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.
15 thoughts on ““It’s only a joke” –”
Andreas, so sorry you had to go through this. I felt anger rising within me as I read this. I felt my “old side” coming out and wanting to show up with a few other dudes to have a little “chat” (if you know what I mean) with these boys. First of all, I’d say good for you on rebuking them. It’s extremely difficult to do that when someone has offended you deeply. I know this from experience. I wonder how they reacted when you rebuked them? I think some of the issues you mentioned are just plain ignorance–“are there malls in africa?” Unfortunately a lot of american kids are extremely sheltered and uneducated, many of them having never traveled outside of their state. Some of the things that you mentioned are racism. I’m sure from their eyes they were just being funny and silly, like you mentioned in your title, but it doesn’t make it ok. Is there a forum or other broader conversation that could be initiated on this subject?
When I started to speak they did not take me seriously. I could see on their faces they were saying “chill it’s only a joke – stop tripping.” It was only as I firmly built my case and let them no how offended I was that it occurred to them that they had crossed the line.
I find it interesting that you asked about a forum for broader conversation. Since sharing my experience others have told me about similar incidents that they have gone through, some far worse than mine. The topic is such a behemoth and I wouldn’t even know where to start.
It pains me greatly to hear that you’ve had this experience. As a product of the post civil rights movement south, I understand to a great degree the frustration of dealing with ingnorance of this magnitude. As a black woman who’s history has been stolen from her and replaced with savagry and servitude I understand the wounds that these kinds of comments inflict. Your question is a difficult one with the easiest of solutions. Hatred and bigotry have never and will never be overcome by sound logic nor education or any combination of the two. In my life I have only seen evil overcome by one thing and that’s love. When I became a Christian I became a part of the cross culture movement. My anger and resentment towards those who first hated me had to die right along with my racial pride. I have a new culture and race now…. Christian. This culture includes the history of all other Christians before me (red, yellow, black, or white). This culture hates what God hates including enslavement, segregation, division, etc. across all races and cultures and creeds. Jesus himself says that the only way the world and its children will be able to identify you as a child of God is by your love. Pray that God gives you a heart of overwhelming love for them. Then sit back and watch the transformation…
Thanks sis. It been a difficult few days, and I know that it is a supernatural power that has taken the edge off my negative feelings. I don’t hate or despise those boys, but I would be lying to say that I feel unfiltered love toward them. God is working that out in me, and I feel it.
Your thoughts about being part of a cross culture is true, and I suppose I need to be aware of others history of being downtrodden so I don’t feel so burnt over my own experience.
I had a conversation with an SDA pastor recently which was going well and I guess he felt comfortable enough to share his thoughts on the subject of ethnic relations, which I applauded him for. He had some strange ideas however, e.g., the welfare system is tantamount to reparations (for slavery), slavery was a long time ago therefore it is no longer an issue, current whites have no responsibility, a formal acknowledgement by the SDA church for past wrongs and a apology would be superfluous, integration is only happening in one directions, etc. As we spoke I tried to lend a different perspective on the matter, but it I was apparent that he was not ready to listen. It remained calm, but there was an undercurrent of tension. I was not angry or even offended, but I was saddened as I came to the realization of how far God’s people have to go. There is a desperate need for dialogue on ethnic issues and historical prejudice and discrimination. It is not something that white people can ignore because it’s everyone’s problem. I can understand why you were offended and I would have been to before recently. I’m not sure, but depending on their ages I would give these children a pass. It is their parents and their teacher that I would take issue with.
They range in age from 15 – 22yrs old Kean. I have (rightly/wrongly?) given them passes many times when they have made bigoted comments regarding minorities and race. This time it was too much to take. The incident made me really determined to be a parent that educates my child about the beauty of diversity.
I think what you did was right. You let them know that they were wrong. I think if blacks had solidarity amongst ourselves incidences like this would not occur as often as they do. So many of us are thrust into such situations and sell out. That’s right-sell out and laugh along or play along with these crude and ignorant jokes rather than speaking up for what’s right for fear of seeming like the militant, upright fist holding black supremacist, when all it really is is spreading a little common sense. And still others descend to the same level of ignorance, making fun of those groups that have offended us for what we blacks may perceive and characterize about white “otherness” and any other group that is represented in the offending party. Neither reaction is correct. And as you mentioned, Christ is our example. How many times did people try to tell Jesus himself who he was and ought to be and ought to do? He’d answer with simple yet poignant responses leading those who heard them to think about what they were saying and doing and coming to the realization of their own folly (or not)-but the decision was theirs. Unfortunately though, I think folks back then had more common sense and were very deliberate in the words and the affects they would have whether it was to offend or not to offend. These days- it seems, common sense isn’t so common anymore.
Unfortunately common sense these days is ingested through the glass nipple, aka TV, and as such is has very little value in breaking stereotypes. We press onwards.
I have dealt with those same racist remarks as a child even into adulthood. Its sad that no one will ever think of it as wrong which is so prevalent in the Pan African community. Its worse with African Americans because this portion of the PanAfrican group will make derogatory statements without batting an eyelash. I have experienced this ever since I have attended school here in America. Needless to say it has forever seared a hole in my life and adding to that is their lack of willful ignorance concerning other cultures. Overall we have this issue of willful ignorance of other cultures found within the Black community. Now there are some of us that are raised to culturally conscious and more–but won’t accept others. There is so much to write but I will not discuss that (not enough time.
I think your point about wilful ignorance and cultural consciousness is critical. The later needs to be eradicated and the former fostered, unfortunately the opposite was true in this situation. I am sorry for the experiences you went through, and I hope that the hole in your life at least shrinks and not expands.
I LOVE this post. “…but slowly the flight of our conversation went from blue skies to heavy turbulence in a matter of minutes.” As far as learning experiences go, I truly try to live to change the abject concept of “black american” and “african” perception. I can only really speak on the black american perception because that is who I am — at least a first generation production of one. In some ways, I believe that the bent that is trying to pull us out of that horrendous mire of a perception is stifled by the group that revels in it (see 95% of mainstream hip hop). One by one, we must show everyone that we’re beyond baggy jeans and a deep bass elements, or even goatherding and Zamunda-esque vernacular. Excellent read, but people won’t learn unless our lifestyles FULLY counterstrike what the media nourishes them with.
I hear you loud and clear Elroy. This incident has made me even more determined to buck the foolishness that the 95% project as being representative of people of colour. I want my lived out Christian experience by Gods grace to radically challenge those of my faith community to think twice before they make such comments.
I am white, my father was white, he beat me often and emotionally and verbally abused me. He continually told me as a child I was a loser and would amount to nothing.
I was a very pale, white boy, ridiculed continuously by all those around me. Satan uses this tool continuously. People are cruel and insensitive.
I can sympathize with you, Christ foremost can! Only Agape, at the foot of the Cross and Him Crucified. Christ washed his betrayers feet. He was willing to go into eternal non-existence for your eternal happiness and bliss.
Turn the other cheek brother, as the coming of Christ approaches, this will be child’s play. Rejoice in your trials and tribulations. Christ was neither elated by applause or dejected by sensor. May self, my SELF vanish, so Christ can be lifted up!
May God bless you,
I am so sorry about your negative experiences John, and I appreciate you taking the time to write such a thoughtful response.
I too have had those negative experiences with supposed friends of mine and I have learned that 1. The comfortability in a friendship is often, to some people, presumed. As I was reading your responses to people’s comments, you stated that you had previously given free passes for their behavior so it makes sense for these kids to assume it okay to state such sentiments. We, you, Christians/God lovers set the standard. The amount of “jokes” and ignorance that we brush aside are time bombs waiting to blow up. 2. Ignorance is perpetuated by silence. Slavery and its affects are so removed from today’s young that they don’t think it has anything to do with them. I would suggest teaching your young friends of something that is more recent like Apartheid and tying that to the Civil Rights movement–>slavery–>Ghana–>the cross–>Genesis–>God. Often times we are ignorant to how the sufferings of others are tied to us or how we perpetuate the suffering. I hope this helps. Hugs.