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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)


 

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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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Sitting in Ceramics Class

Colin Kaepernick protest

I can remember not wanting to stand for the morning pledge in my Ceramics class. I’m certain that it was my junior year of high school, but I can’t recall what set me off. In my first class of the day, I challenged myself to remain seated while the morning announcements crackled throughout the school. The faceless administrator may have started or ended with the Pledge of Allegiance, with boiler-plate business in between, I can’t remember. I just remember sitting nervously as my white peers stood around me. Their gazes pointed in the general direction of a flag, hands on chests, chanting in unison.

My Ceramics teacher didn’t notice, until 30 second in, that something was wrong. We locked eyes, me sweating behind the bust of Nefertiti that I was trying to recreate and he, behind a twitching mustache. I understood that twitch to mean that he was angry. It only twitched when he pulled student-made “smoking devices” out of the kiln. “Who made this??” he’d demand, gripping a crudely made bowl.

He waited until the pledge was over and students sat down to chew me out. “Halliburton! You get on your feet for the pledge.” It sounded like he wanted to end that statement with a clipped “dammit.” I remember taking a breath before I replying: “Until that flag lives up to its promise, to me and my people, I won’t stand for it.” Admittedly, my voice was hurried and shaky because I don’t do conflict. It makes my face hot and my eyes tear up.

The hush in the room was noticeable. The white students stared at me with wide eyes; some frightened, some confused. But all were coming to the quick realization that: OH SHIT, THIS IS A RACE SITUATION. My teacher’s mustache was shaking off the Richter Scale. “If you can’t stand for the pledge,” he spit out, “you can sit in the hallway.”

I didn’t say anything. I quietly began working on my Nefertiti, sculpting her nose like the one in my encyclopedia. The class eventually settled into its normal shuffle, chatter rose and mingled with the 70’s Gold FM our teacher played every morning. However, under the sweet melodies of Bread, the mustache and I understood that we were engaged in a stand-off.

The next day, I remained seated while the pledge sounded off. The mustache told me to “GET!” And I got. The pledge is only about 45 seconds so everyone could see that my little trip to the hallway was silly. When it was over, I returned to work on Nefertiti’s smug smile. Karen Carpenter sang while the mustache crossed his arms in simmering rage. We kept this up for a full week. Mustache, Nefertiti, and Me, quietly lobbing the ball back and forth while Crosby, Stills, and Nash strummed their guitars.

Eventually there was a quiet concession on behalf of the mustache. I stopped going to the hallway and he stopped saying anything about it. Students continued to chant the pledge while I sat amongst them adding clay to Nefertiti’s receding chin.

The only event that got me to my feet was when the Twin Towers fell the following year. In my senior year of high school, I was still going strong in my new first period class, Food and Nutrition. I sat quietly and it seemed that my teacher didn’t mind. On September 11th, 2001, New York City was on fire. The fine particles and acrid scent would reach Suffolk County before the day was over. I stood for the pledge after that. My heart wasn’t in it but I stood because we were NEW YORK STRONG.

I even stood while brown kids were getting harassed and beaten in the streets. The Indian restaurant my mom and I went to closed for the week because the owner’s son was curb-stomped by patriotic white kids. I stood for a flag that would lose its shit during a national crisis. I hated myself for performing a feeling that wouldn’t last longer than a year. I understood, at the age of 17, that those planes weren’t the magic bullet to end racism and forge solidarity in our long-broken nation. I hated myself for giving up my sit-in for white students to freely say things like “towel head” and “we’ll put a boot in your ass.”

Years later, I would sometimes recite the Ballad of Not Saying the Pledge, misremembering that I maybe I was kind of an asshole. I’d tell the ballad to friends, laughing at the shit-stirrer I was back then. After watching Colin Kaepernick take a knee before playing football for millions, I realized that I had it wrong. I certainly was not an asshole kid who liked to stir shit. I was actually quite timid and wanted to be liked by everyone. But there was something about me that shifted, something that made me angry about performing for white people every day. I found out that nothing changed after 9/11. The flags we quickly bought were just tiny bandages desperately covering a festering wound in our history.

Fifteen years, hundreds of police shootings, and a maniacal president later; the Klan and the Neo-Nazis are back. A football player has taken on the wrath of an entire nation who still believe the lies of a Band-Aid flag. Kaepernick’s only crime is his simple attempt to clean the wound that has grown poisonous over centuries. Instead of performing for white America, he kneels.

I’m obviously not sorry for my small-scaled high school protest. I’m a teacher now and I hope that I meet a young version of myself who is not as timid as I was. I hope they that they continue to hold a mirror up to a nation that still makes false promises. And if they have to be dismissed to the hallway, I hope they go proudly. I’ll join them.