By Charles Kibirige
A colleague asked me recently at lunchtime, “Charles, as someone who grew up in Africa and is now an American citizen, how would you describe your current racial experience in the USA? Has it changed since you came here?”
That was a chance to think about a subject I have talked about privately but never written about until now. I told my colleague that I feel more uncertain about my future today than when I first came to this country. What I hear and read in social media and the news have sowed seeds of doubt and uncertainty. I hope it will change, but it is as scary as it is disappointing.
Most of my experiences with race in the USA have been in the form of micro-aggressions, the everyday, subtle, intentional or unintentional interactions that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.
My very first experience happened back in 2003. I had been in the USA for two years, and I don’t know why it took that long, but it happened. I was a young priest invited to a family gathering in a predominantly white neighborhood, and my host called me to give me some tips. Essentially, he told me that the police might stop me for no reason other than being a black man in a white neighborhood. My host suggested I wear my official clerical dress to the party in order to avoid a surprise police check. He apologized, even as he stated that this was unfortunately true for anyone of my race. This was an early lesson in the history of race in the USA for me.
America is a country that has always held a promise of safety, freedom, and endless possibilities for someone like me, who grew up an orphan in a Third World nation and survived three devastating wars. In the twenty years since I came to this country, I have experienced some fulfilment of this promise, but my race still stands in the way of the full promise.
This brings me to micro-aggressions, from both friends and strangers. For instance, I am often asked “Where are you from?” or “Where did you learn to speak such good English?” The subtle message is clear: I am a foreigner. I usually respond by saying that it is not fair to expect me not to speak or write good English.
Another example was when an intern addressed me as “you people.” I summoned the educator in me and reminded the intern that I was an individual with a unique cultural heritage. I also reminded him that such attitude went against everything a professional chaplain is supposed to be. Another time, a clerk followed me around the store pretending to clean up something. I have seen this phenomenon on TV but never thought I would one day be a victim of such blatant profiling. I often laugh it off and ignore it eventually, because it is so ridiculous.
But the worst of this attitude happened back in 2014 at a furniture store when a clerk said to my face, “Are you sure you can afford that furniture?” He made the shocking assumption about my financial status based on nothing other than my appearance. I sarcastically expressed how his attitude is such an asset to his company. I felt it important to speak up and speak out in the moment against this blatant stereotyping.
Race has never been a factor in where I chose to live or work or send our child to school, but I am frustrated to be reminded of it regularly. A little over a year ago, a fellow first grader told my daughter that she looks like poop. I know they were both kids, but kids do not live in a vacuum. I told the teacher that I would not tolerate harassment toward my daughter regardless of who propagated it. It is bad enough to know that you have little control over a situation. But it is even worse to feel like the only thing some people see about you is the color of your skin. It makes you feel invisible. I worry about how to navigate these challenges as I raise my daughter.
Olufunke Oba, a fellow African who is a professor of social work at the University of Regina in Canada, has written an article in which she shares some of her approaches to racism. I agree with her that I may not be able to change the world, but addressing micro-aggressions gently “in here” can affect the work we do “out there.” It is not enough that things happen to us, it is important that we reflect on them to make meaning of the experience and grow.
That is why when anything happens today, I have resolved to be more intentional in addressing the issue right away in a meaningful way instead of harboring fear or resentment. I ask questions to check out the intentions of the perceived micro-aggressor, so that moment becomes less of a confrontation and more of a learning opportunity – such as the intern who addressed me as “you people,” or such as my daughter’s teacher. It is important to address these issues in real time, because these moments hold the opportunity for learning and growth for both parties.
Charles Kibirige, BCC, is staff chaplain at Saint Joseph Mercy Oakland in Pontiac, MI.