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Swedish Sidewalk Etiquette and Black Bodies

. . . It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. . .

—Ralph Ellison Invisible Man (1952)


 

sidewalk

On my walk to the grocery store, I stay to the right side of the path, giving cyclists a wide berth around me. The width of this path is fairly generous, nearly six feet across. There’s enough room for me to remain safe during my ten minute journey. When I spot the jogging man coming towards me, he’s several yards ahead, on my side of this wide path. I have a few seconds to decide what I’ll do, the anxiety actually elevates my heart rate. Stay the course or move aside? The way I reason it, he’s moving much faster than I, speeding downhill while I trudge upward, he has the ability to jog around. At the last second I stand my ground and stay the course.

When he does brush against me, our arms bumping, I continue walking with the knowledge that this is not normal behavior. He doesn’t say “excuse me” or “Ursäkta mig.” He just blow through me as though I’m not there. For the rest of my fuming walk to the store, I realize that this hasn’t been the first time I’ve experienced this. 

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Survivor’s Guilt: Black Expats in the Trump Era

survivors guilt

When Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election, I scrolled through the flood of Facebook post’s reading the lamentations of devastated friends who claimed “IT’S TIME TO MOVE TO CANADA!” (Never to Mexico, though. I never saw anyone threaten to move to the popular vacation destination, Mexico). I rolled my eyes and thought: “Y’all ain’t going anywhere.” Because you can’t leave. If your country made a mess, you had to stick around and deal with it.

Then my husband took a teaching job in Sweden. Of all places the places to move after a year and a half of dismal political failures, Sweden and it’s free health care/education was the deus ex machina this black girl needed. At that point, I was like: “Peace, America. It’s been real.”

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Reenactment of my quick “get away”

But about a month into my new Swedish life, my feelings of relief soon became feelings of guilt when I saw the wave of #livingwhileblack news reports. My survivor’s guilt isn’t born of some explosive tragedy like a terrorist attack or a plane crash. Mine comes from being born in a racist America, where my humanity is questioned at every turn. And since I’ve left my home country, I’ve become terrified of what might happen to the black/brown people I know and love. I feel powerless over here.

Below, I’ve compiled a few screenshots of these disturbing headlines. I eventually had to stop at these because: a) There are just far too many (even in the last month), and b) It’s so damned disheartening.

It’s no secret that White Americans have grown bolder by their new president’s racist rhetoric. They’ve taken his fear-mongering rants, regarding non-whites, and ran wild with it; calling the cops as they go. Black people cannot be in public spaces (or private, for that matter) without some trembling white woman alerting law enforcement. And because these hysteria-driven incidences are occurring so frequently (again, in the past couple of months), it makes black people wonder: “Am I next?”

I look at these news reports and feel sick because I know if I were still living in the United States, it would be a matter of time before the police were called on me for. . . God know’s what, using coupons at a Dollar General?

I recently met some Black American men, at a bar, in my new city. And after we got over the initial shock of “Omg, what on earth brought you here??” we got down to how things were back home. I informed them that things were indeed not good back home, but they didn’t seem particularly bothered by events. They were married to Swedish women and had effectively moved on. One man, Carl, bemoaned local inconveniences like not being able to collect guns or the license that must be paid when buying a television. He even said of Trump: “The guy might be okay, if he’d learn how to talk with some sense.” Needless to say, I felt strangely alone after meeting my kinsmen. They were done with America and the closest they’d come to racism was annoying questions like: “But where in Africa did you come from?”

I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist in Sweden, in fact, there are far-right/neo-Nazi political parties that are making serious waves right now. But this day-to-day weaponizing of police isn’t taking off here. I’m also not asking you to feel sorry for my situation. I’m fine, I swear I am. I’m certainly not the first black ex-pat to have these feelings.

James Baldwin kept America in the back of his mind while living in Paris or visiting Leukerbad. He compared #livingwhileblack in both Europe and America and found some similarities, but he also found some freedoms. His day-to-day wasn’t hindered by fearful white women on cellphones. Being in a land with no apparent “whites-only” signs allowed him the freedom to be thoughtful and critical of racism in America (again, not to say that France didn’t have their own problems i.e: Algerians).

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It’s my hope to acquire Baldwin’s astute observations regarding my own homeland. America, regardless of her deep flaws, is still my country. My blue passport is proof of my citizenship and in it, reads: “Place of Birth: Arkansas, U.S.A.” Little Rock, to be exact. I come from strong people, from the deep South, who saw my leaving America as a good thing. I want to keep writing my observations for them.

Lastly, I want it to be known that I wrote this piece in response to a Facebook post I recently read (I’ve bolded the last sentence):

How many of you live in a different country other than the US. I know everywhere its some type of “issue,” with being a dark skin black woman. Yet, I’m curious to know what are your experiences as a black woman in a different country? I know this is a loaded question. I WILL read each response. I ask because I’m thinking of what my life could be if I decide to leave the US. Thank you so much

The location, where black women could escape to, was not settled in the long comment thread that followed. EVERY COUNTRY had its issues, even Canada. The point was: Black women are looking for a way out. They are seriously considering leaving everything they know for some goddamn peace and quiet. America has reached a critical juncture where the marginalized are openly abused, kids are in cages, and white people are frightened of little black children selling lemonade.

Who wouldn’t want to escape?


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I think I was about thirteen when I learned that black people can’t go just anywhere in the United States. It was a very quick, subtle lesson that could have easily been missed but I did spot the concern on my mother’s face when she said, “We’re not stopping in Rogers for anything.” She said this in response to my stepfather’s unfurled map of Northwest Arkansas. As they sat in the front of our family van, charting a route to Fayetteville, I paid close attention to the unspoken tension from the backseat.

My stepfather noted that there was no way of avoiding the town. We’d have to drive through it to reach our destination. But no, we would not stop. From our vacation home in Bella Vista, where money made more of a difference than color, I was more out of touch than I understood. I didn’t notice the lack of black folks in the tiny community, which was devoted to the Walmart corporation. There was literally a golf course behind our rental. Elderly white men, in their golf carts, regularly made stops yards from where I sat on the patio to read.

It was when we made plans to see the university town of Fayetteville, I was reminded that I was black and that I was definitely The Other. No amount of money would change the fact that when we hit the open rode someone would have to pee. There was a good chance that we’d have to pull over in one of those dinky Arkansas towns. Even if we drove through without gassing up, peeing, or stretching our legs— there was a good chance that state patrol could pull my stepfather over.

The journey only took an hour. It was mostly quiet aside from my parents speaking in hushed tones about this forbidden town of Rogers. “You just don’t stay around this area after dark. Everyone knows that,” said my mother. The tension didn’t let up until we got to the city limits of Fayetteville. Only then, my sister and I felt comfortable enough to start jostling around in the backseat. My parents began talking louder; their laughter was nervous with relief.

I didn’t fully understand the term “sundown town” until I was in college and I had read there were many of them in Illinois (where I went to school). If white people didn’t want blacks in their town after the sunset, they let us know it. In the Jim Crow South, The Negro Motorist Green-Book was a valuable lifeline for those who wanted to travel safely. This annual publication informed black travelers which hotels, restaurants, and service stations were relatively safe. Most importantly, the Green Book told us which towns to avoid entirely. This booklet, first published by Victor Hugo Green, probably saved lives in the 1960’s. In a time where the middle-class was booming for all Americans, families wanted to take road trips on the interstate highways. Black families wanted to go on vacation as well. It was just more. . . challenging for us.

I was thirteen-year-old in 1997 when my mother, a child of the 60’s, grew concerned about traveling through her native Arkansas. Twenty years later, in 2017, the NAACP has just issued a travel advisory for the entire state of Missouri. They ask that black people “use extreme caution” while traveling to or through the state. They cite incidents like the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, university students who received death threats in Columbia, and recently passed legislation that makes it difficult to sue employers who are guilty of discrimination. An entire state is on notice.

I have written and spoken about this before. I have described what it’s like to travel to Thailand, Finland, Estonia, and Ireland, as a black woman. I may have experienced awkward moments but I don’t remember a situation that made me grit my teeth and stay silent like my mother did in 1997. She knew better than I the dangers that lie in wait in our own backyard; that simple road trips could go horribly wrong if she didn’t keep her wits about her. What I didn’t realize was that things hadn’t really changed and that, in some cases, we were backsliding. I have a U.S. government-issued passport that will take me everywhere in the world. The sundown towns of my own nation. . . the jury is still out on that.

Fayetteville was nice. We had a chain-restaurant meal and did a little shopping but we didn’t stay too long. I’m now certain that while we had fun, my parents thought about the drive back to Belle Vista and the potential issues that could arise. We took off long before dusk. Our drive was quiet.

 


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Brown Like Me

*This is an old blog post from my days in Thailand. If you want to read more about a black chick’s adventures in Bangkok, go here*
 

White Dave and Black Charish.

On my last Sunday Session with Dave, we were accosted by a Thai man who wanted to know why Dave was “so white.”

While minding our own business at a riverside park, a not so subtle but very witty Thai man came strolling up to us. He stopped, with his hands held behind his back, he stared at Dave in amusement. “You are you so white,” he said. “Why?”

Dave was more than a little perplexed. I watched in amazement. Could one just state the obvious like that? The Thai can. Things like race, sexuality, and often at times, weight are not at all taboo to discuss directly. I suppose we shouldn’t have been too surprised that a stranger would just point that out.

Dave shrugged. “I’m English.”

The man pointed at my leg. “She is brown.” He pointed to his arm. “I am brown.” Then he finished the circle. “You are white.” Before Dave could reply, the man directed his attention towards me. “Are you Thai?”

“No.”

“Why are you brown?”

“I’m. . .” I was confused, that’s what I was. “African American. I’m black.”

And now he was confused or suspicious. I have had many Thais question my ethnicity, just like some Americans do. They know that I’m not Thai, but I’m not just black either and it must be verified.

A group of my Thai students. So cute!

Another color related issue took place in my classroom. The girls of my level two class are usually a rowdy bunch, but mostly cute and precocious. It was after one lesson that I was packing up my things and about to exit the room, when one of my students pointed out how brown I was. Mai compared me to another one of my students, a cute brown Thai girl named Bell.

“Mother and daughter,” Mai said to us and pointed to our arms. The other students giggled about it and I cringed inwardly. They may not have realized it, but I felt like we had walked into something that was potentially awkward. I looked at Bell who gave me an unusually strained smile.

What I already know about Bell made me think twice about my response. She’s the darkest in a group of light-skinned Thai girlfriends and I think she’s quite aware of it. It might be the reason, she seems to identify with me. She marvels at my fashion sense (truthfully, I hate wearing my teacher’s uniform. I’m glad someone appreciates it) and is always telling me how beautiful I am. I return the favor, not because I feel sorry for her, but because she really is. She’s got lovely burnt sienna skin, dark expressive eyes, and such an inviting smile.

One day, I asked her if she was looking forward to our field trip to the beach (to see those sea turtles), she was not happy. “Too much sun.”

“Yeah? So?”

She pointed to her arm and frowned. I didn’t like hearing that.

I also didn’t like it when her and her friends came to my class, with so much powder, they looked like a gaggle of geishas. It was more obvious on Bell with her being so much darker than the other girls. I don’t understand how she could think she looked better with a pound of powder hiding the skin she was born with.

So as I faced the girls and Bell, I chose my words carefully. “Not mother and daughter, I’m too young for kids,” I told them. “We’re more like sisters.”

They nodded in recognition and Bell flashed me that beautiful smile of hers. Crisis averted.

Race isn’t an issue here in Thailand, but color is. There are no dark skinned models or actresses representing in the media. This isn’t unusual though, many countries and cultures share this idea of beauty. I find it interesting that my experiences here have been eerily similar to the one’s I’ve had as a kid in America. When I was younger, my mother told my sister and I not to play in the sun. She wasn’t as concerned about our safety as she was our appearance.

“Do you want to get black?”
Before I could reply, “Duh, mom, I already am,” I just put on a hat to her appease her.


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Summer Vacation!

Yellowstone National Park Photos

In a couple of weeks my family and I will be taking a road trip to Wyoming for a little over a week to visit family and attend a wedding. We drove from Illinois to Wyoming last year also. This year we are going to stop at Yellowstone National Park for a day or two before going to our destination. Yellowstone is a huge national park that extends across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. I’m super excited because we will stay in a cabin in the park and live a very simple life while there (food cooked over open fire, no phone, t.v. or internet in our cabin). Very rustic and I likey. I love being outdoors and I love unadulterated nature so I am going to bask in hippieness, lol. Now, we will be in the mountains so it will be cooler (around 60-70 degrees) which will make us temporarily forget that it is summer. I don’t mind. I hope to take some hikes and observe the animals, trees, mountains, and active volcanoes that the park stores. We will have a stroller, baby pack, and a child leash (which I don’t like, but I have to keep my baby away from the lava!) for Lanona so that she stays safe.

After Yellowstone we will go to my brother-in-law’s house for the duration of our trip. My cousin-in-law is getting married while we’re there. The change of scenery will be nice and I look forward to catching up with relatives that we don’t see often. As for my hair, it will be in mini-twists until the wedding and I’ll wear a twistout for the wedding. We have a long trip ahead of us and we will pass through several states on the way. I won’t be posting as often while we’re away, but I will make sure to document our trip with lots of pictures! 😉

-Evelyn