The week I was reminded that I am black
It’s been a long couple of weeks. Between starting and finishing my dissertation over a two and a half week period (which I would not advise) and trying to mind a five-year-old at the same time, and feeling guilty for neglecting all else, it’s been hard.
So last week when my annual leave ended and it was back to work and college as usual, I wanted life to get back to its usual hectic pace.
We only have a three more days of college left and I have to admit that I am looking forward to ending and getting a little bit of my life back. And as we have no exams this year, last week’s day was meant to be a relaxing day of pure learning. At least I thought it would be.
We had a guest lecturer for the day. An older man, in his late eighties, held in quite high esteem in the college and around the country. So it was meant to be a very promising, engaging day packed with learning.
Well, it started off…okay. There was a lot of theory, which I generally like, and mostly geared towards the philosophical thought around consciousness and systems and such. Then he spoke about how some of the thinking around certain times lead to the atrocities and practices of colonialism and turned to me and said “you’re a black person” and I was blasted back. I was really….like, okay. Firstly no shit Sherlock. But…huh?
And my back was up.
I hate being singled out. For anything. But most especially for unsolicited things based on race. I am already aware that I’m black, every day of my life. Something I lived for a good portion of my life being unaware of, I now notice every day. And to sit in a situation where I am always aware that I stand out, in more ways than one, and have that pointed out to me just pisses me off with a side serving of here we go again. If you have a question to ask me, well and good, but to make a statement and then single me out? uhn-uh.
But you know what, life is too fricking short so I decided to just as Elsa sang, “let it go”
Now, second, a lot of the philosophical stuff that was being given, I didn’t agree with, and I said so and I felt like I was replying from the tiny stirred angry part inside and I started to tell myself off a little bit. I can’t just not like someone because of one comment, right? right.
And I find it usually helps to humanise people so I try to start a casual chat or conversation to see beyond what I’m presuming. I went over at the break to ask about the powerpoint presentation and if it was okay to get it on USB (I hate taking notes when I could be listening) and he asked THE DREADED QUESTION. Now, if you’re visibly foreign in Ireland, or have a visibly foreign accent, the you have, without a doubt, been asked THE DREADED QUESTION.
“where are you from?”
So often I’m tempted to reply “Dublin” or more specifically, the neighbourhood where I live. Just to make it awkward. But I thought, be nice. This is about humanising someone.
So I said, “Zambia”
and it was followed by THE DREADED ANSWER.
And if you’re African, then I’ll eat my hat if you’ve not heard some variation of THE DREADED ANSWER. Especially in Ireland.
“Ahh”, says he, “I was in Tanzania once”.
me: ” ”
I’m supposed to…..
Yes, people generally think this is…friendly? shows interest? appears worldly? …actually what exactly do they mean? I can understand someone saying “Oh, Zambia? I’ve never been. I have been to Tanzania and I found it very (insert whatever description) is it very different from Zambia?” And while I might roll my eyes inwardly, I’ll see that it’s not a token answer.
There is an underlying idea of dismissiveness or lack of understanding that Africa is a vast continent made up of various countries, cultures, people, language, that comes from a blanket statement like that
But seriously, I’m always curious whether people would say,
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from England”
“Oh, I was in France once”.
And then…and then…we came back from tea break and I was bored shitless. I actually tried to stay engaged and involved as I saw people nodding away and agreeing with whatever point he was making. Nutshell – science is wrong, science is outdated, science needs to change. Hello! Science changes constantly! If there’s one thing I love about science is the peer review process, the questioning, the theories, the honesty to say “at this moment, this is what we know, but that doesn’t mean with more data, this will not change.” The willingness to say simply, “we don’t know at this point” But here it was, presented as a static, unmoving …thing…that’s stuck in the Newtonian and Einsteinian eras. I think people have this idea that scientists believe they can explain anything, when this is simply not the case. Scientists strive to find theories to explain everything but honestly and consistently put their hands up and say when they don’t know something. They can offer a theory, but that’s about it. remember that even gravity, while widely accepted, is still a theory until someone comes up with something better. And people forget that Biology is a science, chemistry is a science. It’s not all physics.
And this idea that just because you value science means somehow you don’t value the absolutely mind blowing phenomenal beings that humans are…or that you simple reduce the world to nuts and bolts with no appreciation for its beauty. I tell you, the world is even more amazing and mind-blowing to me because of the randomness of it all. Life is more precious and meaningful, paradoxically, because of its meaninglessness.
And quoting Richard Dawkins as an example of what a scientist is…that’s just bah! That’s just laziness.
But I digress.
I got bored. so I began to doodle in my notebook.
Next minute a voice pipes up,
“Have you fallen asleep”.
“No!” I said, curtly. And what I wanted to say was, no, just bored stiff. But didn’t.
Seriously dude, back off!
And you know what, you learn about your body taking on things you refuse to process cognitively and you don’t really become fully aware of it until you have to.
I started to get a headache. It was dull and aching and persistent and if I were being true to myself and keeping myself safe, I should have walked out right there and then and punched a wall or cried or screamed or something. But I didn’t. Instead what I denied came out physically with this headache that stayed with me all through lunch.
And then (and this is the last, I promise), we came back from lunch and were waiting for other students to return, when the lecturer decided it was time to lighten the mood up with a joke. Now, he had told a joke earlier that morning, that, me and my love of corny jokes, have taken note of and will use in future because it really was a deliciously punny joke. But the one he told in the afternoon – one I had a headache, and second, I’d heard before. And surprisingly enough (duh!), jokes don’t get funnier the second time you hear them. Most of the class thought it was hilarious and laughed uproariously. I didn’t. I didn’t even crack a smile. As I said – headachey, heard it before.
“You obviously don’t appreciate Dublin humour” He said looking directly at me.
I don’t know why at this stage I didn’t just say, “seriously dude, back off”. Or that I felt singled out all day. Because I was raised to be polite. And politeness, will kill me one day.
I said something about not feeling well. which was true, but only half so.
Even when the afternoon actually got interesting as we delved into psychotherapy and psychiatry and I asked a question, it was replied to with reference to Africa apropos of erm…nothing related.
All in all, it was a shit day. So persistent that I’ve written off most of what good came of it and focused on the bad to try and purge it from my system.
I’ve gone over and over it in my mind and at first tried to tell myself to just get over it. Shit like this happens a lot and happens often. But you know, these things start to take an emotional toll as they build up. and then eventually, as I learnt last Thursday, they take a physical toll too and that’s something no-one should ignore. If you feel unsafe or threatened, find ways to protect yourself the same way as you would if it was a physical threat because there is value in listening to what your spirit can withstand. I had that headache all the way till bedtime, which is not good.
So right now I’m sitting here wondering what options I have.
- Don’t turn up for part 2 of the guest lecturer’s series. This would be running away from my issues and doesn’t really resolve anything. I would be hiding from something that raises it’s head and will continue to raise its head for as long as I live in a country where I am a minority.
- Turn up and if this happens again, call him out on it right there and then. See the sentence about being polite. I admire people who don’t give a fuck. But as I have not mastered the art yet, I worry that this comes across or may be misinterpreted as, aggression. Plus in my head I’m still the Zambian girl told to be polite to her elders. But I think at some stage we do have to call people out on their behaviour. I’m just not sure if this is the best forum and the safest forum for me at the moment.
- Go, and ask to speak to him for a few minutes over the break and tell him how I felt about last week’s day. Which I think is the most plausible option as it gives a chance always, for someone to redeem themselves. It’s private so there is no public humiliation, and it’s the way that I would like to be treated in return. Perhaps there is a value more in this method. I ust have to try and remember where I left my cojones first.
I’m yet to make up my mind on which I will pick.