By: Sumaya Quillian
The n-word has been used by white people against black people in the United States for a long time, and it has never connoted anything other than ugliness. Yet, I have heard it used more by white people at the College in the last 5 or 6 months than I ever heard it used by white people in the States. Maybe people think that’s fine as long as the word isn’t being directed at one of the handful of black students at the College…it’s not. I feel uncomfortable witnessing white people use a racial slur, let alone one that is normally directed against people that look like me. And as I’m writing this, I ask myself why I even have to say that. Why should I, or any black person, have to openly declare that it cuts me inside to hear white people using racial slurs?
This month, a picture was posted in our Facebook group of a white person posing next to a Congolese boy with his hand cut off, no doubt by the mercenaries that forced him into labor for the benefit of a Belgian king. For some reason, it’s so easy for some people to joke about a figure whose colonial exploits oversaw the death, rape and mutilation of millions of people. I won’t bother citing a specific estimate of people, because I’ve learned the only relevant fact about this figure’s legacy is that it is still highly debated. I’ve learned that it would be reductionist for me to point out such atrocities at the expense of a white man’s reputation.
I have heard someone called unattractive because they had dark skin. I have heard a demanding work environment referred to as a “slave ship”. I recall learning that the African people kidnapped from their homes and packed tightly onto slave ships were chained together naked like cargo. They could barely move, had no place to defecate except where they lay chained, were given barely any food or water, and were subjected to high rates of rape, disease and death. I wonder how these two things—a traineeship and a slave ship—are comparable to one another.
These are the moments I think of now when someone asks me about race in Europe: a sum of seemingly minor incidents in the College microcosm that make me feel enraged and ill at ease in my own skin. References to black lives and black bodies as if they are insignificant, words said in passing as if they no longer carry weight for the people they have been used against. The incidents I’ve seen here seem minor compared to things that have actually brought me to tears, overwhelmed by the ugly past and present that white people refuse to take responsibility for. But it makes me sick that I’ve had people basically congratulate me on not being back home in the States “where they have so many problems with race”. I do feel grateful to be at the College. I have learned so much being in an environment with people from so many different countries. I have been grateful to learn in a beautiful city where my day-to-day life is free from concerns about how I’m going to eat or where I’m going to sleep. But do not congratulate me for being in an environment marked by casual racism. Do not congratulate yourselves for not being part of the problem.
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