Thinking back, I never thought about racism the way I do now. I wasn’t exposed to that before moving to Europe and so I didn’t fully understand what it exactly was. I was very naive, contrary to all the praises I got from people I interacted with when I moved to Europe. Countless times I was told how brave I was to just board a plane all by myself and move to a whole new country, a whole new culture, a whole different language and to top that with no family at all. I always dismissed that because to myself, it didn’t seem much of a big deal (the way they made it seem) to move to a new country when you knew what you wanted to do. I mean I was already here and I didn’t feel like I needed to be praised for that. For me the big deal was getting the visa cleared. But I guess most of these people had their concerns for me because they knew and understood of how hard and harsh it can be for immigrants and foreigners in this country. They understood how complicated the system is made to keep off foreigners from settling in. And right now I fully understand why they kept telling me how brave I was even when I didn’t understand it.
My green and corrupted mind believed it was going to be all roses. I believed in everyone’s good and never fully grasped the challenges that were already set on my path. I never thought I would ever be discriminated against for just being a black woman. Back at home, I was just me. But here I was constantly reminded that I was black. Blame it on the little TV I had watched or the marvelous stories I had heard from people who painted the best of pictures of abroad. I thought everything was going to be great and no one could argue that. Yes I had read about racism in my history class but my naive self thought it all died with Hitler. Now I wish it had. I guess you don’t really understand the magnitude of a matter until you experience it.
In all honesty, I had not thoroughly defined my expectations of this place because from what I had gathered over the years, Europe was painted better than Africa. White supremacy was condoned in Africa. Still is sadly. Let’s say I was just like so many others, not quite exposed and brainwashed. And also made to see that the other place is better and greener than where I grew up and learned to survive with the little at hand.
See, we mostly struggle to be content in our current environment and always seek to move to whatever place our brain romanticizes to be better. While there is nothing wrong with that, we do forget we can try to make the best out of the place we are at with the skills and resources available and be grateful for that. Take for example, so many people who grow up in villages are fed the idea to study hard and move to the bigger towns where it is believed to be the answer to all the problems. How does that usually work out? Again, there is nothing wrong with that. But however big of a blessing traveling or moving to a new place is, isn’t a guarantee to that place being better than where you are coming from. It could be you leaving a heaven walking straight to hell. You would be shocked of how much more you can attain from where you are running from as compared to the “paradise” you are running to.
I was taken aback one time when I had a discussion with this Kenyan girl who has been living in Austria for while, when she told me she has never experienced racism at all in her time here. I wondered if she was in denial or even worse, if she understood what racism really is.
I’m not trying to say everyone must experience racism personally, however one must have witnessed racism of whatever form around them. And if they really insist they have never, then I would be convinced that they didn’t pay attention.
The first time I experienced racism was right at the airport when I first landed in Vienna about 6 yrs ago. I and another Kenyan girl were the only people on our plane to be stopped and thoroughly checked and I don’t need to mention we were the only women of color on that plane. I didn’t even think about it because I thought it was a normality. I later came to learn it wasn’t.
When it comes to discrimination, just like pain which is perceived differently regardless of its intensity, one can’t draw a line and say that your kind of pain is better than my kind of pain. That is to say, that no degree of racism is higher than another. Racism is racism. Discrimination is discrimination.
I have for the most part of my stay here felt favored. And I’m grateful for that. I am kind to people and I don’t stir trouble with strangers. But not even my smile or my kindness has saved me from been discriminated against or been insulted for nothing. All the good I am hasn’t exempted me from being hated by certain racists who strongly feel I don’t belong here.
I’m going about my life, waiting to board the metro, and out of nowhere comes this smartly dressed, middle aged man who feels the burning need to tell it to my face to go back to where I belong. It is as if I will just board the train and ask to be dropped somewhere in Kenya on my mothers doorstep or whatever place he thinks I belong. With so much bitterness he says, “We have enough Niggers here, why don’t you all go back to where you belong!” He says this in German. The irony. I wonder how smart he is to already presume that I understand German. He is unlike certain Austrians who will try to speak English to you because you are black and they assume you can’t speak German and also assume that all black people speak English. They get surprised and somewhat ashamed when you answer them in German. And right there you take the power they are armed with to dismiss you. Because you have heard over over again how much they are pained that “we” won’t learn “their” language.
I move away from him and don’t get the time to wonder who the “we” in his sentence stands for. If he came up nice to me, I probably would have asked him to help me figure out where it is I belong. But how do you react to that even? Do you confront, standing a chance to be thrown to the train rails risking your dear life or who knows whatever such a person who carries a lot of hate within them might have in their pockets. Maybe a gun or a knife. You don’t know. But you have heard of cases like this, where a person of color is thrown to an oncoming train. They die. And what does the culprit get? They get to live through it because a judge might sign off that they were mentally unstable. And you wonder what the victim died for.
You alight the train a few stations later and who is following you? The smartly dressed, middle aged man who if you are allowed to profile according to his accent you would say is Austrian. Not to say nobody else can pull an Austrian accent. But I’m not too dumb to not tell he doesn’t think I belong in Austria. He wouldn’t even entertain the idea that I might have been born and raised here. Why? Because he judges me and hates me already for being a woman of color. So it becomes a cat and mouse race on the metro platform. I run and manage to get far away from him but I’m horribly scared. I watch my back the whole day and needless to say from that day onwards I isolate myself on any train platform. I stand where there are not so many people and never too close to the train rails.
I also can’t tell you the many bars or clubs where my friends and I, who looked like me were denied entry. It could be on a Friday evening and you would choose to go unwind in a bar and a bouncer would boldly either tell you, “come back on Sunday evening, it’s open for black people“ or “today is members only” One time it didn’t matter that we made a fuss for more than an hour at the entrance, but were still denied entrance. Everyone else who didn’t “look like us” that came after us were allowed in and no one joined our mini protest.
I remember one bar hiked the entrance fee for us and doubled the amount. And because we knew what he was doing, we insisted we still wanted to enter. He wasn’t ready for that reaction and had the audacity to talk us out of getting in. He uttered bullshit after bullshit but we finally let it go altogether. There are certain clubs that have such misguided policies and there isn’t a thing you can do to go through as a person of color when they don’t want you there. There are places you can report this if you do your research well. Because I think something has to be done. The simplest step is to talk about it of course, which anyone of you can do. The rest follows. Isn’t it horrifying to know that there is segregation in such a big cosmopolitan capital city? It is!
Have to do bureaucratic shenanigans all by yourself with no help say from an Austrian or a German. Go office to office then do the same in the company of say an Austrian or a German and you will see the difference. I have friends who have terrible stories to tell. How someone just shouted at them or just threw documents to their face and asked them to leave. “This depends on who you meet at those offices. “This is what everyone says. But don’t you think it never has to depend on anything for someone to treat you like a human being. To treat you as equally as everyone else. You don’t need favors. You need to be served. And well served. And anyone you find in these offices has a job because of your presence here. And in most cases, you will find these unkind people who treat you like a nobody have no determination of whether you get say for example that visa you are seeking. This hasn’t happened to me personally, but if it happens to anyone I know it definitely affects me.
You might make a phone call at a certain office and the level of seriousness your issue will be handled with might be determined by your accent or the level of your German knowledge that the receiver will assume you to have. This is so wrong.
I attend to sick people. And I remember when I was in school, and I had to do practice that involved visiting patients and serving them at home. There were patients who deliberately didn’t allow me in and clearly stated they wouldn’t be served or cared for by a black person. I had to stay outside all in all for so many hours. I was confused and hurt because I had never experienced this before. But I’m happy because at the end of the day I didn’t hate my skin color nor did I ever ask myself what was wrong with me. It was shocking of course but I knew so well it had nothing to do with me.
I attend to racists at my workplace. People whose minds have been programmed that black people are an enemy and not worthy of much. I work in a field where it isn’t shocking anymore to hear how immigrants are insulted and treated by people they care for. Unfortunately for most of these people, they mostly have not much of a choice in which care unit they will land in. And fortunately, they have no control of who works there or not. So they meet people like me that they hate so much and are forced to accept my help and my care. There are diseases or illnesses you can only control so much, and one of these is Dementia. Most of my patients suffer from Dementia and if you understand this disease well, you can somehow imagine or understand how challenging it is if I tell you that I have had a patient shouting that the jews should go away and in that moment you can’t do anything.
I have lost count of how many times I have to ask a patient not to refer to me as ‘Nigger’ and they didn’t stop. If I correct them they will instead call me “nurse nigger”. I also can’t tell you how many times certain patients complain that there are only immigrants nursing them. This adds to their hate. There are political discussions of how immigrants have taken over the job market.
“They have taken all our jobs” and much more unfathomable nonsense. I wonder if there is an understanding of how like I said before, complicated the system is designed to keep away foreigners from settling in. Nothing has been served on a silver platter to any one foreigner.
Can you imagine up to what heights they have had to fight, what cruelty they have withstood, how much tears they have wiped and how many bones they have broken to attain and keep a job position no matter how looked down upon it is. Imagine that! These people who are put out there as unworthy, undeserving and enemies of a country have done that. They continue to play a major role in the economy of a country that barely wants to recognize them. Taking up those “unwanted jobs” and overworking themselves all the while ignoring the noise around them from say an Austrian who has never had to clean a public toilet in their whole entire life.
So again, who is smarter and who is stealing whose job? What job please?
On my birthday last month, my two friends took me to this well known greek restaurant. We were all very excited. Upon entrance, I whispered to my friends,”I wonder if they will treat us different because we are all black.” We took our respective sits and everything commenced well. We ordered everything from drinks, starter to the main course all at a go. The wine came and so did the starter. It wasn’t a big potion. We would be done in like 5-10 minutes if we chose to enjoy it.
We talked and talked, people came, sat around us, got served, ate, left and more people came and it wasn’t until an hour later that it dawned to us that we hadn’t been served our main course. Upon asking, according to another waiter apparently the waiter who had taken our order had forgotten. Another waiter offered to take a new order. We refused. The waiter who had “forgotten” our order came on us with the excuse that he was giving us time to finish our starter. A starter we had finished an hour ago. We were very hurt more than we were angry and hungry and this to me was discrimination.
He choose to serve other clients (we weren’t blind not to see that they weren’t black) better than us and came lying to our faces. I don’t want to think whether it was because we were all black or because we were just women. Whichever it is, it is unacceptable.
The unpleasant is, some stranger storming to a different chair because you sat next to them. Probably not only because they can’t stand your beauty that they have to move away but because they are afraid of you.
The unpleasant is, someone refusing to see you and wanting to go through you as if you are transparent. And when you stand for yourself, they insult you and every other person around is oblivious to the situation.
The unpleasant is, a racist patient hitting you, insulting you and throwing a glass of water to your face while you attend to them, all the while refusing to call you by your name because “Nigger” is what they feel befitting. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to change that moment.
The unpleasant is when grown woman racist asks you to clean your “dirty skin” referring to your skin complexion, because they think you should somehow easily get off your melanin with water and soap. And it makes you wonder if skin is something like a mask or cloth that you wake up everyday and choose whatever tone fits your mood and depending on how you feel that day decide to iron or not and wear it hoping the world will be pleased to see it.
The unpleasant is, a racist woman assuming that another muslim woman has a cover over her head because her hair is dirty and telling that to their face.
The unpleasant is, when your friend tells you that some teenagers were laughing at her and her child and calling disturbing names and making remarks like “let the negroes pass”
The unpleasant is, some people assuming that all of us are forced to be here. That it isn’t our choice to be here. That there is nothing good to be happy or gracious about back at home. And for that they can treat however they want.
The unpleasant is, black guys being stopped every too often by the police under the presumption that they are dealing drugs.
I go through what I go through here in a country that favors women so much and I can only imagine what men of color go through everyday. We do forget men are human and have emotions as well.
Many will say, let the racists die. But you are not God. Besides, you are a nurse bound by the law and an oath to care for without discrimination. And above all you understand what is it to be human. You can’t challenge hate with hate. You don’t want to strengthen or confirm the misguided idea of whatever the racist already thinks you to be. And if you choose hate, what difference are you making? Won’t you become just like them?
I’m clear of battles I choose to fight when it comes to discrimination and injustice. And there are so many ways of fighting or “coping” with these. I will not risk my life altogether and die from the hands of a racist, because I want to live a long life. I will not argue with a racist and clearly not in a dangerous place. I will always put my safety first. The most important thing I already know is, the hate anyone projects towards me has nothing to do with me. And I know many times I will not be able to do anything about some situations that are bound to happen. And that I can’t change a racists thoughts or deeds. It is deep rooted.
I can try to navigate around it the best way I can and that won’t mean that I can’t stand for myself when I can. I will continue to call out racist remarks like I do at work with my colleagues or clients. I will respectfully call out someone who evidently treats me differently just because they think of me as less based on my color and where I am from and ask for the least, professionalism. I am as qualified as my colleagues and I deserve that post because I fought for it and earned it. I will continue to exchange my experiences with whoever is ready to listen. There is power in that. I will talk to my psychologist when I feel there is need, because no matter how much I say it doesn’t get to me, it surely does something on my inside and I can only take in so much.
I don’t know how long I will have to “set the record” straight when it comes to discussions about my skin color, my hair, my homeland Kenya, my continent Africa and so on. But when I can, I will extend that courtesy and educate some ignorance out there. I’ll probably have to do so for the rest of the time I choose to be here. What I pray I will never ever be forced to do is feel sorry for myself for being who I am or apologize for being a woman of color.