Saturday, June 13, 2009

Thoughts on racism after Lui

A little girl in Lozoh checks her hand while shaking mine.
Thoughts on racism after Lui
Dan Handschy

Somewhere I read that one of the sounds most familiar to a young black man is the sound of the electric locks on car doors being locked. I have to admit that any number of times, I've been stopped at a light on Lindell or Vandeventer or some other street in town, and seen a group of three or four black men walking by, and hit the lock button. Somewhere along the line, I have received training to be afraid of a group of black men, especially young black men.

As you can imagine, I became aware of this unconscious response in Africa. In the car from the airport at Entebbe to the guest house in Kampala, along the long and crazy road late at night, I wondered what would happen to me if the car broke down. I was aware the fear was irrational, but there it was. Throughout my stay in Lui, as a group of us would be walking down the road, I would become aware that many heads were turning to watch us. I would wonder why people were watching us so closely, with that fear not far below the surface. Then it would dawn on me -- oh, yeah, they're watching us because we're white!

It really struck me the day the Baptists came to Lui. We were walking to church, and I saw a head of red hair under the mango tree, and said out loud, "Look, there's a white guy at the Cathedral." Deb laughed and said, "Yeah, I know. I'm walking next to him." We were pretty obvious. People looked at us, because we were out of the ordinary. But never, never did I experience the equivalent of the electric car locks locking. No one was afraid of us, the way white people are afraid of black people in this country. At the worst, we were treated with indifference, but never fear.

Several times, walking down the road, I would notice a group looking at us, and I would feel a bit of that fear, as they watched us closely. But then someone would break away from the group, and run over to us, and say "Deb-o-rah!" Someone she had worked with or known from her first trip would greet Deb, and our group would stand on the road for introductions and greetings. What had felt threatening (for no good reason) turned out to be an occasion for joy.

When I was a kid, a carpenter was working on the house across the street. He was a black man, and one day he brought his son with him. They boy was a year or two younger than me, so we were playing in the front yard. After shaking hands, I remember looking at my hand to see if the black rubbed off on me (I lived in a really white neighborhood). I noticed his palms were lighter than the rest of him, and wondered if that was why. Of course, the black didn't rub off. I wonder how he felt about me checking my hand.

I got the chance to know. Everywhere I went in Lui, kids came up to me and wanted to shake my hand. I felt a little like the Pied Piper. And always, they were laughing. I guess I looked goofy in my floppy hat. I noticed several of those kids check their hands after shaking mine, to see if the white rubbed off!

So, I'm left wondering how I received that training to be afraid of black men. After Lui, I find myself wishing I were back among the people of Lui. I wonder if black people in this country ever get tired of people being afraid of them. I will never have to live with people being afraid of me. Even the kids who checked their hands were only curious about my strange color, rather than afraid of it. I'll bet it gets really old.

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