On my first day in my Peace Corps home, there was no water. I was asked if I wanted to go down to the river to bathe.
“No,” I said, “in America we frequently don’t have water every day.”
The second day, again there was no water. Again, the river was proposed.
“No, no,” I said, “no need at all. We frequently don’t have water for two days.”
On the third day, I asked where the river was.
We went to the river together–it was the only time we’d do that. In the future, through the waterless winter, I’d use baby wipes for daily cleansing, and every two weeks or so, we’d have about a bucket or half-bucket of water to use for bathing. It had been pulled from a well in the village, but cleaning the body came behind cleaning dishes and cleaning clothes in terms of priorities.
But my point isn’t how wonderful it feels to be clean. My point is what I saw with jarred eyes that day by the river.
We were there with extended family. The women a bit separate from the men. Our clothes all on; them in their skivvies. The car had been rolled partly into the water too, and was being cleaned upstream from us.
Across the river was another family. Also bathing. Similarly attired and not attired.
One of the people in my group whispered to me, “Azeris.”
Which to me was, like, the coolest thing in the world. After all, I was in the Republic of Georgia, which abutted Azerbaijan and Armenia, and in a region which was primarily Azeri. But how did this person know the others were Azeris, and why the tone?
I asked how the person knew this for a fact.
Again, with tone.
And I felt the horror and revulsion of witnessing oneself in another person’s ugliness. Racism–implicit, explicit, subconscious racism, it runs through all of our social systems, and as a result through us.
To me, the Georgians and the Azeris were equally exotic. Equally different. It hadn’t occurred to me that one could be “worse” than the other. Lesser.
Plus no-one in that river was darker. And what is darker, anyway? A badge of what, lesserhood?
It was horrific, it was brutal, and it opened my eyes to how ludicrous racism at home was. Even more than before.
As a person who’d grown up in Africa and the West Indies, only moving to the States at age 16, you’d think this would already be in my skin. I’d been a racial minority my whole life, with the majority of my friends not being white–but always in places (aka the world) that valued white skin differently than black skin. But I didn’t realize the privileges I had until I was 16, when I looked at my best friend and suddenly realized that her parents didn’t have the right to vote. That racism was real, not an abstract wrong that other people were affected by. That it was everywhere.
Coming here, I’d been so, so disappointed in America. I was young, and thought of America as the land of the free, a place beyond racism. It isn’t, of course. It isn’t free of racism, of sexism, of classism… We swallow these poisons in the daily air we breathe, and we don’t even notice it.
I have a friend I’ll call C. For years, C would periodically tell me tales about being treated differently because he’s black. For years, I would believe him, but would sometimes think he might be imagining things. Can you believe? I, a woman, whose perspective is also downplayed by a society which imagines itself to be clean because it wants to feel good about itself, downplayed in turn the perspective of another human being–whom I know history has targeted.
I don’t know when it happened that I finally listened to C and just listened. Just heard. But when I did, it changed everything. If you’re open to reading the signs again:
Black kids shot by the police. Black people’s salaries lower than whites. Security guards watching African-Americans in stores. Mortgages higher for blacks. Traffic fine patterns. Expectational differences. TV shows and movies limiting the number of black actors, especially in lead roles. White stories, white pantheons, white leaders, white police.
We may want to believe that we’re past racism–some people point to the fact that our president is not white–but these signs glare a contrary truth back at us.
Racism is so fucking alive, and the worm is squirming under scrutiny, as if open conversation were a magnifying glass concentrating light to fire upon it. Let the fucking worm squirm. We have to be willing to struggle with what we see, if we’re to be sure we’re seeing it honestly.
Those of us who are on the previously easier side of history, yes, we have the uncomfortable duty now of listening to things that are uncomfortable. But how much stronger we’ll be when we have. As a people, as a whole.
We won’t be alive to see that world we create together, the world in which all people are respected equally. But we can build it at the cost of the growing pains of personal growth.
And frankly, it’s not like we’re doing anything else particularly worth our time on earth.
Vasiliy Vereshchagin: The Lost – Funeral Elegy for the Fallen