I'm anxious. The words sit heavily on my chest as I try to process the pain. It's been almost a week in contexts of being a racial minority, and reality is warping ever so subtly as to make me second guess myself. The anxiety sits on my chest like the unmarked graves of the womxn who died before the world could know their name. I decide to write.
I Google with haste 'racism in Tunisia' to validate my perceptions. The responses on Trip Advisor are somewhat reassuring, but in large doses of gaslighting. "Stop playing the racism card you soft soda," a respondent writes. "[B]lack ,white or brown ,we all get discriminated against at some point but you gotta get on with it, but can't see you standing out too much seeing as though it's in AFRICA." One respondent writes. I pause before reading on from other black reviewers in groups. It is indeed Africa... I question my perception.
Last time I was in a MENA country, laughter between me and the hotel staff was responded to in a slur of Arabic that I could not fully understand. What I did understand was the term 'kaffir'. I know that it means something along the lines of unbeliever, or heathen. I know that in the context of dialects it does not come with the same racist twang that characterizes its domination in Apartheid and 'post' Apartheid South Africa. But it stings and makes the hair on my skin stand up. A former colleague, in love and kindness, asks me about the racism I experience being a black African working on civic space in the MENA region, I solemnly take in her words of acknowledgement of this. I sit with it and tuck it beneath myself, I store it for another day. I guess that day is now.
Tonight as we are on our way to dinner post-conferencing, I need to go to the pharmacy. My host says I should be fine to go into the mall and meet them at the restaurant. I want to say 'please don't leave me alone,' instead I sheepishly whisper 'okay, I'll meet you there.' Every time I stop to speak to someone on my own, hunting for a pharmacy, I'm greeted with a look that I cannot articulate. It feels like it takes a few seconds before the people I am asking for help from realise I am human, and deciding that I am not, whether or not to help me. None of them do. I do not find the pharmacy. Even thereafter, I do not find the restaurant I am meant to go into for dinner because I am told that there is no one there waiting for me. It takes a white and Arab colleague finding me standing in the street looking lost for me to be allowed into the restaurant, despite having gone there to ask for the group a few minutes prior. I say nothing. As the only black womxn in the group, black fat, African womxn, I say nothing. It might not translate, I say to myself. My ancestors dig their derrieres deeper into my chest so that I hear my heart beating in my ears.
I laugh gaily in a crowded tram in a pretentious European city. Last time I was in this city, an old white woman was offended that I did not speak French, and in the true spirit of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, threatened to hit me with her walking stick after following me onto a crowded bus for my lack of post-colonial assimilation.
This time around, in the same city, I've spent the afternoon drinking post-work pints with an old crush. We talk about life and his decision to move and stay abroad in the context of great need back 'home'. The elusive home, AFRICA, that we want to believe binds activists together in commitment to justice and reparations. It is not always so. An article written previously highlights the disconnect on racial justice across African countries. I say earnestly, because I feel earnestly, that our shared work space was laden with race related issues that broke me. He empathizes sincerely. We're both tipsy as we get into the tram. In our laughter, he jokes that I am being loud and it is the alcohol. As we part ways this stays with me. I am loud, but am I made louder by being black, fat and womxn? The next day he walks by with a white colleague as I sit at a sidewalk table with a cigarette. He pretends he doesn't see me, or at least that's what I perceive to happen - though being 'loud' I find this hard to believe. I stop in my thoughts, both too loud and invisible at the same time.
This article smacks of privilege. It highlights my journey across different contexts doing work and, as the Facebook check-ins might indicate, jetsetting across the world. Travelling. Or more apropos, travelling while black. Travelling while black and fat. Travelling while black, fat and womxn. Alone. A friend says that I make everything about race. Another remarks that a project on race that I've poured my soul into is nothing new. Still another tells me of all her wonderful adventures around the world as a sole white woman traveler. A different one remarks that I should not play into race-related victimhood. And yet, I feel sharply in the meetings as the sole black person this disconnect between this sage advise and my reality.
My words hang in there air oftentimes. After delivering weeks worth of content and evidence, an official from a colonizing government remarks that I was so articulate. I pause. I then press her on the substance of my contribution. The blood drains from her face and she falls silent. I stay resilient despite the second and third and fourth remark on my articulation of the English language and not the substance of my contribution.
After a week outside of the echo chamber of 'woke' black politics in South Africa, I am scared and tired. I internally shout a tearful prayer on the psychological torment of being black, while being fat and being a womxn. I lament how insidious these moments are, and how they affect my parenting of the love of my life. Will she too be hyper-aware of her race, her size and her gender? I feel numb at the ways in which these moments cumulatively play on my mind.
In a crowded airport line where I scan the room for other black people, I see none. My mind drifts towards any confrontation that might happen and how I am outnumbered in a space where anti-black right wing racism has been on the upsurge. If a fight were to break out because of the wrong look or grazing into someone, I would lose. The paranoia is crippling.
It's crippling but not unfounded. It is a response to real events that I have sought to document to embolden myself to be aware of danger and seek spaces of safety. It is not a sustainable way to live, but it is a way in which black people are living. In a space of privilege, I can navigate these spaces and live with the discomfort. But the truth is that for many black migrants, and even those born in their countries of residence, EVEN within the continent, their right to exist as entirely human is constantly questioned. Even in the most oppressed societies, black, queer, womxn bodies that have moved themselves are almost always subject to additional layers of scrutiny and questioning.
This questioning is added onto the questioning of rights to self-determined existence even in spaces of origin. As a black South African womxn living in relative privilege, I've seen this when an employer has told me 'a chance' was taken on me in recruitment despite my credentials; when I've been asked as the only black womxn on staff to clean a white professor's office as a Senior Researcher; when I've been erased from projects and budgets; or my child has faced discrimination and I have been expected to be grateful for the opportunity to exist in white spaces - EVEN IN AN AFRICAN COUNTRY. How much more for the bodies of womxn who work to support entire care industries, entry level service jobs that are being automated or engaging with other languages not as their own.
And this ultimately is my point: As eloquently as I can say it, post-racialism can go fuck itself. The psychological torment of questioning this reality is exhausting. Not seeing race does nothing for acknowledging the insidious nature of racist, sexist, size-ist violence enacted on our bodies on the daily. If anything, it gaslights us into believing that the mental work we have to do to remain sane is not work. It makes us believe that the exhaustion and paranoia are outcomes of our feebleness, and not of the psychological power exerted on us by white supremacist misogyny. We are tired, and afraid, and sad, and hurting. We do not need therapy to deal with this shit. You do. But while you get to the point where you are ready to do the emotional work of not being trash, we will continue to thrive and take up space, as our very existence depends on it. And we includes the restless, unmarked graves of the womxn who have died in the process of our fight for voice.
As you were.