My first experience of racism – I have been living in countries other than my own for a while now and even though I knew racism exists I had never had a first hand experience of it. Until recently. And this is a post about what it did to me…
Scene#1: I was living in my safe happy bubble with my sweet host, in a comfortable house, with a magnificent view of the lake. Everyone was nice to me and I was nice to everyone. Life was good, but there was one small thing missing – friends ‘my age’. In a bid to find me some of that, I went to a local ‘expat hang out’ in the city. This tiny little shady bar is the watering hole of the young expats and wanna-be-young expats. I arrive there. There are a lot of white people and a few people of color. Everyone is in their small exclusive groups, and I try a few times to be part of a group and make conversation, but to no avail. Many times I’m just plain ignored, sometimes some say mean things : ‘You are standing on the wrong side of the light, I can’t see you there’. ” Ugghh, the toilets in this place are disgusting, those horrible hole in the ground Indian style toilets, oh wait you are probably used to them, agh, sick.” I would switch groups and again a similar experience would repeat itself. Most people would just ignore my existence there or when they did see me, they would smile and look away. Never before in my life was I so aware of the color of my skin.
The only group I was welcome in was with a man from Jordan, one from Burundi and a girl from Romania. The three of them were also standing apart from the rest and they welcomed me whole heartedly. I had some nice conversations with my new friends and went home with a fuzziness about what I had felt. When I spoke some friends about it I got varied reactions – ‘Welcome to reality.’ ‘ Maybe you were just new?’ ‘ Agh, f*** them. Don’t let them get to you.’
My already confused mind was shaken a little more. I had been ‘new’ to places before, I knew how that felt, this was more than that. In a bid to test the validity of my experience I went for two more parties on the weekend. The first one was a bit better, it was a small group of girls, at someone’s house and I met a 2 congolese girls here as well who I seemed to get along with better than the rest.
Scene#2: It was in a ‘famous doctors organisation’ guesthouse and I felt the bar experience from previous night super strongly again! There was a big group of white people, a small group of black people and I was the only brown one. I was hanging out mostly with my two new Congolese friends. I tried to interact with a lot of people but it was not always a success. Many times people just looked through me, we would be sitting in a group, someone new would come to say bonjour to everyone with kisses on the cheek, and I think 3 people introduced themselves to me, the rest just skipped me, and didn’t bother introducing themselves. This one time I introduced myself to someone ‘ he looked at me with a ridiculous expression and said – look at my face, do you think I understand what you are saying? ‘ and then he says indignantly, you are from India? I say yes, and he smirks.
At some point I was smoking, one guy comes and asks my friend who is sitting beside me if she can ask me if I have another cigarette for him. I say, “I’m right here, you can ask me, you know?” So I fish out a a cigarette, I was smoking the local brand, so he says annoyed, ” You smoke sportsman?” and I said ‘ when in rome.. do as the romans” and he says talking down to me – ‘you think this shithole is Rome?’ I say – “Its an expression’. He asks for a lighter and my name – I tell him and he leaves laughing. It was someone’s birthday and they were also distributing cake, one girl comes to offer me some, I say thanks and try to introduce myself, she looks annoyed and leaves. And then there are all these guys who were trying to flirt with me. Touching my shoulder and my back, they don’t know me. And I told them to back off, but they were still being annoying. I had to say atleast 5 times to 5 different people, that I was married only then they would back off. And some men would not even take that seriously, just kept looking at me like I was some exotic fish. Finally I get out of there.
The next morning I woke up angry and disgusted. I felt wronged, violated even and I was super emotional all day. My brain knew this was not personal, it was structural, it was political, but my heart and my body didn’t understand that. It was a feeling of being treated differently than others, being treated as less than some because of my skin!? It was annoying that people felt they could come touch my shoulder if they want, but what was more hurtful was that many people just looked through me – Just ignoring my existence. When I told my host about this, she was shocked and disgusted and angry. She remarked that they probably thought I was a local Indian girl and in a sweet protective and motherly way she told me to forget those horrible people and said maybe we should get in touch with some Indian people here. Later that evening my Congolese friend came over and I spoke to her about this, and she said it was true. She had felt it as well, most expats would treat her as less than them, ‘ even though I am more educated than most’, she said. Her advice to me was that – these people are ass*****, do not pay attention to them. That’s what I do, she said. And yes maybe the people who behaved like this were ass***** but this is not a behaviour problem, its structural, its systemic. And she said, “yes but what are we going to do about it? If we pay attention to it, we suffer, so let it go. C’est normal.”
Talking to her, helped me get over my emotions about this a little bit and helped me see it more clearly. Now I can write or talk about this without feeling hurt. Also, I realised that I was ashamed of my experience. I didn’t want to talk about it. I was hesitating to tell people. I knew it was not my fault, I knew I was wronged and yet I felt embarrassed to say it out loud! Almost like when you get sexually assaulted.It’s quite interesting actually, of all the possible embodied experiences I thought I could have in the DRC, this was the least on my mind!
This happened a week ago and I hadn’t yet blogged about it because I was struggling with conflicting emotions. On one hand what I felt was very real and painful but on the other hand the responses I was getting to my experience were problematising my feelings about this even more. I met a few of these people again over the past week and they were a teeny bit better behaved. Maybe it was because this time I was meeting them with a respected white person instead of a local congolese girl? I got to know many things about their lives and felt judgemental and angry but then again through conversations with my host, this understanding was further complicated. It is difficult being here, away from your family, way out of your comfort zone so maybe it is normal that people stick together with ‘familiar faces’? And yes, while many of them may have the ‘ I’m here to Save Africa’ complex, they do affect lives in a positive way, no matter how limited. While none of this justifies racist behaviour or dismisses my experience, it helped me see more than just one story of the people who I felt had wronged me.
While most of us believe that we live in a ‘post- racism’ world, it is a reality of our world. My experiences made me introspect on my own conscious and subconscious behaviour towards people around me. I feel that I am now more aware and awake, conscious of the ways in which I may be unknowingly hurting people. I’m certain that most people who I met these weeks, just as me, didn’t purposely want to be racist, but were probably just not conscious of their behaviour. We are not even aware of the millions of assumptions we guard in our minds and bodies that our brain processes in the microseconds of meeting someone that make us react to them in a particular way. These assumptions are social, they are structural and they are political. If the personal is political then the political is personal as well. It is important that we talk about this, and that we become conscious of our behaviour and let go of the fake assumption that we live in a ‘post-racist’ world, because we do not. The forms may have changed but it is still very much a monster that lives in all of us, may be by becoming conscious about this ugly side of ourselves, we may be able to avoid hurting people knowingly or unknowingly.
Disclaimer: It is pertinent to note that I have also met some really sweet, loving and awesome people in the course of my time here, who happen to be expats as well. So this post in no way is meant to make generalisations on the expats in Bukavu, rather it is an account of my own personal experience with a few in a given context and time.
Also, I know that racism is not something that will go away by something as simplistic as becoming aware, but in the least, it is an attempt to avoid hurting more people just because we didn’t know we were hurting them…