence to embrace her roots in recent years.

Speaking to Lola Lawal, as part of a series of interviews by ITV News to mark Black History Month, she noted how even things that may seem small to others heightened that feeling of being different and set apart – like realising from a very young age that her hair wasn’t like that of other little girls in her class at school.

“They would be playing with each other’s hair, they would be able to take their hair out of the ponytail and braid each other’s hair and it was sort of like a connection, like friendship, it was bonding,” Angel said.

“But like many black children, our wash day was every Sunday, so my older sister and I, we would get our hair done every Sunday – my mum would braid it and we would not touch it, we would leave it until the next Sunday.

“And even if I was to take my hair out, there was no chance my friends would be able to braid it. Some people may call that stupid, but for me, it was such a huge part of my life.”

Angel explained that it was that desire to have straight hair, to fit in, rather than personal choice that led her to relax her natural hair – something that many black women have to navigate.

She feels that a lack of representation, especially for young people, can result in skewed views of what is “normal”.

With the growth of social media though, Angel became more aware as a teenager of black beauty bloggers and found the confidence to reclaim her identity and embrace her culture.

“As well, I have a little sister – she’s 10 now,” Angel said.

“And as soon as I first heard her start to talk about straightening her hair, that’s when I thought I can’t let her go through the same thing that I went through.

“I need her to know that black is beautiful, her natural hair is beautiful, her cultural features are beautiful. I really wanted to be a positive role model for her to look up to.”

She added: “And hopefully I’ve achieved that, because I think she’s now very confident in her skin and I know that, whenever I was that age, I definitely wasn’t.

“She was my motivation to be who I am today.”

That desire for more acceptance and better integration for future generations has also inspired Angel to play her part in raising awareness of racism in Northern Ireland.

She feels it is an issue that can be associated with “elsewhere”, with a particular focus on America in recent months, given the spotlight being shone on institutional racism after the death in police custody of George Floyd and numerous others.

Artwork remembering George Floyd on Belfast's International Wall of Murals. Credit: PA

“I think a lot of people think our country is only divided by religion and that is the only issue going on,” Angel said.

“Even whenever we talk about the Black Lives Matter movement, whenever that came to Northern Ireland, a lot of people thought that was just exclusively for America and it had nothing to do with us – and you know, I did experience racism growing up.

“Whenever I was around 14, I actually had a pupil from school, she actually said to me that racism doesn’t exist anymore.

“That was really hard for me to deal with – people not actually understanding my experiences, other black people, their experiences, and that’s why it’s really important for our narratives to be heard.

“Because a lot of people in this country think that it doesn’t exist, when I and a lot of other black people know that it’s a very prevalent issue and it needs to be addressed.”

Angel outlined how she has faced everything from blatant racism to micro-aggressions and issues that stem more from ignorance – but speaking up, even calmly, often only resulted in defensive responses, or suggestions of the “angry black woman” stereotype.

She also notes that the very small percentage of black people in Northern Ireland means that she has not experienced being surrounded by a black community growing up.

However, black people did come together during the Black Lives Matter protests.

Angel felt it was important to show her support, attending the events in Belfast with her dad who actually took the opportunity to address the crowd.

“He’s lived in Northern Ireland for 27 years, he came over from Zimbabwe,” Angel said.

“His speech was very, very powerful. It resonated with me and a lot of other people.

“I thought if he can do it, a black man who has lived in this country for 27 years, who’s seen it all - seen all the racism, the attacks, the abuse - it’s time for me to speak up.

“And for my younger sister as well. I knew I wanted a better country for her to grow up in. Because, in your most formative years, it really shapes you.”

Angel’s dad Tura Arutura addresses a rally at Custom House Square in Belfast. Credit: Pacemaker

But as important as Angel feels the protests were – despite controversy, in part due to the timing in encouraging people to gather, albeit with social distancing in place, amid the coronavirus pandemic - she fears that the energy has been lost and, for some, what was supposed to be a movement in terms of human rights was merely “a moment”.

She insists there is still a lot of work to be done in order to truly make headway for ethnic minorities, and that education from an early age is key.

Questions have been posed around how young is too young to talk to children about race, but Angel notes that she has experienced racism for as long as she can remember.

“Even now as a strong black woman, comfortable in my own skin, I still don’t feel like I belong here,” Angel said.

“And that really needs to change – especially for … Anything I do, I keep my younger sister in mind.

“She’s going to be growing up in this country and I definitely don’t want her to experience the same things I experienced.