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Áine Mulloy talks to Mia Douglas about being Mixed-Irish. Mia Douglas

Interview 'Being mixed race seemed to give others the impression I could be poked and prodded'

Mia Douglas meets Áine Mulloy who documents the changes she’s witnessed in how people approach her over the years.

“IF WE DO retaliate then we’re the aggressor”. Áine Mulloy is Mixed-Irish. In the past, she described growing up in this context made others feel the authority to poke and prod as if she was a “weird creature”. Mulloy has fair skin, a defined nose bridge, and the most recognisable part of her identity, black curly hair.

Her curls can be identified as “3C”. According to Carol’s Daughter, a popular curly hair care brand, 3C is the curliest curly hair one can have. This contributed to the questions surrounding her identity and the validity of her being Irish.

Mulloy, previously voted one of the Forbes top 100 EU Female Leaders to follow, is an Amazon Web Services Business Development Manager and TedxTalk speaker. Previously she was featured in The Journal’s online video series “Yes I’m Irish” where she recounted her unique experience of intersectionality.

IMG_8825 Áine Mulloy talks to Mia Douglas about being Mixed-Irish. Mia Douglas Mia Douglas

The most common in Ireland, she says is, “Where are you really from, and then you need to divulge basically your entire family tree until they’re happy with the answer.” For Mulloy this is her being born in London with a father hailing from Westport and his mother Galway while Áine was raised in Mayo. Mulloy’s mother is Afro-Caribbean English. Her early school days were chronicled by diversity or the lack thereof.

In my classes, the diversity is very low. For example, I’ve never had a teacher or a lecturer that wasn’t white. And so I think when you’re growing up in those spaces, you’re definitely somewhat of an outsider.

Mulloy became cognisant of each space she entered, realising that crossing the boundaries of her own safe “little pocket” could result in discrimination or worse a dehumanising experience.

Having to account

Don’t touch my hair. A popularised phrase that’s turned from a movement to a reclamation of what has been politicised. Hair. Dublin-born Emma Dabiri’s book “Don’t Touch My Hair” sparked serious conversations surrounding growing up in a predominantly white society where her hair was a source of “shame”.

Dabiri intertwines historical and societal precedence to explain how hair became a huge point of contention in determining identity and proximity to whiteness.

Áine acknowledges that “ if you’re thinking about within the context of what it looks like to be in an all-white space, and the proximity to whiteness makes things easier.” However, a major part excluded from this was the texture of her hair, which made it obvious that no matter how “white passing” she was, she was not actually fully white.

White passing has been defined as “someone perceives a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and Person of Colour) as a white person“. The experiences of people touching her hair without permission started at an early age making Mulloy feel helpless and almost compliant in being okay with something that clearly signalled discomfort.

At a point in her life, Áine says she felt, “conditioned a little bit to accept it and to not retaliate” out of fear of being seen as the aggressor. She recounts her transition from childhood to being an adult from being compliant to resistant. “I used to just kind of smile and laugh. And now I just like to swat their hand away, I just have no time for it at all. It’s very dehumanising.”

IMG_8807 Áine Mulloy talks to Mia Douglas about being Mixed-Irish. Mia Douglas Mia Douglas

When Mulloy began setting clear boundaries around this, she was often labelled as the aggressor. “Sometimes it can evoke anger, sometimes it can evoke real upset and hurt from the other person as if you’ve almost shamed them”.

Unwanted attention

The act of touching someone’s hair can be defined as a microaggression as everyday subtle and intentional interactions or behaviours communicating bias to historically marginalised groups. Kevin Nadal, psychology professor and researcher of the effects of microaggressions asserts that the people who carry out these acts may not be aware of the purpose of their actions or statement.

IMG_8848 Áine Mulloy Áine Mulloy

But, the issue is something much bigger. “The issue is that this person is processing and violating a very obvious boundary: don’t touch someone without their consent. But suddenly the victim was the person who was absorbing all this guilt and shame and fear and the person who did it just you know, carried on with their life in that instance.”, Áine states.

She says a consequence of not speaking up is carrying the burden of what you believe you could have or should have said. But, this may be a conditioned response. Strikingly, Áine says there has been evidence of a change of heart. A transition from people feeling entitled to touch a stranger’s hair to apologetic.

More recently where people have actually come back to me and apologised and said, I’m really sorry, I’m actually not sure why I did that, you know, when I’ve tried to sort of make amends, which has been interesting to see because that wouldn’t have happened a couple of years ago.

During the pandemic, she says “I still would have white women, you know, put their hands in my face and into my hair.” This unique change is one that Áine is also contributing to.

IMG_8794 Áine Mulloy talks to Mia Douglas about being Mixed-Irish. Mia Douglas Mia Douglas

In terms of diversifying spaces around her, Áine makes it a point to “try to think of more diverse recommendations to make sure that people are being represented fairly across Ireland, but also give opportunities to those who’ve been, you know, systematically excluded, or may just not be on the radar of some of these companies and organisations as well.”

For the young girls who may be facing the same illicit treatment, Áine tells, “Don’t be afraid to express yourself to stand up for yourself”. The Don’t Touch My Hair movement is not about hair.

Stories like Áine Mulloy’s make it clear that the unsolicited touching of hair, whether intentional or not, is in an effort to dehumanise one and take away their voice. Don’t Touch My Hair is ownership, honour and courage to stand up against the status quo.

Mia Douglas is a reporter with The Journal.