Monday, 3 November 2014

Conversations with Racists: Part 1

I spent past few days with my boyfriend’s family and in parts it was lovely experience, but we had few conversations about racism, islamophobia, black people and Muslims that are so representative of our Polish mentality and that drives me crazy. And the conversations I had way to many times.
I really don’t know how to start this post, so let me first tell you something about myself: I’m white woman, I come from very privileged background, I had happy childhood, almost painless adolescence, relatively successful academic education and a happy relationship. Life has been pretty good to me.
I didn’t want to say all those things to rub them in your face and prove to you that your life sucks, and mine don’t. This start is to show you that if I wanted to look from the perspective of my general life experience, something that happened personally to me, well, then world is a pretty good place – no discrimination, no poverty, no oppression, equal and happy people everywhere. Luckily, regardless of my happy life, I never lived in a bubble.
But let’s get to the point.
Poland, my country of origin, is one of the main bastions of racism in Europe. Not only we don’t hide with our racists believes, but we are proud of discrimination we impose on other ethnicities. What other see as progress (hate crime laws, proper education, activism against racism, sexism, etc.), we see as sucking up to backward people who should have been put in their place and not be lenient on them.
I’m freakin’ serious.
Okay, I’m being somewhat unfair. What I noticed about my country is two things: there are people who are open and tolerant and there are those who are absolutely sexist and/or racist and/or homophobic. However, it seems that the freedom of speech is granted mainly to the second group of people. Recently, I hear everywhere discriminatory and offensive remarks and almost nobody stands up and speak against them as if the right to offend somebody was greater than defending others.
But let’s get back to the conversation itself. There were few points made that appear way to often in this kind of conversations that I would love to shed some light and bring attention to its negative effect on our perception regarding other ethnicities.
1.      African’s are fighting because of their culture and unless we come and put everything in order, Africa will never be in peace.
If you talk about war and fighting, Africa will always be brought up at some point. And this is where it gets really frustrating, because you cannot explain the current situation in some African countries, without the historical context. And that’s complicated, different to every country and had different impact. It depends who colonise the country, what were the main purpose of colonisation (slave trade, resources, land), whether the coloniser wanted to oppress people and make them second class citizens to control them better or tried to make it a part of their country and establish something resembling a government and a state.
The history is so complicated and what had been done in Africa and what is still being done to Africa, cannot be dismissed.
But the main problem, when talking about “African” problems, is that Africa in minds of many is a country. One, not that big, uniform country. And tribal relations are main reason for fighting, because they don’t know any better.
Do you want to cry from frustration? I almost did.
I really don’t know how to explain to people that many tribes hasn’t exist before the arrival of Europeans (like artificial division of Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi that had nothing to do with their real tribe affiliation and everything with perceived superiority and physiological traits). Not to mention the fact that many tribes really lived in peace, they intermarried, had very rich cultural heritage, well developed social structure with respect towards every member of community.
But most people just cannot understand that many things happening in some African countries that we see as backwards and undeveloped are the result of Europeans imposing their culture, laws and oppression that destroyed social structures, communal ties and way of dealing with crimes and disorder. And we cannot use the argument “but colonialism ended 50 years ago”, because it’s difficult to rebuild the society that has been exploited, oppressed, fuelled by conflict from outside forces for decades. We should start concentrating on positive outcomes that some African countries are working towards and not only sighing with annoyance when we hear about ANOTHER "African" conflict in an African country.
And regarding the second statement, that we, white people are the only one who can make things right in Africa is preposterous. We should try to help as best as we can by engaging in conversation, sharing experience, helping in implementation of the projects that are designed by people on the ground. But coming in, imposing our ways and claiming that we know better? Which country should do this? USA, where 22% of children lives in families with income below federal poverty line? Or maybe Poland, where Church has more influence on social issues than people themselves? Or maybe Ireland, especially after the recent UN report claiming that women in Ireland are denied human rights?
So basically no one is in position to make a claim that “we know the proper way to solve your problems”. Most of African countries are on the way to discover the recipe for success, some are making mistakes, some are struggling, but they have to do it themselves.
2.      There is way too many black people and Muslims in Europe. If Black people and Muslims don’t like the way it is in Europe, they should get back to whenever they came from.
That one is… ugh. Let’s start with ethnic minorities that are allowed to stay in some countries, because they come from previous colonies or they received the status of refugee and they are under protection of refugee laws. Then let’s move towards ethnic minorities who are travelling within European Union. Many EU countries experienced an influx of migrants from other EU countries. But they are mostly invisible, becauuuuse… they are white. And those who are not white, are perceived as alien and therefore undeserving to be in a particular country.
When we look at the statistics on ethnic groups in Europe (I know the source is Wikipedia, but I think it still show some interesting patterns), most of the countries are homogenous, with their own ethnicity being a majority. For example, in UK less than 15% of population are of different ethnic background than “British”. In France, 84% of population is French and in general 67% has no recent immigrant in their ancestry. So Europe is not under attack of Muslim and African immigrants that are taking over our wonderful lands. Majority of members of so called “ethnic minorities” who are living in European countries have a citizenship of that country. So next time you see a black person complaining about a discrimination in a particular country, ask yourself whether he is just complaining, or is it true. And whether he has more right to be in the particular country than you do.
3.      Black people are racist too.
The issue of citizenship and ethnic minorities often brings this issue: Black people are racist too. What often follows is the vast list of instances where black person did something discriminatory against white person.
There are many problems presented in this statement and most of them, unfortunately, speaks more about the racism of a white speaker than perceived racism of black person.
But let’s get some facts straight:
Fact 1: Some black people are assholes. That’s true, but it doesn’t have its roots in racism. It’s rooted in their individual personality.
But let’s analyse the one particular situation. The example provided was as follows: my boyfriend’s sister needed to extend her visa (it was before Poland was in EU). There was few black girls from some French territory (Martinique or somewhere else). And each time she came to extend her visa, there were some documents missing, so she was sent back. As a result, each time the sister came to this office, she had the whoooole bunch of documents.
So here is my question: did those girls treat her like that because she was white or because she was immigrant? Would she be treated the same way by white French person or not? And maybe, just maybe, she was sent back all these times not because girls were discriminating her, but maybe she just didn’t have appropriate documents?
So what I hear in this situation are two things: first, the girls where just bitches who were like that to ALL migrants, because they were French and French people have a tendency to being xenophobic. Second: “how dare this black monkeys send me back to bring more documents? I should be treated in a better way, because I’m white”. Personally, I don’t think this situation would be so traumatising to the sister, if the rejection came from WHITE French person. And it wouldn’t be a big deal if a white person treated like that Black immigrant.
Fact 2: Just because some black people are assholes, or privileged, or successful, or are not discriminated against, it doesn’t and shouldn’t undermine the whole issue of institutional and social racism.
As in abovementioned situation, the girls were in position of power over a white person and that made people uneasy. What is more, those black girls were in any position of power ergo black people are not discriminated against because in a modern world they are in position of power.
As a supporting argument I usually hear is that many countries treat people of colour (sorry for the expression) with kid gloves and generally walk on eggshells in fear of racism, while mainly Blacks and Muslims are doing whatever they want.
And, black people’s racism towards white people is absolutely unacceptable! If they want us to change, they should change first.
So let me get this straight: people who are constantly discriminated against by education institutions, police, more often live in poverty, with less access to various services, who constantly listen to racist (and ultimately limitlessly stupid) jokes and remarks should refrain from any aggressive, defensive or (God forbid!) offensive behaviours that might be perceived by privileged and oppressing group of people as discriminatory. And if they do show such behaviour, in order to be treated with respect like a human beings, they have to adjust their behaviour, so white people don’t get offended and can exercise freedom of choice whether to treat different ethnicities with respect or not.
Sometimes I have an impression that Black people are expected to sit quiet simply because their life is much better than it used to be. First, they are no longer enslaved, they are free, therefore they should just shut up and stop whining. Second, refugees who were welcomed in the particular country have it better here than they had over there, therefore they should just shut up and stop whining. Because if a Black person, even worse – immigrant Black person, find it’s voice and strength to speak up, then we will have menace on our hands and we might hear one or two things that we really don’t want to hear – that Europe is still racists, it’s bad and we have to be open to conversation and change of attitude, not the other way around.
4.      Yeah, but all the things you mentioned are the history. It happened and it doesn’t matter anymore. What do you have to say about what’s happening now?
At this moment I just gave up. I literally died inside.
Every situation in every country is rooted in its history. If there hasn’t been shortage of food, there would be no hunger. If there hasn’t been uprising, there wouldn’t be an instability.
And if the colonialism and slavery didn’t happen, most of “African” problems wouldn’t exist. It’s not to say that some countries or tribes or territories wouldn’t fight each other, but the structure of the conflict wouldn’t be different.
It hasn’t been an idea of local communities to divide the African countries the way that they are divided. Colonialism created artificial boundaries, dividing territories belonging to one group of people and assigning them to others. And as much as some countries are trying to find pride in their nationality, it’s difficult not to pay any attention to clan affinity.
Many African tribes had deep communal ties, had very complex system of handling social disputes and had a great respect for members of community and other human beings. They respected elders, women had their secret society that was beyond the reach of men (and men were punished for violating the boundaries), marriage has deeper meaning than simply receiving payment for giving away daughter, etc.
Europeans did not impose their rule of law, because they had a well-being of local population in minds. Anything that has been brought to African and imposed on people there was because Europeans saw Africans as backwards, worthless, whose value was counted only in the work they can do for a white person. Segregation, humiliation, genocide, slavery, exploitation of people and resources – all that deeply wounded African land and communities.
Not to mention the debt that many African countries are in, because of the warlords who “borrowed” too much money from world banks and they left civilians to pay off the debt on the cost of their dignity, integrity and well-being.
Some African countries were able to lift themselves up above the stereotypes and are working towards brighter future. Africa is booming and many African countries are fastest growing economically at the moment. It's developing rapidly, improving, establishing new trends and using modern technology.

But I cannot fight the impression that it would be much simpler for them if not for the interference from white people throughout the history. It’s us who introduced bribery, corruption and group domination. And it was us who ensured that some people remain poor for long time, because if they have little – they have still too much to lose.
All that history ripped away African population from their lands and displaced them around the world. Because of slavery, we have Black people in America. Because of colonialism, we have Black people in European countries. And because of white people interference, we have refugees who are in need for shelter from the atrocities that happened in their homeland.

So no, we cannot look at the present situation without paying attention to history. The current issues are results of the actions of the people in the past. So the conflicts we see now in media are not isolated outbursts of violence in some random places. Those are the outcomes of tensions that build up for a long time. And unless we realise the importance of historical context in every conflict, we won’t be able to find meaningful solutions.

Written by Vespertilio

No comments:

Post a Comment