On vacation with an unwelcome companion: racism

I’m back! After our wonderful cruise and being cut-off from the outside world (voluntarily, I might add!), we’ve re-entered the U.S. this morning and have now arrived in Orlando, our final vacation destination. We’ve also said our good bye’s to our friend Claudine from Philadelphia who is flying back tomorrow.

For the first time in my life, I’ve spent more than ten days in the company of a black person. Yes, I’ve met black people many, many times before, I am friends with black people (you know, the standard phrase people use when they say they’re not “that”…), but I’ve never spent so much time together with someone of black color. My son has, though. One of his teachers is from Nigeria and he’s spent a year with her, every day. He doesn’t see color.

This week, I’ve learned to. I wish I hadn’t.

See, Claudine is a good and close friend. We’ve been to Hawai’i together last year, and you might remember my blog post about that awful dinner reception we had at a local Waikiki restaurant. If not, you can read up here. We spent the first few days together in Tampa, surrounded by gays and liberals, gypsies and other colorful people who really don’t care much about who you are, how you dress, look or speak. As long as you hug, smile and are a good person, you’re accepted with open arms.

Arriving in Miami, I quickly had to learn that in the rest of society, things look different. Intellectually, I’ve always known that. I read papers, I’ve blogged about the happenings in Ferguson and elsewhere. I’m not naive. But what I didn’t understand is just how firmly rooted racism is in this country, and I pity it for all the losses it suffers because of it. Last year marked the 450th anniversary of slave trade to America, and it’s truly been five lost centuries. For a nation to so blatantly disregard so many of its citizens is beyond me.

Even more so, I cannot fathom that the black community still largely remains committed to a peaceful process. I would’ve lost it a long time ago. Call me naïve, but when we entered the terminal building in Miami, we had a few apples in our possession, two in our carry-on bag, the rest in our friend’s. Naturally, they were found out in the x-ray machine. I was politely asked to open the bag, I produced the two apples and was let go with a “have a safe trip” or something along those lines. The black (!) security officer then took over my friend’s bag and removed EVERY SINGLE ITEM from it, despite the fact that the apples were in a plastic bag, right on top. Naturally, he couldn’t find anything and eventually gave up when I returned to see what was going on and why it was taking so long. For a black man to treat another black person so differently shows how deeply rooted the racism against blacks is, when they themselves embrace it!

After that incident, there were countless others, both on the ship, ashore in the Bahamas and upon our return to the U.S. Sure, sometimes, I felt that certain “incidences” may be blown out of proportions, but can we blame them? If you are constantly, regularly, for your entire life, 24×7, treated as less than the caucasians, I’d be jumpy and edgy, too. Grant you, I confronted two of the people with my observations, and they – obviously – both denied to be racists and to have acted out of spite. Of course they would. I’ve yet to see someone besides the most obnoxious criminals (Re Charleston) to volunteer their despicable views and convictions.

Maybe they weren’t even aware of what they were doing to Claudine. Because much of the racism in this country is so institutionalized that it’s almost invisible to the naked eye: walk by a black person in a line to talk to the white person, smile at the white guy, frown at the black guy, greet the white person, not the black etc. It’s not always being gunned down by rotten egg cops or white supremacy lunatics. Nevertheless, it’s decades of these little degrading actions that destroy black people’s self-esteem and self-worth.

For me, this was a wake-up call, a well deserved one. Not that I know what we can do to counter this, except to talk about it. Maybe we need to be more careful in throwing about with the “r” word, maybe we just need to gently and politely ask people about their actions, open their eyes to an upbringing and a cultural mindset that has the dust of 451 years of racial segragation settled on it. I truly do not believe that the two people I confronted are racists, but they acted the way everybody else acts, the way we all act, if we are really honest with ourselves. We don’t trust strangers, not at first, we don’t trust people with other skin colors, other ethnicities, religions, cultures. Not at first. Most of us have been told “stories” or anecdotes about muslims, jews, blacks, gays, indians, arabs or the Irish (pick one) These stereotypes do serve a purpose. Our brain needs to catalogue, make sense of things, but while a racist will never re-arrange people into more suitable drawers, most people will. Once we learn more about them, we move them, from drawer to drawer, for them to finally end up in a highly personalized compartment, just for the individual. Sadly, what we disregard is the damage we can do in those first moments, that fleeting look, when we assess people based on the information we have at hand “ah, she’s black, hence…” It is that which we must try to overcome somehow, to see past color, creed, religion, etc. to see the person.

I had a very good learning experience at the Rainbow Convention in Tampa last week, where several of the attendees where transgender, or maybe, more appropriately gender fluid. It was literally impossible to tell if they were male or female. No Adam’s apples, no voices to give away anything, no genitalia flaunted in public. My brain was going stir-crazy (and I hope I didn’t give away my confusion), yet after a while, my brain gave up, accepting that “J” had breasts, not having an issue with “M” having a beard, and it really doesn’t matter, because the people behind those breasts, that beard or those names were amazing individuals; kind, helpful, talented.

It is above me why we let what’s skin deep determine so much in our societies. I thank Claudine for a most rewarding and educating experience. I am just sorry for all the awful and horrific experiences she’s had to suffer through alongside her “white” friends.

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You all have a wonderful weekend.

Hans

PS: Allow me to add a couple of sentences about racism elsewhere. It exists, of course. The way Indians look down on their fellow countrymen of lower castes, or how they look up to the white man. It’s beyond my comprehension. Europe and Asia have racist elements, too, of course, but the difference really lies in the institutionalization of that racism, how deeply rooted it is in this country. The only similarity I can find in Europe would be anti semitism and the treatment of the Roma people.

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