So, talking about race here. Naturally, a nice easy topic to cover, especially in reference to a culture that is not mine and their interactions with a third culture. And some thoughts that have been yet unspoken until now on race in America. So, you know, no risk of being misunderstood or speaking out of turn or asking for backlash or getting it wrong or anything… Gulp.
An interesting week, this one.
We had visitors from the US come to visit us at our organization, a refugee project in North Africa. VIPs. Five wives of US officials. Somehow they knew of our organization and wanted to come visit us. It was a big deal. There was a pre-visit from the US Embassy to make sure everything was secure and in-line earlier in the week. The hubs and I went in on a Saturday even though we don’t usually work Saturdays, as requested by the management, to help with the group and schmooze and answer questions.
The group had requested specifically to learn about the organization we work for. Our organization falls under another one, who I will refer to here as the upstairs organization. A few years ago the refugee organization became a part of the upstairs organization. They do a whole lot of great stuff with locals who are impoverished and with youth and unity, among other things.
When the VIP group arrived we were all shuffled upstairs to a room and the director of the upstairs org gave a big presentation about them. Several pictures and slides. Our organization was all summed up in one tidy slide. I could see the careful job the director did of trying to emphasize that life here is also hard for many locals and that there are many needs for the locals here. Which is absolutely true.
When the director finished, all of the questions the ladies and their posse asked were about our refugee organization. After that, and some smiling pictures with the Bishop, we took them around and gave them the tour of our office and clinic and facilities. It was great explaining what we do and the visit was a big morale booster for the staff. They knew these ladies were big-wigs and to have important people visit affirms our staff in the work they’re doing.
After the tour, they’d requested having a focus group with refugee women. So that was arranged and there was a group of about 15 refugee women and a few men that came along. It was a bit unstructured and turned out to be more honest than I think all of us were expecting.
We asked for a few of the women to share about life in this country. We fumbled around with who would translate; I got nominated and did for a bit until we agreed that the local lady who came along for translation should do it(!). The first woman to share was a Sudanese woman from the Nuba mountains. It’s an area of Sudan that has been heavily bombed and remains an incredibly dangerous and very poor and persecuted place.
The woman shared about how everything is very expensive in this country and how she has three children (boys ages 9, 6, and 1) and how difficult it is to get assistance and how our organization has actually helped her unlike similar organizations in the city. She also brought up how she’s treated in here—poorly—but this part was not translated. I noticed, and so did Faith (not her real name), a member of our staff who is also a refugee and has been here for 12 years. Faith tried to speak up to address this forgotten bit of translation, but the conversation moved on. Another refugee woman spoke of her difficulties—a single mom with a chronic illness and a child with special needs. She also brought up treatment in this country, but again, this part was not translated.
The VIP ladies asked a few questions. If their children can get citizenship if they’re born here (no), how they manage to have hope (this was asked by one of the officials wives with tears in her eyes), and then, how they are treated being refugees in this country.
Faith, bless her, did speak up. She’s a wordy lady (I usually have to go to the bathroom if I have any hopes of a conversation with her not lasting half an hour), and perhaps went on a bit too long. But. She spoke the truth of her experience here.
She was very careful to say, more than once, that it is not all of the local population. That in the church she is treated well, but that in the street she and others face many difficulties. She mentioned women coming in who have been beaten (and raped) on the street, about the cruel things people say, about the time she was with her young son on the metro and women held her arms and hit her and her son on her way to work. She talked about how the rent for them is raised often and the times she’s been given less than 48 hours to get out of her apartment and find a new one.
These aren’t uncommon stories. We know that many of the refugees here face persecution on the streets, have to pay higher prices for food in the market, and I recently learned that one of our colleagues is forced to pay about 20x more for gas, electric, and water than the normal rate. If he tries to resist they’ll cut the lines or come and harass his wife (at home with three young children) while he is at work.
While she was talking, the refugee woman who first spoke and who understands some English, put her hands over her face and was crying. The tears that come from listening to someone talk about the same very difficult things that you can relate to. A person giving a voice to your grief. Acknowledging your experience as a reality. Not only that you’re not alone in it, but that someone is speaking about it. Some of the men understood some English too and verbally affirmed the things that Faith was saying as well.
It was really brave, and a pretty incredible moment actually. All of this honesty in front of important and influential people.
But it was tense. It made a lot of the locals in the room, some on our staff, uncomfortable. And of course it did. In their eyes, it made the country look bad, in front of these important people. It would have made me uncomfortable too.
And while Faith was honest, as part of that honesty she still did everything she could to be fair—saying how good other locals here have been to her, how good the people in the church are, but that even so, this was a very regular and very real thing for her and all of the other refugees she knows. She acknowledged the good, but couldn’t let that cancel out the bad. Because that is not the truth of her life.
As she finished, which she was allowed to do, the director of the upstairs organization and the translator lady were quick to speak up: “I’m sorry, but I think you are wrong about this. It is not the normal experience here.” Citing that there is an ethnic group people from the Southern part of the country who are the same color as Faith (and implied they don’t get treated badly). Saying that this beating incident was probably a one-off. Trying to emphasize that there are locals who are too poor to pay their rent too, and that while these things happened to her it wasn’t just because she was a refugee. Implying that her answer to the question was an extreme case. It is not.
It was so easy for this director to dismiss Faith’s experience stating that not all of the local population were like this. And of course they’re not! But because not all people are like this, does not mean that the ones who are are not a problem. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues that need to be addressed. It doesn’t mean that she should just be thankful that not all locals spit on her.
That’s great that there are darker skinned people in this country. And I don’t know the answer to this, but does he know if they face any racism? And whether they do or don’t, why should that affect Faith’s experience of being treated as a lesser person? How does that directly contradict or invalidate her lived experience? Either she experiences this, and it’s true, or she doesn’t and it isn’t (she does, and it is).
The people who aren’t treating her as a lesser person don’t get a gold star for being good, because second-class humanity and racism should not exist.
The way that the director dismissed Faith’s experience is not unusual. And that is not just true for this country. He was denying her experience and the experience of all of the other refugees by saying, “Look, it’s not everyone.” That does not negate the racism they face daily. And it was an aside from the entire point she was trying to make. Just because you don’t perpetuate it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen to her. And when you deny it, you allow it to keep happening. No, she’s not saying that every house is on fire. She is saying that her house is on fire and that still matters.
His unwillingness to accept her story—or to accept all of the stories in that room as a one-off, is him not listening. Not accepting. It’s easier to to think the problem is with Faith and that she should just be grateful to be here. That because he is one of the good ones it doesn’t involve him.
She explained her suffering and he excused it. She wasn’t saying he was to blame, she just wanted her experience to be heard and acknowledged. She was just saying what is, what her reality is. And he excused, and thereby denied, her reality. Saying it was her skewed understanding. Instead of listening and asking questions…she was silenced. It messed with his reality and that made him uncomfortable so he excused and denied it. He can’t relate to it, so it must not be so. At least not in the way she’s claiming it is. It made his people look bad and he wouldn’t stand for it. He took the exception (the people who are good and don’t do it) and made it the rule to save face. He denied her reality because it wasn’t true as an entire entity, so therefore it must not be true. And thereby keeping her and others marginalized.
I should not take money from someone else’s wallet and put it in my pocket. It’s a wrong thing to do. I don’t get extra points whenever I don’t steal from someone. I’m simply not doing the thing that I shouldn’t be doing in the first place. It doesn’t mean that theft doesn’t happen, just that not everyone is a thief. You don’t get to be called a lesser thief if you only steal a little bit. Whether you take a little or a lot, you are a thief.
Racism simply should not happen, so we don’t get extra points for not being racist. You don’t get to be a lesser racist if you’re only a little bit racist. A thief is a thief, a racist a racist, and wrong is wrong.
Because the director of the upstairs organization didn’t see Faith being maltreated almost daily, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen to her. Because it is not his reality doesn’t mean that she’s wrong. He was unwilling to listen and accept her reality because it messes with his.
Because I don’t see how a black person’s experience is different in America doesn’t mean that their experience is not different. Because it is not my reality doesn’t make a black person wrong. I need to listen to peoples realities even though it messes with mine and makes me question a lot about my own privilege.
We need to listen and ask questions and be willing to learn. Whatever we have suffered in our lives doesn’t negate the suffering of others. Making it about socioeconomic class or gender or whatever instead of race doesn’t help anyone or anything. It remains the same—people are marginalized and when we deny or excuse it we are keeping them marginalized.
Is that the people we are? The believers we are?
Our reality is that there is suffering in this world and all of us will suffer to some degree. Our reality is that Christ came so people could have life and to the full. Our reality is that the way of Christ is a self-emptying way and preserving our reality by denying others theirs is not the way of Christ. We are called to suffer with those who suffer and not to explain away or deny their suffering.