In Cambodia, I was sunbathing on one of their many beautiful beaches. I was in my twenties and wanted to be as black as night. I’d gone the complete opposite direction from my teenage days. Yes, I was that token black goth- bless younger me right!
Anyway, I’m lying on a lounger in the sun and this beautiful little kid comes over. He sits in the sand and stares for a while quizzically. After having come to a decision, he runs back to his mates, a group of children trying to get money by selling trinkets. They huddle around having a very intensive conversation before that same kid runs back. He’s been egged on by his friends and he’s feeling braver. This time after only a few seconds of staring he builds up the courage and rubs my skin. Nothing happens.
In my mind children and animals fall under the same category of being complete little weirdo’s so I’m just fascinated. I’m mostly entertained and far too hungover to do anything active so I continue to watch him be strange. He is confused. He licks his fingers and rubs at my skin again. He looks at his friends, rubs on the same patch but harder and then stares at me.
“You are too dark. Why? It is not dirt” These were the first words he spoke to me.
They made me chuckle.
“No, I’m naturally dark” was my response. I was grateful for the pain killers because the headache had gone and I was mostly dehydrated from the cheap beer sold at the hostel. This was a conversation I could handle.
“Then why are you in the sun?” said the boy, concerned and still confused.
“Because I want to get darker, I want to be as tanned as possible”
“No, no, no. That is not good. I will get an umbrella for you, give me money and I’ll make sure you have shade” This was something he could understand. A transaction with a tourist.
Being dark skinned indicated that one worked outside in the sun, a labourer and thus poor. Being poor is something to be ashamed of and this view is rampant globally, hence the prolific use of skin whitening crap available. But I believe this will be a point in another post. Back to innocents.
“I want to be in the sun, I want to get as dark as possible”
The boy shook his head as he looked at me. He then ran to his friends and more of them came over. A few of them touched me, my skin, my odd afro hair etc. They were children. All of this was done out of curiosity. Was I fleeced- yes, I ended up buying crap off them. Was it a play- no, they were genuinely curious. The amount of time they spent talking with me to understand what it meant to me being black, proud of getting darker and clearly living my life; they could have sold a lot more trinkets to the other white foreigners on that beach.
Which brings me to my next innocent racist post.
I’d just moved into university halls of residents. I had a flat which was shared with three others- all white. Moving in, my black friend and I had brought the first load from Brighton. A few days later I had an Asian friend visit and we went shopping to make my room look good. A day after that I had some white friends bring more stuff so they, my flatmate (who’d come to halls of residence early) and I all had tea together. The next morning my new flatmate and I had a conversation, one that I won’t ever forget.
“So, are most of your friends normal?” she asked.
“What do you mean by normal?” I was so confused by this.
“Well, you know…normal…”
“No” In my mind I was trying to think about which one she meant as normal. The last visitor was a white mate I’d known from childhood. We’d tried to create a religion in order to get followers who’d buy us beer since we were nearly always broke during our A-levels. We’d been on our best behaviour here so that couldn’t have been it…could it?
“Well, like I’m normal. Are most of your friends like me?”
I looked at her. This was the first time I’d met a Northern Irish person, one who I had to concentrate to understand. She reminded me of the singer from the band Texas but she hated earl grey tea which meant I had no idea what she was on about. Which one of my friends did she most associate with? Perhaps my first mate who’d helped me move in… “Only a few of them hate Earl Grey tea, so I’m not sure”
She looked at me flustered. We clearly weren’t talking the same language despite it being English. “No, I mean, are they like me?” she repeated as if that would add clarity to an already confusing situation. She saw me staring at her blankly- gesturing would make this better she thought. She pointed to her arm whilst nodding “you know” she rubbed the arm to take the message home “like me”.
I was confused but concerned. “Why?” If I had understood her correctly, and her accent was hard, she was asking me if my friends were mostly white. I was not willing to go down that quagmire- she did.
“White. Are most of your friends’ white like me? Are your friends normal?”
There you have it. She said it. This was my new flatmate, in central London being concerned that she would have to share the hall of residents with a black person. Whilst I had to acknowledge that we didn’t have bins in the underground because of the unrest in Northern Ireland, something I was unwilling to bring up in such company; she felt it ok to bring up my skin tone. I didn’t want to bring up the propaganda about Irish terrorists, but skin tone goes beyond politics to some. That conversation stemmed from ignorance and lack of thought. I was irate, how dare whiteness be the measuring stick for normality!
It shouldn’t be our job to educate, everyone should do their own homework! Sadly, it is often the job of the minority or affected group to explain their position.
She should have known better. Were the comments racist? Yes! Did they mean harm? Should I forever label her a racist? Am I forever a racist since I “knew” white people were cannibals?
The above were tales of ignorance but based on innocence. It’s so easy to fall under that angry trope! But we can’t make the world better without understanding others POV in order to help universal growth! My flatmate is now mortified about that initial encounter as she should be.
It’s too easy to label one racist without understanding the intent. Everyone needs a starting point to learn. As with the children and my flatmate, it’s all about finding a starting ground of us being humans, and it’s even better if we all want to do our part to create a better future for everyone!
If you are really interested in finding out more about the frustrations black people have talking about race may I suggest you read Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”.