When a compliment is a veiled insult
A while ago, a short video came up on one of the pages I “like” on Facebook.. I can’t remember exactly which page it was on ( I like a lot of pages) but it was a clip from the ABC reality show what would you do? It’s cheesy as hell, but what struck me most on this clip was they asked what you would do if you were confronted with something really wrong going on right before your eyes. In this particular case, it was about racism.
Now, living in Ireland, believe me I’ve witnessed, heard, experienced and read enough about racism that it becomes a daily part of my reality. I have to say that five years in Namibia softened the blow a lot because man, if you could live in Namibia in the early nineties and not experience racism, then you were either really ridiculously rich so that you were above it all or lived under a rock in the desert somewhere. So sadly, I know only too well when the patronising head of racism comes up and when it’s ugly head comes up for air too.
Saddest of all I think is when people are racist and are not even aware of it because they relly do think they are being complimentary or something.
Anyway, I digress.
I suppose the reason it’s been on my mind so much is because of my daughter.
She will always be different to Krys and I no matter what. While I can definitively say I’m Zambian and Krys can say he’s Polish, she’s caught somewhere in the middle. I won’t ever live in Poland nor Krys in Zambia, so she is in effect caught between two worlds. Not Polish and not a Zambian Tonga either.
Yeah we try to talk to her in our own mother tongues and she understands bits and bobs here and there but sometimes I feel who are we kidding? Maybe we should just give up and immerse her fully in English…but we’re not even in England either. She’s learning Irish English which is as different to English as American English is.
I worry because I know how difficult it is to forge your own identity in this world and I can only hope we instill enough self esteem in her that no matter what comes at her in this world when we’re not there to protect her, the well will be deep enough not to be too affected by it all.
And yes, I see a lot of bi-racial adults and children and babies here but…oh I can’t even explain. You’d have to be here. You’d have to walk a short mile in my shoes or in fact in any immigrant’s shoes here to understand the trepidation that grips me at times and won’t let go.
So anyway, we were on the bus today and Roz was being her usual bubbly self. Chatting away and asking us questions and joking and playing with her toy, when the roughest looking woman on earth ( okay, I exaggerate…but only a tad) got on the bus and sat behind us. She was dressed…um…interestingly…and was on the phone talking loudly and Roz turned in her seat to stare at her. Then wave. Then ask us tons of questions about the woman who (thank duck!) couldn’t hear us seeing as how she herself was talking so loudly on the phone. Roz was absolutely captivated by the woman. And three stops down, the woman pressed the bell and started making her way to the front of the bus to get off.
As she reached level with Roz, she waved a goodbye and Roz waved back and then Roz piped up,
And the woman said bye back. Then still on the phone and walking, she said,
“Ah no, I was saying goodbye to this little half-caste girl on the bus. Beautiful child”
And my heart fell.
Who calls people that in this day and age?
But by that time, she was off the bus and away.
What is a half caste? You’ll have to look it up. But it was another way to group people just because they are different. Because it’s easier for humans to develop an “us” versus “them” way of being than to integrate people into society as one human race. It’s another way of saying you are nothing, you are not pure, you will never be “us”.
Would that be something I can stand up against?
People would say, gee, look at the neighbourhood. Look at the clothing, she’s obviously just ignorant.
But is ignorance really ever an excuse?
Under the law, it definitely isn’t. So how can someone call my daughter that and I write it off as ignorance? Will she have to get used to that kind of casual ignorance just because people may not be educated enough to not describe someone based solely on outward appearance?
Krys could see I was steaming and sometimes, I love him to death but he just doesn’t get it. He may get it from an immigrant’s perspective but let’s face it. If he kept his mouth shut, he could easily pass as Irish. So no, sometimes he just doesn’t get the underlying threads that wind their way through language…or maybe he does get it and decides that two angry and pissed off parents will not a nice day in the city make and tried to calm me down with,
“Muuka, look at the woman and how she sounded. She obviously doesn’t know better”.
But doesn’t she? If I’d called her something derogatory she’d have noticed. And just as quick too.
I don’t know.
All I know is that it bothered me.
It bothered me then and it sure as hell bothers me now or I wouldn’t be sitting here writing about it.
I wonder, had the woman still been on the bus, would I have gone up to her and corrected her. To stand up for my daughter and for all other people she may go around calling half -castes. (honestly!). Because each person changed is one person less on the stupid antiquated view of race.
And would I have been met with abuse when she was in her own way trying to pay a compliment. but a compliment or not, “beautiful child” would have been sufficient. I don’t see what colour had to do with being a beautiful child.
Let me tell you something, if you find yourself describing someone first based on colour, you want to look real close at that. And that one’s for free. You never know what lies hidden and unexplored in the depths of your mind.
I just hope Roz doesn’t remember this. Not ever.
Let her stay innocent for just a little bit longer.
Oh no. It’s hard to know what to say but I’m guessing it must be a million times more difficult to hear a racist remark (albeit presumably unintentional) directed at your daughter than at yourself. I am certain that you are giving her all the self-esteem and confidence she needs to handle situations like that when she’s older – no doubt. But that’s sad
It’s far worse because I don’t want her to see how very angry I was, or to challenge the woman and then get abuse n front of my daughter, which is what Krys was pointing out: that it would upset Roz a lot to see me angry and cry or confronting someone without really understanding what is going on. So yeah, just filling up that self-esteem well each day.
I am so sorry, so desperately sorry reading this. I apologise on behalf of almost all my friends. I am living in Cork and from Dublin. I know absolutely not to use the term half caste, and with a neice who was adopted from Vietnam I would be horrified to hear it used to describe her. However not one of my friends know that it is not alright to use it. Recently I was walking with a friend and she used it. I stopped her and explained to her that it is not right and so very offensive. She was really shocked and said she really didn’t know. It seems especially here in Cork it was always used to describe someone who was not really black ( when she told me her explanation I was still amazed). Anyway I told her she really cannot and should not use it. She was quite embarrassed.
About a week later we were out in company, about 10 of us, and one of the others used the word. I said nothing but my first friend piped up and told her in no uncertain terms how wrong it is to use it. They all listened and the thing is when they were challenged they totally understood and learned.
So hopefully this small ripple will spread. As you say it is ignorance, however it may not be racist, i’m not sure.
My best friend in Australia was indian, so being with her really taught me to see the world in her shoes.
I hope this country can become a real home for your daughter and that she will feel a bit of Ireland in her blood also, a wonderful rich mix.
I think that’s the only thing all of us can hope to do is change the world one person at a time. I have seen how others have also been treated in Zambia and it is sometimes just pure ignorance and thinking whatever term is being used is not offensive in the least. The ripple effect you had will hopefully grow bigger and people will get better. I’m optimistic most times and have had really really good experiences here that make me know it’s not always bad. it’s just knowing I can’t protect my little girl from them that hurts.
I love your metaphor of filling up her well. You will do that, and it will stand to her.
I don’t think the woman’s lack of education or background had anything to do with it, I’m afraid. My parents are in their 80s and they would probably use that term too, because they don’t have another word for it. (Whether they would feel the need to use any term at all other than child is another question. I don’t know.) I can only hope that the more people of colour live in the country, the more everyone else’s vocabularies will update themselves in more inclusive ways.
Unfortunately, I think you may be right. Sometimes teh PC terms just haven’t reached all people in time I guess. The statements I hear in Zambia about others confirms this and it just will not change as quickly as I would hope 🙁 But I do have hope and really really hope regardless, if her self esteem is high enough, this won’t matter anyway. so here’s hoping!