After the rigorous application process, you are thrilled to be awarded a scholarship to pursue your dreams. Congratulations! – It’s no mean feat. You’re now looking forward to the next chapter of intellectual, social, and emotional adventure. And you should, because it is going to be an exciting ride! Then you get here, and plunge into life in the new world as the open-minded, ready-to-learn-and-expand-your-horizons person you are. Part of settling in involves familiarizing yourself with the local language. And shopping offers the perfect opportunity for you to practice this!
So you pick your stuff and queue to pay. You notice that unlike back home (at least in Kenya), the cashier greets customers with “Hallo!” or “Guten Tag” and informs them how much their shopping adds up to before bidding them good-bye. Then it’s your turn to be served, and you’re waiting with a smile, eager to practice your German – after all, your teachers told you that talking to Germans is the best way to improve your proficiency – No word, smile or even glance comes your way. It’s a fast “peep, peep, peep!” before the cashier turns the screen your way and stretches his\her hand waiting for you to hand over the money. Which you do, then your change and the receipt are shoved your way, and even before you turn around, s/he is already saying a loud “Hallo!” to the next (white) customer. You’re left trying to figure out what just happened. Then this happens over and over again, before it finally hits you…
That’s the thing about subtle racism, because the subtlety is a befuddling camouflage; there’s no physical violence involved, no insults hurled, no voices raised. It is entrenched in the regular activities. Even worse, you might be accused of being “too sensitive” if/when you point it out. As our fellow ANSA member Wamai in his blog post “Chemnitz and Racism” (https://wamaijames.wordpress.com/2018/02/12/chemnitz-and-racism/) pointed out, it is “[…] in the hidden, subtle and subconscious people’s behaviour that you realise just how deep-rooted racism is […]. A careless statement here, an ignorant response there.” It is when you go into a shop, and suddenly the merchandise in the area you’re browsing needs rearranging; or even worse, you’re subjected to a search in the shop as “security procedure” because “there is cause for suspicion”; you’re waiting at the lights, and a lady walking her dog smilingly tells you: “Ich habe festgestellt(!), dass Afrikaner Angst vor Hunden haben”, etc.
Don’t ignore, but don’t let it bog you down.
And so you realize that you’re seen as different, and not necessarily in a good way. So, how do you deal with this? I don’t ignore it, but have taught myself to not let it bog me down. I speak out where I can, and confront the people (who’ll mostly claim to not have meant it in this way). I consciously reinforce my self-worth and refuse to let people take away my agency.
Whatever others want to think of you, do your thing. Be you, unapologetically!
Rachel Muchira, who was born and grew up in Kenya, spent time at the University of Bremen and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin as a Bachelor’s and Master’s student. She is currently doing her PhD on Multilingual Language Learning Awareness at the University of Leipzig. She has been an ANSA member since 2015.