When the first strains of light filter through my curtains, my mind leaves my dreams to form coherent thought. I do not think of race, I rarely do.
I am aware of the colour of my skin. How could I not be? My foundation is a blend of mocha and caramel, my blush dark rose, my lipstick red, because I can pull it off. I am aware of the colour of my skin. How could I not be? I hug “white” people loosely and blow three kisses on either cheek, so I don’t stain them with my brown powder.
But when we get down to work and play and life, beyond enunciating my words with care and observing cultural nuances to accommodate the diversity in my world, I am Timi, a person with much to offer from the height of my intellect to the depth of my experience, and the width of my achievements.
Nigeria has at least 100 ethnic groups. In the state where I grew up, the evening news was broadcasted in four local languages, but I listened to the official English version because I didn’t understand any Nigerian language. My parents hail from two different minority ethnic groups and my friends from the unity school I attended reflect the federal character the federal government emphasized—Amina from the north, Ronke from the west, Chidinma from the east, Asabe from the middle belt, Onome from the mid-west, Ibinabo from the Niger Delta.
So, I did not wonder about race or racism when I moved to The Netherlands. Neither tribalism nor sexism in Nigeria, had clipped the wingspan of my dreams or that of my mother before me. We had defied the boundaries of other “isms” with who we are and what we believe, that excellence would eventually inspire people and remove barriers.
Since language, ethnicity, and race bonds people, and language in particular is like Super Glue, I sometimes find myself on the outside looking in. The English, Moroccans, Surinamese, Dutch, Africans, Turks, Americans, etc, live and socialise within their enclaves. Among the Africans, subdivisions exist for people from south, north, east, or west Africa. More subdivisions based on country, and even more subdivisions based on ethnicity within a country exist. People tend to gravitate to what is familiar and comfortable and inadvertently perhaps, exclude others.
On the other hand, many have moved beyond these confines and discovered that diversity makes for a rich tapestry and the threads of that tapestry are equal in value no matter their colour or ethnicity.
I suppose expat life abroad insulates one from common racism both in the way it is meted out and received. Once I was with a friend who drove a car with diplomatic licence plates when the police stopped us. I watched as she answered the police, with the slight arrogance of one who has options.
I am aware that underneath the bridge that connects me to my better life lie the souls of men and women who died constructing the bridge. I am grateful that although Twelve Years a Slave makes me uncomfortable, after the credits, I can shiver, shrug, and enter my normal life. Racism is real, but it is not my default setting. I choose not to see it in every slight.
Prejudice has lived in human hearts for so long it has become a gene. I remember when I drove my son and his playdate home after school. They stumbled into this conversation after falling in and out of several others.
“My mum says I can play with black people, but I can’t marry them.”
I spied her cute blonde bangs from my rear view mirror. The longer locks framed her oval face and cascaded down her shoulders. I gripped the steering wheel tighter.
“But I don’t want to get married now,” my son replied.
“Oh good,” her giggles light like feathers, carried no malice.
I relaxed my grip as I realised it had never crossed my mind to date a white man. It was the unspoken taboo. Everyone in the town where I grew up knew that only certain types of girls did.
Often when people speak of racial prejudice, they talk as if it is unidirectional, forgetting the prejudice, which also lies in the hearts of its victims so that if power changed hands, new victims would emerge. Is this the real fear that makes one race dominate another—get ‘em before they get us?
Knowledge and courage may be antidotes to prejudice. A desire to investigate the world beyond our nose and the guts to live in peace in it.
©Timi Yeseibo 2014