When I was invited to write about my personal experiences of racism, I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the topic. There were so many memories I had learned to forget. There was that time I was on a student exchange programme in Saint-Étienne and my host family had their grandparents over for dinner. They warned me beforehand that they were old and didn’t appreciate people of colour (POC). The whole evening, they ignored me, and I sat silently playing PlayStation while they enjoyed dinner behind me.
I could share a list of every micro-aggression, every slur shouted from a passing car, every time I felt harassed, exoticised, tokenised, too dark, every time I had security guards follow me around a shop, every time I was randomly selected by police on the street to show my ID and asked if I had drugs on me. It would be impossible and not constructive to list them all. There is no judge who will take my tally and compensate me for damages.
So instead I will focus on the first time I was called a n****r. This may be an obvious choice, but I chose to focus on this because, for myself and other POCs, it is the first instance of being othered. It rang like a death knell, announcing all the other experiences of racism to come.
For this child to use this word, he would have to identify my weakness as being black
I was around six when it first happened and I had just started school, having moved from Martinique to Ireland. How did this word shoot off the end of the whip and bounce on the breath of a mob to find itself centuries later in the mouth of a child, on a playground in Dublin? It had to be carefully inherited, from generation to generation; a precious spell to ward off evil spirits, to keep them in their place. Even a child’s mind can unpack the intention of the word. It places the victim lower than animals, less than dirt, some half-born parasite living in its own filth. Something that inspires disgust when found on the sole of one’s shoe.
Now, bullies are cruel. They will pick on the fat ones, the awkward ones, the disabled. They find weaknesses and alienate others. But for this child to use this word, he would have to identify my weakness as being black, so he had to absorb and internalise the complex power dynamic of systemic racism from somewhere. Most probably his parents planted the seed, but perhaps a film or the news nourished that seed. He saw how black people were portrayed, which caused him to be afraid and confused.
As the years went on, the word would come back to haunt me; shouted by kids and adults, sprinkled with the occasional “go back to Africa” (I still haven’t been). At one point, after the seventh or eighth time it happened, I remember my (white) uncle telling me, “Next time it happens, turn around and say ‘Yeah, I am one, so what?’” I did it and, lo and behold, the bully turned and left without saying a word.
The word shapes you and you begin to draw strength from it. You begin to hear the fear and insecurity behind the word, this incessant need for the speaker to have some form of higher ground.
The first time you are lashed with that word, you are placed outside of good society. Even a child’s mind knows it has been thrown out and forever locked outside. As I grew up, I found myself clawing to get back in by performing whiteness; dressing white, sounding white, disguising myself so as not to stick out. It took a very long time to find pride in my blackness, especially growing up without a black community around me. But I found it in the end. It is the bedrock of my identity, far stronger than any nationality or where I grew up.
When I was a kid, performing whiteness, there was a part of me that wanted to be white
I’m addressing this to white people because for POCs this is day-one stuff. Becoming accustomed to adversity is a form of strength but it is also exhausting. It warps the mind into thinking depraved acts of racism are normal and you are overreacting. You are crazy for thinking there is some hidden system behind these acts of violence. No one should have to “get used to” seeing men who look like your father murdered by authorities and become the martyrs of the umpteenth resistance movement. If one word can have so much power and history packed into two syllables, imagine what redlining or racial profiling can do to the mind.
When I was a kid, performing whiteness, there was a part of me that wanted to be white. I wanted to be judged on my merit, on who I was as a person. I haven’t wanted to be white for a long time. White people have the choice between living a veiled life of ignorance or the daily grind of fighting against racism. We don’t have that choice.
Sean Gallen is a director and writer based in Berlin