A few years ago, I set up a black womens’ club to discuss and get support for some of the issues that I was having. I lived in a predominantly white city, I was facing racism, my mixed-race son was being bullied at school, my husband could not find a job, I was unhappy living in the countryside and I couldn’t find a hairdresser to style my Afro-textured hair. I created the group to get advice from women that looked liked me and might have been going through similar experiences.
We planned a lunch every month. Our first event was both therapeutic and cathartic. We got to know each other better and understood that we were going through the same challenges at varying degrees. I remember going home that evening and feeling a whole lot better. There’s something reassuring knowing that others face similar challenges and understand what you are going through.
At the time, social media groups weren’t that popular so we patiently awaited our monthly lunches to connect. Our second get-together was even more exciting. We shared our challenges, both personal and professional, but we also found time to laugh about the lighter things in life. I realized that this time, however, many of our white colleagues were looking at us from afar, either curious, disapprovingly, or with suspicion, and I wondered why. After our third lunch, my white boss commented matter-of-factly.
“I saw you at lunch today with all those beautiful African ladies, you were all laughing so much. It was good to hear your loud laughter. You seemed to be having fun. What were you beautiful ladies planning?”
“Oh, we weren’t planning anything in particular. We needed to share our experiences and help each other as black women in this part of the world.”
My boss looked at me suspiciously: “What’s so special about being a black woman in this city? Why do you need to share experiences? I hope that you all aren’t plotting something”, she said with an uneasy laugh.
What had started as a seemingly innocent conversation had all of a sudden become more awkward. I moved to diffuse the situation immediately:
“Oh of course not. We’re mainly sharing recommendations on where to get our hair and nails done. Nothing more than that”, I laughed.
She smiled back, clearly relieved by my response.
By the time the fourth lunch came about, we were all self-conscious. Almost all the ladies in the group had received some type of comment from their direct managers or colleagues, and the message was a clear one: our white colleagues did not feel comfortable with us black ladies congregating. In the group, we didn’t discuss the matter much, but one thing was for sure, we needed our jobs, and weren’t willing to upset the white colleagues that we worked with. Shortly after, we stopped our monthly lunches.
The fact is, white people, being frightened when they see several black people together is a very real thing. Just recently, I had an appointment at my black hairdressers’ salon in Geneva. When I arrived, he asked me to give him an extra 10 minutes because he was running late. I noticed that there was a tea store next door and I entered to check out what turned out to be an impressive variety of loose-leaf, organic premium blends. Given our clear common passion for fine tea, the store owner and I hit off a conversation almost immediately. She confessed that she was planning on moving her business to another neighborhood because there were always “too many black people next door”, and it frightened her and her customers. I was taken aback when I heard this and asked:
“Has anyone of them ever harmed you or your customers?”
“No, they haven’t, there just too many of them together and that’s frightening.”
I was surprised. Here again, was another absurd example of white fright and discomfort in the face of blackness.
I thought about the tea store owner for several days. Why was it that she thought that the group of black customers standing outside a hairdressing salon because of Covid 19 physical distancing measures were out to get her and her customers? Why is it that so many white people think that if black people congregate, we are up to no good or plotting to harm or take them down? Did it ever cross their minds that as black people, we enjoy each other’s company, that we relish representation and the comfort of interacting within our own ethnic group?
Do they also realize that being a black person in a largely white-dominated society can be a frightening and lonely experience and that given what is in the history books and in today’s media, we should be the ones worried when they — white people congregate? How many times have white people congregating meant that black peoples’ lives were endangered? Let me think: the Trans Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, the Tulsa Massacre, apartheid, the Klan, the lynching of black people in America — past and present — all the way up to the white vigilantes that murdered Ahmed Arbery? It seems to me that throughout time, more often than not, white people congregating has meant more danger for black people and not vice-versa.
When I launched my black womens’ lunch meetings, I did so because I wanted to meet other people that looked like me. I spent days in meetings with people who didn’t look like me. I was under constant pressure to prove myself, to show that I was not a diversity hire, to get my white colleagues to understand that I was qualified for the job. It was also more challenging for my family and me to settle into the city because we were a mixed-race family. It was a tough time in our lives and those lunches with other black women were important for my mental health. Yet, I had to stop them because the white people in my environment felt uncomfortable. I don’t know how many black people constantly do that — give up on being ourselves to make white people feel comfortable.
But do white people understand that when you’re the only black person on your team, in your classroom, at the swimming pool, or on the train to work, that is sometimes a daunting experience? As a black person living in a place like Switzerland, I very often find myself being the only black person — and that’s really tough at times. The other day, we went on a family excursion to the Alps. My younger daughter commented about how I was the only black person in the gondola lift as we ascended the mountain.
She said, “How does it make you feel Mum?”
“Oh, I’m used to it,” I replied.
And yes indeed I am. I have grown up for most of my life in a white-dominated society, and of course, I am used to it, but sometimes I yearn for another black person in the room, on the train, on the ski lift, at my local gym. Sometimes, I am tired of being the only black person.
For as long as I’ll live, I’ll always struggle with the double standard: why is it that when white people congregate, it doesn’t bother anyone and almost no one assumes that they are up to no good. However, when black people do exactly the same thing, white people become suspicious and believe we must be engaged in something illicit?
I think this reveals a lot of information about how white people are socialized. There seems to be this collective fear of black people in particular, which grows even more exponentially when black people congregate. What we end up with is a visceral and at most times, irrational and unjustified fear of black people and a belief that we want to harm white people. That then leads to microaggressions, macro aggressions, and outright racism. Let me just make it clear, black people were not put on earth to harm white people. We are not here to hurt you. I think that if this message could be heard loud, far, and wide by all white people, we’ll finally stand a chance of ending racism once and for all.
Thank you for reading my perspective.
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