As a black person living in Switzerland, I have had my fair share of bizarre things happen to me. Youth, fear, self-doubt, and inexperience often prevented me from calling white people out on their racism. Truth be told, I didn’t want to lose the few friends I had either.
Once, I found myself in a situation where Annick, someone I considered a friend said: “I’ve invited Jean-Pierre and Marie to my wedding. You don’t know them, they are childhood friends, but I need to tell you that they are racists. Just don’t go near them and you’ll be okay”.
Before the event, I was filled with anxiety. I imagined that the most terrible things would happen. It didn’t help that I was going to be the only black person at the wedding. I asked myself if the racists would confront me, humiliate or try to harm me in any way.
While doing my makeup and dressing to go, I wanted to pick up the phone several times to tell Annick that I was sick and could no longer make it. I didn’t end up calling her. The fact of the matter however was that I wasn’t relaxed, I was stressed. I felt like I was going to face a firing squad instead of going to celebrate someone’s special day.
When I got to the event, my first reflex was to find out who the racists were and to always make sure I kept my distance. Whenever I lost sight of them, I felt my anxiety rise. Somehow, I felt like if I knew exactly where they were, it would give me ample time to escape or defend myself should they try to harm me.
At several times during the celebration, I found myself much closer to them than I would have liked. I studied their faces, keen to see what a racist looked like. There was nothing that distinguished them from other people in the room, they looked normal, but I knew that there was poison and hatred in their hearts.
Over the course of the evening, I realized that the racists were popular and everyone was engaging with them. The other guests would talk and laugh with them. The whole situation was strange and uncomfortable for me, but I went along with it. I didn’t want to disappoint Annick.
When dinner came around, the people sitting at the table with the racists laughed profusely. I was within earshot and heard the n-word pronounced several times followed by explosive laughter. No one at the table seemed offended or surprise — they seemed happy and entertained.
Later, those same people came up to me on the dance floor smiling from ear to ear. They acted normal as if they hadn’t been laughing at racist jokes a few hours earlier. The uncanny duality of these folks was disconcerting. Did they think that it was okay to mock black people one minute and get up and dance with one the next? I felt uncomfortable but didn’t want to cause a stir so I danced along. It was, after all, Annick’s special day and like a trained circus animal, I behaved.
Fast forward to a couple of years later. Annick had given birth to a beautiful baby boy called Emile and invited me to his baptism. Again she said that she had invited her racist friends. I thought back to the night of their wedding and to the stress and anguish, I had felt. I went to visit her ahead of the event. While she was busying herself putting Emile’s cute baby clothes away I blurted out:
“I won’t be able to come”.
“But I was thinking of making you Emile’s godmother, you must come”, she responded immediately. I could detect shock and hurt in her voice.
“Annick, I am not going to come to a party with racists”, I responded a tad bit more assertively than I would have liked.
“Well, you came to the wedding, it was fine for you then, why the change?”, she asked seemingly confused.
“It was painful to live through that experience at your wedding Annick, I would rather not repeat it”.
“I don’t understand you, Rebecca, why are you being so controlling, why do you want to control who I invite to my child’s christening?”
At that moment, I realized that she didn’t understand how racism affected me. She was oblivious to my pain. For her, as long as I ignored the racists, I would be okay. But this time, I couldn’t sit in a room with people who hated who I represented and be okay with it. I was determined to not let that happen ever again.
She left the room, I collected my stuff, and left. We never spoke to each other again.
I often think of Annick and so many other people like her that I called friends at some time or another in my life. The fact that she didn’t see anything wrong with inviting racists to her parties points to one of the reasons why racism still exists today. There are still too many white people who refuse to take a stance against it. There are still too many white people that tolerate it, who can sit at a table and laugh with racists and it doesn’t bother them one bit. These so-called friends say that they are staunch believers in the freedom of expression, and they will not cut ties with their racist friends.
I’ve drawn a line in the sand when it comes to this. If you have racist, anti-semitic, islamophobic, sexist, homophobic, and/or transphobic friends, you can never be my friend. I don’t even want to be in your presence. For me, it’s clear, the only way we can change the world for the better is if we stand up for what is right. We cannot simply hide behind freedom of expression when the opinions some share are filled with ugliness, depravity, and hate.
Thank you for reading my perspective.