Speaking up against racism takes courage and sometimes as a black person, one doesn’t. One just swallows the humiliation and hurt of racism to not cause a stir.
After close to 50 years on earth, you would think that I, a black woman, would be used to racism by now. It happens so frequently, I must have grown accustomed to it by now you must think. But the fact is, no, I am not.
One can never get used to the hurt and pain of racism. In fact, one almost never knows when racism will strike, and sometimes I must admit it takes me, by total surprise.
And that’s the really hard part about it — it’s emotionally jarring because you could be having a totally happy day, and boom, racism hits and brings you down. And I find that the older I get, the more mentally difficult it gets to come out of an incident of racism unscathed.
The other day, my family and I decided to have dinner at a premium hamburger restaurant in Geneva, Switzerland. We couldn’t find a parking spot next to the eatery, so my white husband dropped us close to the restaurant so that we could secure a table while he went to park the car elsewhere.
It was a pragmatic solution, but it set off alarm bells in my head because I knew that as a black woman, I would be treated differently upon entering the restaurant than he would. I knew he would get the premium (First-class) treatment, while I would get the sub-optimal (Economy-class) treatment.
I knew that upon entering the premises, the probability of receiving a disapproving look of “What are you doing here?” was 50:50.
I had dressed nicely hoping that I might avoid that question and any negative judgment about my person before I even opened my mouth, but the minute I crossed the door, I knew my attempt had failed. A white waitress came toward me, her face didn’t hide her displeasure at seeing me and my brown children at the door.
At that precise moment, I wondered what was going through her head.
Was it: “Oh no, another black person.”
I mean, we entered an almost empty restaurant as paying customers and you can’t even be bothered to welcome us with a smile. It’s as though we were an unpleasant occurrence in her day rather than a potential income source. I just never understand how restaurant owners or their staff can be racist. I mean it just defeats all logic.
Anyway, so I asked her for a table for four and she started heading towards the back of the restaurant and set us down at a table right next to the restrooms. At that stage, I began to wonder why in an almost empty restaurant with lots of free tables next to large bay windows she took us to the very back as though to hide us.
For a brief second, I hesitated as to whether it was worth me asking for another table but I didn’t want to make a stir, especially since my children were with me, and my son, in particular, didn’t like any form of confrontation. In the past, he had complained that me making a stir was a source of grave embarrassment to him, so I refrained.
As I made my way to sit down, my nose caught the familiar stench of the neighboring restrooms and I straightened back up into a standing position almost like by knee-jerk reaction. The waitress looked at me in surprise.
“What is wrong”, she inquired with what seemed like a satisfied smirk on her face.
“Can we get another table”? I inquired politely with not a hint of aggressivity in my voice.
“It’s all reserved, sorry”, she said and quickly walked away.
I sat back down and resolved to accept my fate. This is where we were going to eat the premium hamburger we had looked forward to all day.
As time went by, I tried to pretend that there was nothing wrong with the situation. I ate my hamburger with a dash of the pungent smell emanating from the adjacent toilet. With every mouthful, I swallowed my anger and humiliation.
And as the evening progressed, I surveyed the tables next to the large bay windows to see if any customers would show up to take them — and two of those tables remained empty for the hour and a half that we spent in the restaurant.
As we left the restaurant that evening, I decided that that was the last time in my life that I would accept racism. I held in all my anger and humiliation to not make a stir, but I felt frustrated. I realized that if I continued to do this I would make myself mentally and physically sick.
Most importantly I asked myself, what am I teaching my children by accepting to be treated this way? What am I transmitting to my descendants: that you are born black and brown, and it’s a hell on earth, but you just need to accept it in the hope that the next world will be a better place? No, I can’t do that, that is not how we will ever dismantle racism.
So like so many others that are rising, I rise too.
I will speak up and cause a stir, even an uprising if I need to like the millions of black people before me — from Dr. Martin Luther King to Steve Biko to Maya Angelou and my own personal favorite: Nina Simone.
Being black doesn’t mean accepting a lesser life, being black doesn’t mean eternal suffering. I am a human being like everyone else, I am entitled to inhabit the earth like everyone else, I too have rights, I am legitimate here on earth. And I intend to make my life matter!
Thanks for reading my perspective.