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.
I’d love to be the type of person who could pick option 2 and call someone out when they behave badly towards me – but I can only ever seem to have imaginary conversations in my head for days and days afterwards, which leave me feeling stressed, until I manage to forget about it. I don’t envy you your decision. Confrontation of any kind is never easy.
Lisa | Mama.ie recently posted…Mmm! This year’s perfect kids’ board game
I can totally relate. I wish I were a type two person too. I always think of snappy retorts well after the fact though. I’ve had these great comebacks circulating in my head all week…for nothing.
Humm. I’m an all or nothing girl. I’d skip the lecture and guilt free enjoy a nice cup of tea, or go in ready to give this guy honest feedback if needed. Talking to him on his own lets him off. After all he’s not afraid to make
His remarks in front of an audience. Life is too short to waste your time – lighten your load and don’t go or lighten your load and give him a piece of your mind!
I’m seriously considering waiting for it to happen again tomorrow (which inevitably it will) and then speaking up. Because I’ll feel like shit if I don’t go in, like I’m running away, though that’s also looking more attractive by teh minute. A nice cup of tea somewhere nice does have a nice ring to it…. 🙂
I agree with Lisa, I would be the exact same, but I admire that you are reviewing it all and not trying to just ignore it. Thanks for sticking up for the scientists too 😉
Naomi Lavelle recently posted…How high do birds fly?
I think 3 would be ideal, but you’d have to be prepared for him to look blankly at you and not have a clue what you’re talking about. He sounds entirely self-absorbed and lacking in empathy.
You have the patience of a saint.
Did I make him sound so bad? He was actually lovely…just completely blind as to what he was doing. Completely! But I do have a strong feeling if I were to work up my nerve, he would have no notion at all of what I’m talking about. That’s why I feel 2 would be better…but I’m not brave enough. ARGH!!
THAT question. Where are you from. I could’ve written this myself. Except i am mixed race and I actually AM from Galway. So that’s my reply. If I think someone is being half nice about it I might explain my colour which is really what they are asking but if I’m annoyed at their attitude I will say Galway and nothing else. I would love to say I’d do option 3 but it’s so difficult to do. Best of luck.
laura recently posted…Siam Health – Eat Yourself Young
It’s the worst question, isn’t it? I feel for you, even that you have to make the choice is annoying isn’t it? Like does it really matter. I find that it’s such a lazy way to make conversation and is so patronising as well.
That is just such a shitty experience. I don’t even know what to say, but I am sorry you had (and probably will have) to go through this. What makes me laugh is that society gives such educated people as himself great caliber when at the end of the day you can have all the doctorates in existence, write all the books, have the highest IQ and still be a tick.
Is he even worth it?
No, he is not worth it.
But you are. You are worth bringing this out into the open. Do it for you. Just, don’t have any expectations of his response. Either way, just speak your truth. At least that way you can always say (to yourself), ‘I stood up for you’. It can be terrifying initially but so liberating once you get past that initial fear.
Also, don’t confuse speaking up for your truth with being impolite. Although there certainly is an impolite reaction, get in touch with your wise old self who can speak the truth in such a polite way that you cannot not be heard.
EXACTLy this Laura. I hate confrontation and I hate this kind of crap but I want to be able to look into the mirror on Friday morning and say “I stood up for myself”. And a lot of this is more about me than about him. I’m still stuck on the impolite/truth/rude/angry black woman piece. I need to build a bridge and get over it, don’t I. Thank you for your kind words. I was just beginning to falter and ask is it even worth it, and you’ve made me remember why it is.
Fuming for you Muuka! I’m not confrontational either, but I stew on things for ever after and have countless confrontational conversations in my head. While I’d be so tempted to go with option 1, option 3 would probably be the better one.
This day and age, you shouldn’t have to need any of the options.
I was wondering did you say anything?
No, I didn’t. It wasn’t worth the hassle it would cause so I decided keeping myself safe was easier.