Reflections on Race in the Face of Terror
**Author’s note: I wrote this essay on Thursday 25 April as I battled panic and fear over the manhunt for the Boston Bomber. I shopped it to a couple of publications but there were no takers. Apologies if it reads a little anachronistically. KT**
When the news of the Boston Marathon bombings first emerged, I was walking through the lobby of the law school buildings like hundreds of other students. There was a Patriots/Marathon day celebration – an event organised on campus in part to help very stressed out law school students to relax, now having the opposite effect. We all stood before the screens, confused as to what was happening, wondering what this meant for people that we knew or heard of who were running the marathon. As the reality of the attack unfolded, there was a growing sense of confusion and fear. The bubble that we as students construct around ourselves, in this city of 53 universities and colleges, had been breached; exams and deadlines were no longer the most important thing in the world.
After confusion came fear, and in this fear, we were reminded of the nature of difference. Yes, we were all afraid, but we were all afraid of different things. I’m certain that almost everyone is afraid of what this means for their personal security. But those of us who have experienced violence have been struggling with memory and trauma. I have been struggling with flashbacks to the Nairobi attacks in 1998, and that sense of violation that comes from having your illusion of safety so violently shattered. My Muslim friends were afraid of the effect that this would have on the already intense scrutiny, discrimination and xenophobia they endure. “God,” a friend texted, “I hope this person isn’t a Muslim. We all do.”
In the last hours, like many others in Cambridge, I have been cooped up in my apartment on police orders, as we await information on the suspect’s pursuit. Now that we have a better sense of who the perpetrators are, there is a palpable sense of relief amongst the many sub-communities of my non-white and non-American friends. It’s not one of us; thank God. Thank God that someone whose job it is to protect us isn’t going to come up with some other humiliation that we have to endure in the name of security. Thank God that some misinformed journalist isn’t going to have another excuse to paint an entire community with a tarnished brush. Thank God we won’t have to endure any more suspicion than we already do now.
It’s hard to explain to our white friends what it feels like to not be white in Europe and in America. We’re not afraid of lynchings or cross burnings. We’re exhausted by micro-aggressions, teeny-tiny pinpricks of discomfort that have the cumulative effect of disorienting us and making us feel uneasy and unwelcome. Many every day actions – what choice of music you play at your party, how you choose to wear your trousers, whether or not you sport that hoodie – become loaded. You need to constantly posture in public – the proverbial show of empty hands – so as not to appear threatening to Power.
You need to smile in your discomfort, remain calm in your unease so as not to draw unnecessary suspicion. Three weeks ago as I was flying to Senegal, I had the odd experience of having a TSA official grab my (small) braided ponytail. I had just gone through the X-Ray scanner, so I thought I was fine, but she didn’t even stop me or try to get my attention. She just grabbed my ponytail and patted it down without so much as an “excuse me”. The African in me wanted to go back and complain to her supervisor. My friend reminded me that I was in America now; this was normal, and complaining wouldn’t really change anything.
Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I didn’t know that I was “black” until I left Africa. I’ve since learnt that blackness isn’t just a category that denotes the colour of my skin. It is the sum total of the beliefs and prejudices that other people have about how I should speak, what kind of music I should listen to, what it means when I wear my hair a certain way, how smart I should or shouldn’t be, what kind of people I should date, what kind of work I should aspire to do, what kind of food I should enjoy… the list grows longer every time I check an item off it.
So when you watch the news and hear people talk about a “dark-skinned man” or hear about a Saudi man being profiled for a normal, human reaction to an explosion, it’s more than a suspicion that the declarants are racist. Edward Said refers to “communities of interpretation” within which labels are created and populated with meaning. What we hear within communities of colour is frustration at a community of interpretation that has decided to associate blackness or darkness with terror or violence. Its exasperation that the list has grown longer; that there is a new hoop that we must jump through in order to prove to power that we are “respectable black people” or “good Muslims”. It’s a sense that someone is going to change the tune, just after you learnt the dance.
Boston is an academic city, and its response to the attacks on Monday and the subsequent events has been cerebral. There has been more introspection, fewer outbursts of un-callibrated patriotism, and the rational conclusion that if we rely on community and patience, we will get through this. It’s actually a comfort that there are many people in the Harvard community wondering what it means for news of one man with a suicide vest to bring a city to a standstill, in the same day that 27 are killed in a coffee shop in Iraq without so much as a peep. I hope that this reflection signals to the media especially, as the organising force within this community of interpretation, the tangible, detrimental impact that their constructions are having on people’s lives.