A black woman enters a room and presents herself I’m a black woman, a black man follows her and says I’m a black man. Then a white woman crosses the footstep and claims I’m a woman. Last but not least, a white man steps in and says I’m a human.
It took a while for this little anecdote to sink in. I’ve grown up thinking that we’re all equal. I’ve befriended people of a range of colors, races, religions and social classes. Of course, I’ve never neglected that racism exists, but I haven’t identified it in most of the mundane interactions in my world and even less in my own thinking patterns.
And then, this black activist stood in front of me and many other open-minded young Europeans and claimed out loud without even knowing us, that we were all racist. How is that?
To me it’s natural that we identify ourselves in opposition to the other. “Right”, I said, “But what if the people sitting in this room were all black women, would black still be the crucial adjective? Would still being a woman matter?” Even though I wanted to neglect it, somewhere deep in me I knew what it was about. In the bigger picture, it is being a white man that is considered to be a standard for humanity. Our struggle for inclusion counts, but no matter how eagerly we fight against it, we still do share some stigmatizing stereotypes and it will take generations to erase it from our societies.
It made me think of friends of mine who traveled to Latin America a few years ago and started an IT business from a scratch. They had little idea about building websites, but quickly gained much trust among the local scene just because they were white foreigners. White foreigners must be good at IT, right?
It also made me think about a couple of times when an Ecuadorian friend of mine was illuminating me (a white blonde girl) with his torch so that a passing car in the night might stop and help us repair ours. And they did. The driver quickly admitted seeing a foreign girl was the only reason they stopped, otherwise too afraid.
Then I remembered how many people expressed their surprise and outrage on social media learning that numerous refugees on their way across the sea record their struggle with smartphones. Smartphones?! How come that these poor folks seeking refuge in our countries can allow themselves the luxury of having a modern phone?!
Last but not least, it made me think of me and my Czech friend. The only two foreigners in our course at the university. We both speak fluent German (an entry requirement), but cannot participate in discussions with the same flair as natives do. One day we were sharing a beer with a fellow German student, exchanging comments on how weird and intimidating it felt when one particular lecturer was looking at us with pity and as though we needed some special care each time we spoke up. We were nodding at one another’s words, understanding fully how it felt. Guess what? The German genuinely had no idea what we were talking about. He has never noticed anything different about the way the professor was treating us. Was it us, then? Are we oversensitive? Are People of Color anyhow oversensitive? Where does the discrimination start? How many times are we able to let it go? How many times, because of our innocent ignorance, do we hurt others?
Sitting in front of this black activist with rising confusion and, let’s face it, a bit of anger, I thought she was being too emotional. That she was exaggerating. That she was creating more division than there actually was. That she was making us feel guilty, when the only thing we really wanted was to feel we belong together. But then I realized that she was right in saying that we can’t possibly comprehend racism as she does. Simply, because we’re white. We were born white and we’ll die white. The same way the Germans couldn’t see how intimidating the look of my lecturer was, I’ll never be able to catch the odd looks a black man must feel slipping over his body when he goes for an evening walk.
So don’t tell me we’re all equal, because sadly we’re not. And won’t be for a long while to come.