Series of pictures thrust itself upon my mind whenever the word Racism is mentioned. I see a rambling field of cotton with black backs, bent in submission, against the backdrop of a sun rising.
I imagine Rosa Park on a Montgomery bus, refusing to let go her seat, her place, her identity. I think of the great speech by Martin Luther King Jnr.
I get a barrage of words, of places, Mississippi, Kunta Kinte, Ku Klux Clan. Sometimes my thoughts fast forwards and depending on the context my images can become contemporary, and I see Nick Griffin of the British National Party telling all Immigrants to go home.
I think of EDL, I think of Trevyon Martin, Lawrence Martin and the many Black people who remain victims of Racial Profiling. These images never brought up pictures of me until recently…
I remember the first time I met my friend Shazee. Someone had introduced her to me because she knew I was Nigerian. She bounced gaily to me, her chubby face beaming. ‘Hey, I hear you are Nigerian, My name is Shazee, I am from Lagos.’ I nodded and attempted a plastic smile. Still beaming, she told me she was studying Economics at the London School of Economics. She said her parents had lived in Lagos all their lives and they employed over 100 or so staff.
Hmmm! I sighed. She must have seen my disdain, because she quickly added ‘75 percent of the workers are Nigerians, not Indians’. I tried to smile, but my face froze. She tried to loosen things up by flinging a heavy hand over my shoulder.
The words fell on my ears like salt on open wound. All I wanted to do was take the weight of her hand off of my shoulder and pack her and her family back to India. In that instant I reduced that 5 foot 5 inch girl to a lens, a distorted lens, through which I saw the supposed and imagined crimes of a group of people.
I conjured the dour image of Bridget, a 40 something year old relative of a friend who arrived London from Nigeria in circumstances as treacherous as the one that made her leave. Her story of the treatment she received as an employee at a Chinese owned hotel was filled with maltreatment and bullying.
I saw the over 45 or so workers of a Shanghai and Hong Kong based Conglomerate who lost their lives in September 2002 when fire gutted the factory where they worked. I subjected her to the very scrutiny and bias I abhor. It didn’t matter to me that she wasn’t Shanghaiing, she is Indian and even if she is Shanghaiing or Chinese, how could I attribute the actions of a bunch of people, to a country, a race, a person? I subjected her to the same prejudice I pray always not to be subjected, that my children are not subjected to.
The fact is that I completely misjudged my reactions, my feelings. In that instant I became racist. In that moment I became a victim of a phenomena psychologists call Impact Bias of Affective Forecasting; the tendency for people to ‘overestimate the length or the intensity of future feeling states.’ How was I to know that events that happened many years before Shazee, would influence my judgments so profoundly? How was I to know that I would hold an innocent girl responsible for crimes she knew nothing of, just because she is a different skin shade even though she is Nigerian? How does someone, as accepting as I, someone who constantly aspires to tolerance, how did I descend to such low depths?
In Nigeria, we don’t even need to cross rivers to be racist. We see discrimination outside our front doors as a Tiv man steps out and sees his Idoma neighbour. In fact in Nigeria, this sense of tribalism is so rampant and ingrained, that we call everyone within an entire geographical location, my brother or my cousin, or my sister, my relative, my townsman. And even in casual conversations, we say things like my people, when an Igbo man is referring to another Igbo man, or your people, when a Yoruba man is referring to a Hausa man, whilst talking to a Hausa man.
I remember taking my kids home, when they were much younger, and after introducing a whole village of people to them as cousins, my daughter asked; ‘How many cousins do you have, mummy?’
Many black people, especially the ones in Diaspora, tend to exempt themselves from the capability to mete out bias. But the truth is bias precludes our judgements and once we act upon them, it becomes a racist action. Racism shows itself in subtle mundane ways. It shows itself every time we ask our kids; ‘Was he/she black or white?’ when they say someone upset them in school.
Racism is present every time we watch the Apprentice and automatically root for that darker skinned person, whether the person is capable or not. Every time we say things like ‘a black person can never win, this election, that election…’ Every time we say ‘it is because I am black’, we put a chain of limitations on our necks and accept once more the burdens of slavery.
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