I cannot write about racism. I cannot write about ‘us’. Much less about what we should do or they should not do. I can only know and write about myself. Is it tempting to say that I am on the right side, that I condemn the violence, the discrimination, the persistent racism and be done with it. Is this not what is expected of me as a good citizen these days?
Then why does it feel empty?
I have to write about myself. I have to know myself. I am scared, but the first question I have to ask myself is
Am I a racist?
I look up racism. The Encyclopedia Britannica says : “Racism, also called racialism, [is] any action, practice, or belief that reflects the racial worldview — the ideology that humans may be divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called “races” […]and that some races are innately superior to others.” Other dictionaries have different wordings, but again, the core idea is that a racist believes that there is such a thing as race that comes with distinctive traits and attributes and that certain races are superior to others.
I have never held such worldview and the insanity of this belief is eminent to me.
Am I not a racist?
If the Encyclopedia Britannica was my only reference, I’d be off the hook. Other dictionaries, however, talk about racial prejudice, with prejudice being a “preconceived judgment or opinion” (Merriam-Webster).
And here things becomes more complicated. We can sit together and discuss the world and it will be easy for me to see, feel and express once again the insanity of judging other people based on some arbitrary feature such as skin color, size, sex or nationality. We’re all liberal when we feel save. I have friends of all colors; I have lived in black communities; my extended family is a rainbow version of skin pigments, I have spoken out against racism. I may convince some of you, but I cannot convince myself.
Is there no trace of racism in my mind?
I remember driving to work in Kampala with my new baby. She began to cry and I stopped on the curb to breastfeed her. As I sat in my car I felt uncomfortable under the stares of people passing by. I locked the car doors and kept the windows up.
Then I began to wonder. Would I feel the same if I had stopped on a German street? Probably not. Even though I’d be much more (as in MUCH MORE) likely to have someone frown at me or even come over to my car window and tell me that I shouldn’t be doing this. But this here was not about approval or disapproval of my breastfeeding. It was about being the only white woman near and far sitting in her car with a baby in an African country that I didn’t know well.
It took conscious work. Questioning my mind and my fears. I rolled the windows down. I sat and looked out. I smiled. And the fear subsided. I was a woman sitting in a car with her baby. A woman in a community, sitting in a car with her baby. A woman surrounded by friendly, curious people in a community feeding her baby.
Where did the fear come from? I don’t know. It was there. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being the unknown. Fear of the other. Fear of being attacked for being the other. My inherent racism. The voice that told me that I was different. They were different. And that this meant there was danger.
When I lived in the Philippines, we lived in a house in a gated community and every car was checked upon entry. I didn’t see the need for all the security, I just wanted the house, because it had a big garden. I found the constant snooping around my car annoying and unnecessary, and I often drove past without stopping. The guards let me. And I felt very self-righteous and affirmed in my dedication to freedom or whatever idea I had created in my mind.
Then one day I sat down and asked myself some questions. Why did they allow me to drive past without reaction? Did I really believe it was because they honored my ‘courage’ or desire for ‘freedom’? Did I truly believe they did not stop me because they agreed with me? Or did they rather let me pass by because I was a white woman living in a big house inside the compound, and they were Filipino guards, barely making a living and afraid to lose their jobs?
What was I really doing? I put them in a situation where they had to choose between the fear of being reprimanded for not maintaining security and the fear of getting in trouble because the white woman would complain about them. The fear of the white woman won. Congratulations to me.
Would I have had the courage to drive by if the guards had been German or American guards? I do not think so. I remember the deep shame I felt when I realized what I had been doing.
On another note, I had an experience more than ten years ago, when I worked in Colombia. I had stayed with an Afro-Colombian community for a while, I lived with my friend and her family. It was a small town of poor peasants, we were eating cheese-fried bananas and sitting on the dirt road, because that was all there was to do, when the local bus passed through. Inside was a young woman with skin much lighter than the skin of everyone else in this community. She was Afro-Colombian, only lighter than the others.
We all stared at her. “Wow, she’s so white,” I thought, as she disappeared into the dust. Only then — and with a shock — did I look down at my own arms that were as white as ever. Only then did I realize that for some time I had completely forgotten that I had a different skin color than everybody else. That moment I felt a weird sense of loss and disconnection. I had reminded myself again that I was different. I was the other again.
Am I racist?
Can I say that I am not? That we are not different? Can I say that we are all the same? Can I call you my sisters and brothers? Or will you hate me for denying your experience? Will you accuse me of mockery? Will you scream into my face that I cannot be your sister because I have never felt the pain of racism? You could be right.
My whole life I have had white skin and a European passport. The only time I was harassed by police was during protests. The decision to participate in those protests was mine. I could have stayed away. I always have a choice.
Am I racist?
I have judged. I have disregarded others because of their origin. I never intended to. But I did. When I’m conscious, I see the insanity. When I’m unconscious, I have allowed it to define my actions and reactions. I wish I didn’t. I wish I wouldn’t. But this is my truth.
And the truth is the best I can offer to you.
Help me become better.