So, the WHO has declared the recent Ebola outbreak an international health concern and the whole world is worried. Ebola is not only a threat to lives and generations, but it has also become another point of reference and a racist weapon for those who have convinced themselves that it is another African malady.
And, so I have been put in a position where I am reflecting on the ways I have personally been affected by the different shades of racism. I am not one to go around looking for who is treating me right or wrong, but life sometimes makes sure some realities are thrown in your face. I have had countless encounters like the ones I am going to share here, but not one of them has succeeded in making me feel like a victim, not one of them has ever made me doubt or question the essence of the human spirit and the capacity of the people in my life to love and to give.
I am living in a country which I have not only come to call home, but which I have genuinely come to love. But every once in a while, I am reminded that I am an immigrant.
A dear friend of mine who is Spanish has been advised by someone to stay away from me, because, according to the adviser, “you never know, there is the risk of contacting Ebola…” Seeing as I’m from “Africa”.
Few months ago, I worked as a coordinator in a language camp for young learners. An experience I enjoyed tremendously. Two day after the end of camp, one of my supervisors called me to say that one of the Mums had called to complain that her son, Miguel, had lice. I was concerned and tried to figure out which of the kids might have had lice during camp, then my supervisor told me apologetically that the mum suspected it must have been from me. Seeing as I’m from “Africa”.
People who know me know that I love kids, and the little free time I have when I get home from work I sometimes spend with a charming and beautiful young man called Alejandro. He is aged seven and he lives in my neighbourhood. Some months ago, his Mum had some medical problems with her stomach. Nobody knew what it was. After a while, the doctors said it might be an amoeba related infection, seeing as she and her husband had been to Africa some 12 years previously.
She then went ahead and asked that she wanted the son to be tested and told her husband to ask me to stop spending time with Alejandro. Seeing as I’m from “Africa”.
Miguel, a six-year old boy told his mum that the lice couldn’t have come from me because he noticed that I took a shower twice everyday and that my hair always smelt clean.
Alejandro saw me one day in the garden, ran to me and gave a big hug, then he apologised for not being able to spend time with me like before. He then explained that it was his mum’s fault, but that his mum doesn’t know what she was talking about.
My friend obviously didn’t heed the advice.
Let me point out that wherever I go, I have been opportuned to meet really wonderful, kind hearted and such generous people who have opened both their hearts and lives to me, regardless of age, race or colour, and I feel highly blessed to know all of them. I have known people who have lovingly “envied” me my permanent “tan”. I have met people who doesn’t see the colour of my skin as something negative and people who doesn’t immediately conclude that I am a poor, wretched, hungry and disease-infected being from “Africa”.
My dear friend, May, told me of a conversation that took place in her office. May (also from “Africa”) works in an International Liaison office for Arab countries and international NGOs. One of her colleagues expressed concern about how “these immigrants” are flooding what she termed “her country”, and taking their jobs. This colleague went further to say that it is unfair that with the ongoing economic crisis, her country has to worry about taking care of the immigrants when they the nationals are suffering. As May, a highly skilled professional schooled in different parts of the world, with an intimidating curriculum vitae, shared the story with me, I could sense the irritation in her voice.
There is a lot of things that could be said to counter that argument, but, why bother? The likes of that colleague won’t change their minds.
One of my friends, Marcus, had an interesting argument with me and told me plainly that in his opinion, people from his country were not racists at all. To buttress his point, he mentioned that there are now more immigrants in every city and town and that they mostly seem to be happy and well integrated. I couldn’t help but laugh at his naivety. About two weeks after that conversation, I got into a bus with him, and after swiping my transport card, I moved on to find a seat. Before I got to my seat, the driver called out to me and said I had not swiped the card. I told him that I was sure I did. But, he didn’t believe me and was almost creating a scene. I went back swiped the card and it didn’t work, he stopped the bus, brought out a machine to confirm that I had earlier swiped the card barely 5 minutes earlier. It happened that there was another girl directly before me who actually didn’t swipe her card. It was just an oversight. An honest mistake on her part. She was white.
Marcus was livid and went off on the poor driver. As realisation dawned on him, he kept apologising. And I kept telling him that it was really not his fault, since I was almost used to things like that (that’s if one can ever get used to it). The driver of that bus had seen two young women pass and had noticed that only one person swiped her card, it was logical to conclude that the one who didn’t must have been me. Seeing as I am an immigrant.
I get very irked when I hear some people say that they can’t possibly be “racists”, because they are friends with someone from a different race. Someone actually said to me the other day, “You know Jane, I am not a racist, my son is very close friends with a black boy in his class”.
My response? None. I just walked away. But then, I am an immigrant.
I could go on and and, but when I think about the negative things, and I’ve only mentioned just a few out of many outrageous situations, my heart is warmed by the responses like that of Miguel and a million others like them. I am humbled and softened by the hugs of my Alejandros. I feel vindicated by the tenacity of my Marcuses.
But, there are times when the thought of people who still directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously treat people from Africa differently just for being Africans makes me want to punch them in the face.
Then I remind myself that they are just very narrow-minded folks. And the word “narrow-minded” is not used here to insult of demean, it is just a statement of fact, because any one who chooses to see others as only one thing, be it colour, race, age or gender, is, in my opinion, indeed very narrow minded.
Racism is said to be dying down, and there are people who act shocked when the topic comes up, but there are still a million and one ways we still see it in the society today. I am blessed and I am strong and I know I will always rise above it and all the negativity it brings. I am not bothered because I have a very clear idea of who I am and my place in life and in the world, and nobody, no matter what you think about the colour of my skin or the country or continent of my birth. No matter how hard people try, whether intentionally or unintentionally, can limit me or seclude me to a tag that does not even remotely describe me.