Northern Ireland news

Powerful new exhibition illuminating experience of people of colour making Northern Ireland their home

Sheila Chakravarti: I was told I was unsuitable for further promotion

SUBTLE racism, middle-class exclusion of ethnic minorities and workplace discrimination are the inspiration for a powerful new exhibition illuminating the lived experience of people of colour who make Northern Ireland their home.

Photographer Sheila Chakravarti has spent more than a year working on the project which opens at Belfast Exposed today.

'The Default is White' is an exhibition of photographic portraits and written word, with powerful testimonies from a diverse group alongside their pictures.

Experiences include school bullying so severe it drove one young man to despair, death threats and the trauma of being branded unsuitable for promotion.

The 74-year-old from north Belfast said retirement from her job as an educator allowed her to freedom to examine the everyday racism under the surface of life in the north for so many people from all walks of life.

"Since I've retired and nobody depends on me I felt able to do this work," she told The Irish News.

Ms Chakravarti was "really surprised my own experience was not isolated, how universal it was, all the social exclusion, being called names, all having some level of graffiti up on a wall somewhere".

"It has been uplifting to know I am not alone. Other people have had the same experience as me."

She added: "A lot of people are aware that if you burn people out of houses this is not acceptable, but they don't see the other types of racism and they don't understand the sense of shame, hurt, anger and loneliness that sort of experience has for people."

Ms Chakravarti has lived in Northern Ireland for 52 years after meeting her husband during a Christmas holiday in Bangor with a friend from her school in England.

"I married someone from here and he refused to leave," she laughed.

"People still ask me where I'm from and are not prepared to take `Belfast' as an answer."

She started thinking about how "people here accept s*** put through your letterbox, or writing on the wall is racism, but the more subtle, middle-class exclusion exists for immigrants trying to make a life here".

Ms Chakravarti described conversations "about things you don't relate to" and the social exclusion which comes when no attempt is made to include the experiences or interests of the newcomer to the group.

"You know as an immigrant that you need to work for integration, but you hope others will work too - and that the burden won't be one they will still carry more than five decades later."

She said all participants in the exhibition "have made a direct and useful contribution to Northern Ireland", but still feel the difficulties of being an outsider, with the challenges of adapting to another culture made more difficult by daily racism in various forms.

However, "I'm not pessimistic", she said.

"We do have friends and allies and even in Northern Ireland things do change."

The Belfast Exposed exhibition opens at 7pm tonight and runs until November 27.

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