A good percent of my readership is from Europe. For months, I’ve wanting to write this post but I did not have the right words to properly express what I wanted to say. It was in response to an article I read in the NY Times titled Sweden’s Closet Racists. A few weeks ago, after reading about how Switzerland would allow local authorities to prohibit asylum seekers from public facilities, such as pools and schools, the phrase “separate but equal” came to mind. Yesterday, I saw Lee Daniels’ The Butler (based on the life of Eugene Allen) and finally the words and analogies came to me. Now I can write this post and hope that my European brothers and sisters will learn from America’s past mistakes and not repeat history.
“The past may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.” – Mark Twain
“What history teaches is that men have never learned anything from it.” – Hegel
When I read Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s article in April, I was saddened for many reasons. First, as a person of color in America I have experienced prejudice, bias, and stereotypes based on racism. Fortunately, I would say that happens about 15% of the time. The low percentage is probably because I am a professional and live in a certain neighborhood. I’m sure that if my address, speech, or wardrobe were different, my encounters with prejudice might be more frequent. Therefore, I could personally identify with the author’s experience of walking into a store and having security conspicuously follow you throughout the store while meanwhile someone else could rob the place blind. Second, I am a Europhile. I fell in love with Europe through novels and Masterpiece Classics on PBS as a kid. In high school, I had the opportunity to travel to Europe with my Latin class. It was my first trip to Europe and outside the US. Europe made an impression. I loved how the ancient and modern co-existed. It seemed surreal watching kids play soccer near the Parthenon. Visiting Anne Frank’s house was a solemn reminder of how cruel, inhumane, and depraved we can be if we don’t guard our hearts. Everything I read in history class as a girl was there. I walked among ancient Greek and Roman ruins a couple years before East Germans made history tearing down the Berlin wall.
I fell in love with Europe. To this day, my dream is to spend half the year living in America and the other half living in Europe, some place warm near the sea with fresh fish and seafood. One of the main reasons why I fell in love with Europe was why so many African-American artists and musicians left the US for Paris in the 1920s. I felt more loved and accepted in my skin from Europeans than my fellow Americans. In America, I am first and foremost referred to as Black/African, then as American. Being black in America is not without hardship. The undertones and effects of slavery reverberate throughout America and rears its ugly head at different points even today. Granted things are much better than the 1920s, but every now and then the words of WEB DuBois ring true for me: “A black would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.”
In Europe, I was simply referred to as an American – no reference to my race. More often than not, I was called the “beautiful American girl.” That shocked me. Until then, I never heard a white person call a black person beautiful. Oh I heard white people talk about black men and women but only as sexualized fantasy, not in terms of simply being beautiful. During my stay in Europe, when I first heard “beautiful American girl,” I automatically assumed they were talking about my blond hair blue eyed roommate until the guy yelled “no the other beautiful American girl.” Then I had a Sally Fields moment – “you like me you really like me.” My version being “you think I’m beautiful, you really do!” From the food, culture, architecture, and ruins, I was enthralled and enraptured by Europe. Everyone spoke at least three languages and all I knew was English. My world expanded from being Ronda from Chicago, Illinois to Ronda a global citizen. I’ve said it before my post Ties That Bind, we’re more alike than we are different. There is a fabric of humanity that connects us all regardless of race, religion, or national origin.
Before my last visit to Europe in 2007 (I’m overdue for another one), friends of color that recently visited Europe said something that gave me pause. They all responded, “make sure they know you’re American otherwise they’ll treat you differently.” Each had visited different countries but the response was the same. That saddened me because as a teenage girl what I loved most about Western Europe was that unlike America, my skin/race did not seem to matter. It hurt me to know that what was so instrumental in my love affair with Europe was now tearing it apart with the economic downturn of the late 2000s. However, my friends statement was confirmed while I was in Europe in 2007. I had a wonderful time in Prague, but while there I met other Americans coming from other Western European countries. One was Hispanic American and had visited Spain. She noted she was treated differently until she made it known that she was American. Another friend mentioned a similar experience in Spain such that she said she’d never visit again and advised me not to. Bummer because there is a town in Spain called Ronda.
So in April when I read Jonas Khemiri’s article, I’m thinking not the Swedes. Then a few weeks ago I see the article on Switzerland allowing separate public facilities (pools and schools) for asylum seekers and I think have we regressed back to the 1800s to Plessy vs. Ferguson? It is the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that validated the “separate but equal” Jim Crowe policies throughout the US until Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights movement helped to abolish it. Hard economic times cause the worst of humanity to seep out. In our exasperation with government and politicians handling of the bailout of big banks and seemingly flat lined attempts thereafter to jump start the economy, we are desperately seeking someone to blame. It becomes all too easy to blame all of our economic woes on “those people” be it immigrants (legal or illegal), religious or ethnic minorities. Nationalisms is now becoming synonymous with what sounds a lot like racial purity propaganda that cropped up pre-WWII. After WWI and the Great Depression, everyone was suffering because countries wiped out GNI fighting and funding WWI. Poverty and hunger was more commonplace than governments wanted to admit, not just in Europe but in America. People wanted a villain to blame and a hero to save them. America’s hero was FDR and his work programs. In Germany, they had someone institute similar work programs that happened to have an agenda of racism disguised as nationalism, but he feed, clothed, and employed citizens. Some, probably most, considered it a necessary means to the ultimate good of getting the economy/country back on its economic feet, right? We’ve all learned that acting out of fear and desperation is generally always bad. So why do we naturally default to this mode during times of crisis?!
What would possess Switzerland to even consider an 1800s Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate but equal” policy in the year 2013! Are we regressing as the human race? Why are Swedes racial profiling its own citizens born and raised on its soil? Please learn from my homeland, the great USA, and don’t repeat our mistakes. American is a great country and I love the benefits of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, the worst blot on my beloved country is its handling of slavery, Jim Crowe, and its treatment of its native people. Stop and frisk just because I don’t look like you is divisive and creates a volatile situation, especially when more innocent people are targeted then actual perpetrators. In America, blacks called it “driving while black” or just being black in the “wrong” neighborhood where you did not seemingly belong. Getting a taxi in the 80s and 90s in NYC while being black was not easy, ask Danny Glover.
That is what I liked about Lee Daniels’ The Butler. How someone treats the lowly, meek, and down trodden speaks volumes over any PR or marketing campaign about how wonderful you are. In June, my mom and I attended a college graduation of a dear friend that received her PhD. To our surprise and amazement, the commencement speaker was one of the Little Rock Nine. Seats being scarce, my mom sat in the hallway listening to the speech. The usher, who was about her age and a non-minority, said, “I don’t know what the big deal is because that [Little Rock 9 incident] was such a long time ago.” My mom replied, “That wasn’t so long ago. We’re about the same age. It happened when we were teenagers.” Not so long ago indeed, but look how we want to rewrite history so that we aren’t part of that story.
Have we learned nothing! Europe learn from our (America’s) mistakes in racism. Separate but equal is an oxymoron. What would Gandhi and King think or say if they were alive today?! Let us not undo all the hard work others died for to make us a better society simply because during our current economic hardship we want to blame others for our greed and selfish consumption of materialism – spending what we haven’t earned hoping to be able to pay it later. Like gamblers believing the next hand would turn their luck, in the 2000s we all rode the housing boom believing we’d never fall victim to its bust. In times of growth, we begged immigrants to come and do work thought beneath us, now we claim they are taking jobs from us?! Not five years ago, we wanted them to cook and clean our homes, raise our children and work in our service industry. Now they are the blight on society dragging our economy down! No, we share part of the blame with government not regulating the market and big banks running amok drunk with money and power – see my posts Just Thinking and Unemployment & Immigration.
Let us not repeat or give déjà vu to policies that echo the worst of humanity. Dear beloved Europe, I know times are hard because they are here in America too. But please return to what made me love you the first time. Be better.
“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;”
– Lift Every Voice & Sing by James Weldon Johnson