Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you are not sure if a comment made or an action demonstrated is as a result of someone’s ignorance or if it they were just ‘low key’ racist?
Reading Americanah and reliving, through the author’s eyes, the experiences had in a different country took me back to my own experiences when I first moved to England, over 10 years ago.
I remember how shocked I was the first day of assembly, at my sixth form school, to realise I was the only African person in the school. To make things more awkward, sixth formers sat on stage facing the rest of the school, so I had to fend off stares from pupils trying not to make their staring obvious. I remember how paranoid I felt whenever i caught someone staring, “is there something on my face? is my hair a mess?“, I pondered in the beginning.
Maybe, because I had grown up in an environment where race was not an issue; where I didn’t stand out for my skin colour or culture, so it was a bit of a shock.
With time, I got used to the staring, I got used to walking down to the local supermarket or library, ignoring locals fervently locking their cars, as if I would make a bolt for them at the traffic light and mug them or being watched a bit too closely in shops. Looking back now, in a way, it was a humbling thing to experience, as it gave me my first glimpse into what I had previously read about or seen others experience on TV, but always felt it too distant to relate to.
My first challenging encounter had to be in a class, where the teacher singled me out to ask what I felt, at the time, was an incredibly stupid question but in hindsight, could easily have been a perfectly curious question, in the right context. Well, it would have been the latter, if he had asked any of the other foreigners in the class the same question, but alas! I was the only foreigner singled out. What was the question, you ask? Well, he asked, “what language do you dream in?”
Now I look back and think, ‘maybe he was just curious?, because for all he knew I could have been raised in an African language and thus dreamed in that language?’. However, I remember how shocked and offended I was thinking, “‘English’ is my first language, I spoke perfectly good English all the time around everyone. So, why would anyone imagine I’d dream in any other language?”. I remember glancing at the European exchange students in the class and wondering why he didn’t direct his question at them? They would have given a more insightful response on the topic – because in their case, English was not their first language.
So, now reading Americanah, I sit here wondering whether his question was really racist or just ignorant? Were my experiences in that environment racist or ignorant?
I love the response given to Oprah’s question on the root of racism in a recent interview on facebook live, because it demonstrates that both ignorance and racism are linked:
Ignorance. Ignorance is a lack of information, which creates insecurity, and insecurity creates defensiveness, and defensiveness creates attack.
– Carl Lentz
I believe that it is no longer enough to rely on whatever notions the media feed us about other cultures or preconceptions formed from such mediums. We should instead try to broaden our perspectives by researching, reading books about new places, meeting people from there, observing and asking informed questions, when necessary (as long as you do so from a place of humility, this would ensure a lesser likelihood of it being received negatively). If possible, visit new places to broaden your own experiences as a global citizen.