I am Ghanaian and apart from sometime in 2001 in the midst of religious riots while living in Nigeria, I’d never felt my life to be in serious danger. And then just yesterday, I watched a video sent by my Malawian American friend about how South Asians were part of the racism problem in America. Suddenly I remembered our time in South Korea (that’s East Asia, by the way) and marvelled at how weirdly similar our experiences as black people were.
My Malawian American friend and I were both teaching at the same university. She had been in Korea before me but if you took both our experiences, the only thing that was different about them were the names, because she was in the English department and I was in the Geography department. And the one common factor about us was that we were the only black “professors” in the entire university.
In Daegu, South Korea, I slept on a flimsy thin mattress I rolled out every night on the floor of my apartment for weeks and weeks until my white American male friend told me I was entitled to a bed. See, I had only been talking to my Black friend because we were in the same apartment complex (she was a great help in getting me settled in). Indignant, he told me I didn’t have to buy a bed (that’s what my department told me, and it’s the same thing they also told my Malawian friend. Because she had been there longer, she had gotten hers. To make matters worse, beds were freaking expensive!) He told me a bed was part of the package deal. So armed with this new information, I marched into my department office- this was about midday, by the way- and in a few hours, just like that, I had a brand new bed sitting in my room. I stared at it, wondering at what had just happened.
That wasn’t the worst of it. I was younger than the department office assistant and in her world, a younger (age is a huge deal in South Korea) black girl had no right come into her pale white country and earn more money than she did. So yeah, she frustrated my life. She kept things from me, making me look bad at the central administration offices. She would ask me to sign things without translating the doc which she was required to do. And since my dad raised no fool, of course, I would simply ask to know what exactly I was putting my signature to and then that would raise a whole storm and get me reported for “bad behaviour”. Yikes. The other foreign “professors” were upset on my behalf. My very good Filipino friend and colleague could not understand it. The hatred was palpable. But I knew what was going on.
Anyway, one day, I had enough. In a country which prided itself on being the most connected country in the world (down in the subway, up in the mountains, you just can’t get away from the internet), the connection in my room was shitty. Some miserable excuse I can’t remember. So I marched into Central Admin and until today, I’ve never had a showdown like that again. I keep telling people, “Don’t test me.” This woman you see is high on the grace of God that’s why she is cool, calm and collected. But don’t test me. It’s not going to be worth it. Anyway, right in the middle of the large cubicled offices at Central Admin, I laid out all the ways they had made me think the worst of that beautiful country. I didn’t leave out anything or anyone. That same afternoon, my internet got fixed, never to have so-called glitches again. But I think that was the day I decided that, come the end of the school year, I was leaving South Korea. Plus a lot of other things had been happening on the personal front in my life. I didn’t need their added stress.
But why go that far to experience racism? Back in America, I was so used to being black (fresh from Ghana and all) that I didn’t recognise what it was until it was spelled out for me. Five of us were flying into Boston from Kalamazoo, MI with a stop at Chicago. It was an early morning flight, so we decided to have breakfast when we landed at the airport in Chicago. But breakfast wasn’t coming. We waited and waited, beginning to get nervous because of course, we had a flight to catch. And then breakfast came but our orders were all mixed up! Until one of us made a fuss about it to the manager. The five of us travelling represented the Graduate Student Council of a midwestern university but our waitress was this white chick who probably looked at our group and decided she was not going to use her white hands to serve three brown men and two black women breakfast. (Before now, I would describe myself as brown but I got to the US and the range of colours was completely redefined. But who decides who is brown or black anyway? Abeg abeg) (You might also want to read here for why maybe we Africans struggle with colours). Anyway, my African American colleague explained to me what was going on. I looked at the white girl, probably earning minimum wage or something, and just pitied her. So you can’t serve me breakfast because of the colour of my skin? Shame on you girl.
I won’t (and can’t) begin to unpack the ins and outs of the experience of the African American. Plus the fact that we can’t offer anything as an entire black continent to black people in America says a lot.
But you should watch this video. It definitely got me thinking.