“It’s only a joke” –

I have mainly been a bystander in the issue of race, but this week I was forcefully thrust from the green room to the main stage. It started out with a seemingly innocent question –

“do they have malls in England?”

I wasn’t paying much attention to his question, and I mentally swatted it away. Then my brain woke up and replayed the question in my mind,

“do they have malls in Africa?”

I was shocked at the crude ignorance of the question, and told the chortling teenage boy who asked

“you’re kidding me right?”

But he wasn’t. His purview of Africa had collapsed the entire continent into a single amorphous mass that was distinguished by one thing, poverty. To be fair I have dealt with my share of woefully ignorant people who have asked if I know their african friend in another country, or who have asked me if I speak “African.” It is annoying, it is ignorant, but there is no malice in their questions.

An hour or so later, another group gathered. And a question was thrown out about what I was going to name my child. I didn’t pay much heed to suggestions, but slowly the flight of the conversation went from blue skies to heavy turbulence in a matter of minutes. The dialogue was whirling in my mind as I tried to make sense of what was happening. It was like being in the twilight zone.

“you should call her simba, it’s better than other black names like sheneekwa.”

“no you should call kunta kente.” (laughing)

another person joins the banter

“oh isn’t that from the movie roots? I’ve only seen the first part. I remember black slave boobies that’s all”

(laughter, and smirking from the three talking.)

There were other comments made, and I don’t claim my recollection to be totally accurate, but my head was swimming. The same guys that I had shared conversation with, and could call ‘friend’ saw nothing wrong in spouting crass, bigoted, borderline racist comments about black people in general and my future child specifically. I collected myself, and steeled my voice. Right there in that public area that they had rotted with their verbal fungus, I rebuked them for their insensitivity, their ignorance, and told them  they had offended me to the core of my humanity.

As a Ghanaian who as stood in the oldest slave castle in the world (El Mina), and seen the  line, 2 ft high against a slave dungeon, that marks feces level of dysentery ridden, pox addled, dehumanized people, I did not find their jokes funny. As the future  father of a black child, I did not find it funny that she could be born into a world where she would have to impotently stand by as her heritage and race are torn apart in the slobbering teeth of rabid racist words. As a Christian who believes to the core of his being that “love thy neighbour as thy self” reflects the heart of God, and restores in man the broken image of God – I did not find their jokes restorative to my humanity.

I am still unsettled by this episode, and as a Christian I wonder how I can broker a redemptive space in this tangled world that casually transmits such rancid concepts. Have you ever dealt with a situation like this? I would love to hear your thoughts on how to turn something as bitter as this into a learning experience for all involved.