I am afraid of white people.
This is a bold statement to make. White people? What have they done to you? We are not all the same. Let me take a second to state that I am fully aware that my discomfort/fear/distrust is irrational. I recognize this. I have had plenty of positive interactions with white people over the years. All these encounters, though, have been underscored by my fear, my anxiety of how these interactions will culminate. How am I being perceived? How does this person perceive me?
Let me tell you a little about myself. I am a black girl, raised Muslim (though I don't necessarily identify as such), and come from a very strict, conservative family. I grew up in government housing in a small city in Canada, and for the most part my early childhood was uneventful. The auto industry dominated the area, and so much of the city's residents were lower to middle class. My school was very diverse and for the most part I was happy.
My father was finishing up teacher's college at the local university and, after a brief time in Toronto, he soon got a job offer to teach up north. And by up north, I mean way, way up north: on a reserve for Aboriginal people. As some of you may know, teachers are often recruited by reserves from all over the country, right out of teacher's college. The teachers are provided with housing, which is great when opportunities and money are scarce. We packed up and moved. I was about ten at the time.
When we got there, it was obvious we were the odd ones out. Many of the other teachers were blond, blue-eyed men and women from Vancouver or Halifax—single and relatively young. For many of the residents, these 20somethings were as foreign as they'd ever seen, except on television. My father was in his late thirties—a large, domineering black man—and my mother and sisters and I all wore headscarves and long sleeves. We quickly became a fascinating topic amongst the locals. I remember kids dropping by and knocking on the door only weeks after we'd moved in, kids I'd never met before, asking if we could come out and play and then tugging on the cloth on my head. "What's that for?" they'd ask. "Don't you believe in Jesus?"
The only other people of colour in the entire town were the vice principal of the school, a single Indian man who often invited our family over for dinner and lent me John Steinbeck books I could barely comprehend but loved anyways, and a young mixed girl in my father's sixth grade class. She herself looked "Indian" enough that the kids didn't bug her too much.
I only spent two weeks in the fifth grade. I became friends with two kids, both white, both also kids of teachers at the school. It was quickly determined we were bored with the assignments in the class and were subsequently bumped up into the sixth grade class, of which there were two (my father taught the other).
Because there was only one school in the entire town, everything from preschool to the 12th grade was in one building. Everyone knew each other, grew up together, and a lot of people were related. Despite this, there was a very clear race demarcation. The white kids, as little as there were, were considered the "popular" ones. My (former) friend who had skipped a grade with me, Ashley, quickly realized this. She became friends with another crowd and, I guess because I was an easy target, took to whispering mean racial slurs at me in class. I often heard the words brownie and nigger. On some occasions they'd be nice to me and offer me candy that they'd scribbled on with marker or rubbed in dirt and laugh if I unwittingly ate one. Soon, they graduated to shoving once I began to avoid them. At worst, they'd pull off my hijab and laugh when I scrambled to put it back on.
Because of everyone's familiarity with one another, doors were often left unlocked. People didn't find it odd at all to stroll into one another's houses unexpectedly. I remember coming back from a neighbour's house one day and finding Ashley and another girl in my kitchen. My mother, beaming (she'd always found me to be too antisocial), told me to go out and play with my friends.
The only person I was friends with was another social outcast, a sweet girl named Rebecca who lived at the local orphanage. Before my family came to town, the orphans took the brunt of the abuse. Part of me resented Rebecca for not sticking for me, and part of me understood and felt guilty because I knew if the situation had been reversed, I would probably do the same thing.
One day, Ashley came knocking at my door. My mother yelled for me to open it—she was too used to the city to leave the house completely unlocked; at the very least the screen door would remain locked with the door propped open. Through the mesh I could see Ashley beckoning me to come out and play.
I froze. My mother glanced over at me confusedly, wooden spoon dripping batter all over the counter. "Didn't you hear me?" she asked in Somali. When I didn't respond, she glanced through the window to Ashley's smiling face. "It's your friend!"
"Mama, please." I begged. Understanding dawned on her and she took off her apron and strode barefoot outside.
"Listen to me. You come here again, I beat you." she yelled in broken English, brandishing the spoon wildly. The girls snickered and yelled curse words before running away.
Part of me was relieved. A larger part of me was filled with dread. Would this cause even more problems? They would call me a tattletale, a mama's girl. I suddenly resented my mother for defending me.
My mom gave me a long speech about not letting people pick on me, then told me she'd tell my father to speak with them. I begged her not to. I can't even remember what excuses I gave but it was enough to convince her to leave it be. I lied and told her if they ever bothered me again I'd let her know.
It got worse. I now had a reputation for being a snitch and even kids younger than me would pass me in the hall and whisper about my "immigrant" family and how we didn't know how things worked in Canada, despite my being born and raised here. I looked different, therefore I was different.
Fortunately, we only stayed for a year before my father got another offer back in Toronto. One of my sisters cried, begged to stay. She was in an all-girls class with no white kids and generally flew under the radar. My other sister and I were relieved. I remember her whispering to me one night: we get to go back to normal.
We moved back to the city and after the summer break I was back in school again. The neighbourhood I now lived in was predominantly Italian. There were some Asian and a few other black kids but we were in the overwhelming minority. In my 11 year old mind, if you looked white, you were white. I don't think my discomfort had set in at the time, but I was a shy, skittish child who had adopted a cold manner to fend off most interactions by then, and that didn't sit well with many kids in the school.
I made a friend, Lillian. She was bright and funny and she always had beautiful clothes to wear. I was shocked that this girl wanted to be my friend. As the two new kids to the school, we bonded fairly quickly. We were content reading books at recess and playing tag, something that was considered childish by many of the girls. She didn't mind that I looked different from the girls (in terms of my scarf and baggy clothing) and offered to teach me how to apply lip gloss. I was in heaven!
At the beginning of the second month of school, we had a class assignment. Lillian and I were placed in different groups. I was the only girl in my group, and unsurprisingly the boys were relatively uninterested in interacting with any girl. I was largely ignored, but I was okay with that. Lilian, however, was placed with some of the "popular" girls. Later that day, I asked if it was weird for her. "They're fine," she said, rolling her eyes. "They mostly talk about boys. It's okay."
But long after the project was over they were inviting her to sit with them at their desks and eat lunch with them. They invited her to go to the movies and birthday parties. I was quickly forgotten.
In a last ditch effort to fit in, I started taking my headscarf off after my parents walked me to school. It earned me a couple of curious glances, but I didn't care. I just wanted to fit in. One day, my mother spotted me taking it off and after I arrived home from school that day, she asked to speak with me. We sat on the edge of the tub and she told me she'd seen me. She told me she was disappointed. I grew agitated and told her she didn't understand how things worked. "Nobody's Muslim here, Mama! This is Canada!"
She grew quiet for a long time. "Do you want to change yourself for those girls?" she said in Somali. "Because what we have is special. We know who we are. Showing your hair and skin is not going to get people to like you. You'll never look like them."
I thought about it for a while, and as children often do, got the wrong message. I would never look like them, but I could act like them.
I joined the cheer squad. In reality, it was just a club at school where the members got to choreograph dances with the supervision of the principal and perform them in front of the student body at monthly assemblies, but all the cool girls were doing it. At the first meeting, the principal went over the ground rules, set the after school meet times, and bid us all adieu. A week passed. I was reading a book in my usual corner at recess and the entire cheer squad approached me. One girl, Ariel, stepped forward. "Hey there," she said. "Can we talk to you?"
I nodded. She promptly asked me to leave the squad. I was shocked. "But everyone can join!" I protested. She said they had all went over to Rachel's house and choreographed a dance together and it would take too long to teach it to me. "But that wasn't allowed," I said. Ariel shrugged. "Sorry."
At the corner of my eye I spotted Lillian. She didn't look embarrassed or even sad. She looked annoyed that I'd bothered to say anything but okay. I agreed to leave the squad. Ariel patted my knee and said that she'd tell the principal I quit. "It's just easier this way."
I could feel an onslaught of tears building up and I excused myself from the crowd. Some of them began to whisper, probably wondering if I'd snitch. I made my way over to the kindergarten classrooms, as I sometimes spent my recesses there helping out Ms. T, one of the nicest people I'd ever met. Once I got there, she took one look at me and rushed over. "What happened?"
I burst into tears. I refused to tell her anything except that I wasn't on the squad anymore. She gave me tissues, hugged me and prodded me to reveal more but I kept my mouth shut. It didn't matter. During the next class period most of the girls were conspicuously absent and it never dawned on me until they trudged back in halfway through the period, every single one of them glaring daggers at me. Ms. T had called down the entire cheer squad to the principal's office.
I was mortified. The entire grade quickly found out about the whole ordeal and I was shunned even more than I had been. Even the boys, who generally kept to themselves, would torment me during the breaks. I never returned back to the kindergarten in an effort to avoid Ms. T, who eventually cornered me in the hall one day. "They would continue to take advantage of you otherwise, honey." she said kindly, and I nodded and smiled. I thought to myself I can't look like them, and now I can't act like them either. I was a nobody.
There was only one girl who was just as much an outsider as I was. Her name was Nisha, and we had stilted conversations about nothing in particular. Although it was apparent we both looked down on the other for being an outcast (as kids often do amongst themselves), it gave me some comfort to have at least one person to talk to, regardless of how little we had in common. Nisha's father was a lunchtime supervisor at the school, and was around the building a lot. Her father was an incredibly offensive racist. For the most part, he warned Nisha not to talk to black people because "they're liars and thieves", or so Nisha told me. Any time he would draw close, we'd split apart in fear of getting caught. Eventually, the already strained friendship fell apart, and I finished my seventh grade year completely and utterly alone.
So why white people? I can now recognize a lot of the behaviour as basic childhood bullying, but for some reason I cannot separate the two. For a long time I hated myself: my skin for being so dark, my religion for requiring that I dress in a way that was drastically different from the Western ideal. If only I could change, I thought, then I'd be okay. I could breathe easier. I have had plenty of positive interactions with white people over the years. But even now, at a university where whites are the majority, my senses are often on high alert. I find myself changing the way I walk or talk in the presence of a white person, for fear of being judged. I am both scared of being talked to and eager to be liked. I have found that my anxiety is not as potent when it is a male than when it is a female, but I do experience anxiety nonetheless.
I share this with you, Groupthink, not to denigrate white people or to rationalize my feelings but simply to share. I look forward to reading some of your comments below. Does anyone else experience irrational fears like this?
ETA: Not sure why the time is so far off, adjusting to correct post time.