Color of Skin

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When Sadia asked about the first time my skin color became an issue, I immediately remembered my experiences with racism in Germany and the poem that I wrote to process them. When I left Kenya for Germany in the mid 90s, I thought racism was only a feature of post-apartheid South Africa. Because so many people from all over the world had fought for Mandela’s release from prison, I had no reason to expect that anyone outside South Africa would judge me solely on the basis of my skin color.

Sometimes, like today, I find it hard to write about racism. What concerns me most is that it still persists after decades of people speaking out against it. Wole Soyinka, one of my favorite authors, wrote the poem Telephone Conversation about a racist experience he had in Leeds, England in 1962. I find his poem quite humorous, whereas mine is indignant. I stumbled across his poem after I’d published mine, Color of Skin. My racist experiences in Germany began 2 weeks after I arrived and continued intermittently until the day before I left Germany a few years later.

The experience that broke the proverbial camel’s back was when a German student I’d just met voiced her deeply flawed assumption that because I was black, there was no way I could make the grade required to get into a certain major. What she didn’t know was that I had already been accepted to the major. In her mind, black=dumb. Most of my African friends in German universities had similar experiences, some even with their professors!

Color of Skin

What do I here?
Why came I here?
To this unbearably unfriendly land?
Innumerable times
In a mere year
The issue has been raised
About my color of skin.
When never before
In two decades of life
Had I ever cause to think of it.

What is the skin
But a mere encasing
Of the person that lives within?
What does color of skin
Have to do with intelligence
Must my character be dark
Because my skin is black?

You who take pride in being
The cradle of empirical evidence
Show us now the superiority
Of white skinned ones.
Justify your claim
Empirically, of course,
That dark skin and intelligence
Are inversely proportional.

You look down your nose at me
Yet you know me not.
And despite your lofty thoughts
I scored highest on the exam.
It wasn’t even in my native tongue!
Did your color of skin fail you
This late in the game?

“Color of Skin” by Minda MageroThe Book of Mysteries, copyright 2008, Novum Press LLC.

Because racism in Germany was so obvious and in-your-face, I have been less aware of racism in the U.S., where it tends to be more subtle and behind-your-back. The subtle kind is probably worse in some ways because it is insidious. All the same, I have observed that the darker one’s skin color, the more one is relegated to the dung heap of humanity.

What can you do to eradicate racism? What can we do? I wonder why this isn’t one of the lofty Millenium Goals set forth by the United Nations.

Minda Magero
Minda Magero’s love for words at a young age matured into a passion for writing. She published her first collection of poetry, The Book of Mysteries, in 2008 and is in the process of completing her second collection. Her writing has been deeply informed by her experiences in Kenya and abroad. She loves to travel and experience new cultures.
Minda Magero

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  1. madomasi says

    Lovely poem. I am Malawian and my first experience of racism was when I moved to Zimbabwe. I am mixed race and it was the first time race had ever been an overt issue for me. In the UK it’s happened a couple of times, overtly. Of course, the subtle stuff I’m not aware of/don’t care.

    I think eradicating racism isn’t a Millenium Goal because we can’t fight an ideology, we have to deal with the ignorance of the people behind it. Maybe I’m naive, but I believe a lot of racism is to do with ignorance and fear, rather than unadulterated evil. (Not ruling it out in some cases though) I think education is the key – education and media messaging. All races are prejudiced, everyone’s a little racist, but when it tips into discrimination and violence etc, that can be tackled in criminal law. (if applied) Unfortunately I think it’s through education and the uncomfortable rubbing together/clashing of cultures and races that we will confront it and learn tolerance.

    It doesn’t help that in countries like Germany and the UK, “immigrant” is a dirty word. I told a friend the other day that I’m an expat. He’s British and he was really bewildered by that. When he asked me why, I explained that because when a brown/black person lives in another country you’re an “immigrant” (and not in a nice way) but when a white person travels and lives abroad they are an “expat”, living an “expat lifestyle”, “broadening their horizons”, “getting some sun”. When I left school I was told education would make the world my oyster. I was not told that your choices and the perception of you is most heavily influenced by which passport you hold. I do feel that the whole global village idea is quite shallow: in truth, if you’re from the third world, it’s a very different ball game. You’re very much “other”.

    • Sadia says

      What we cannot do is eradicate racism. All humans form clusters around common experience. Hence why sometimes a group of blacks/whites/different cultures will make derogatory comments about the other group in the presence of the representative of the degraded group whom they have perceived as having something in common with – class, profession, friendship etc.
      I believe it has to come by a retraining on contact. I make sure every time I have contact with anyone who might perceive me as any less due to my race or gender ends with them leaving surprised and wrong. We have to meet these people head on at the levels they are playing at and show them we too have our own ways which are just as relevant as theirs. This leads me back to my last post, let us look at ways of getting each other to that level apart from all the talk. Only way I see out of it. Let us stop following the norms and create better norms for ourselves.We may not do it on a grand scale. Small Things Matter (by the way this is what my twitter name stands for STM95).

      Other comment is I was think about my next post and an equation came to mind
      Integration = become one of us (whomever majority is), so I was quite interested in your equation black= dumb.

      My business partner and dear friend is Indian by birth.A common occurrence when we have business meetings is people we meet talk to her more than me about our business. Her common response is ‘the person you should be talking to is Sadia, as she knows more about this than me!’ What we have taken from that is immediately she is taken for the brains in the company and I am just some hanger on!
      Last year at a wine tasting on a holiday with a group friends, I was not even looked at for the first 30mins by the guy doing the tasting until the message got through to him that the only black in the room was actually the only person that knew about wine to any extent, the most likely to buy his expensive wine and had even organised the tasting.My friends had tried hard to tell him as they could not understand why they were the focus of his attention. It became a funny holiday story but sad as well.I could name so many instances like this but I am sure so can you all

      • Minda Magero says

        I like your idea about “retraining on contact” and also the fact that “small things matter.” What are some of the norms we follow that we can better as a contribution towards eradicating racism? What I’d like to see is significant change, so that my children and my children’s children don’t have to fight the selfsame battles I’ve fought.

    • Minda Magero says

      Thanks, Madomasi! I love the response that your “expat” comment elicited. I will use that somewhere in the near future. Hmmm, you say that education is key to eradicating racism and that supports my hunch that racism is learned; therefore, it can be unlearned. I feel that there’s already been a lot of education over the years, but it’s not making as much of an impact as it should. That is what discourages me.

  2. Minda Magero says

    I’d like to add two of my friends’ comments here:
    “What to do? – keep putting the issue out there – ignorance is a main problem. In Africa we pretty much live cheek to jowl whereas here it is much easier to be compartmentalized & kept foreign. You’ll be surprised to hear that I have suffered from racism because I am from “Africa” although I am white.” ~Clare

    “Racism is rooted in mindsets and boils down to ignorance and being insular. How we eradicate it – we keep on lobbying; it’s worked in feminism somehow and it might as well work here.” ~Jackie

  3. Saran116 says

    Very nicely done Minda.
    My favorite line: “What is the skin But a mere encasing Of the person that lives within?”
    The main way to eradicate racism is through education. Starting at home, let us teach our children not to judge another person by the color of their skin. I’ve always thought that if say for instance a child grows up in a family with a certain point of view, they will inevitably gravitate towards that way of thinking. So let us educate ourselves and pass that down to our children. I really hope that after all this struggle and fighting for equal treatment, we will soon see the day where people will be more accepting of one another.

    • Minda Magero says

      You’re right, Saran. Earlier this morning I found the answer and it was so simple that I laughed. Since racism (and all other shades of hate) is a spiritual problem, the antidote must be spiritual, too. Love is the answer. And again, beginning at the family level is key.

  4. Julia Sanna says

    Minda, your poem about your experience of racism in Germany is very touching. The saddest part about racism in the US is that it tends to be tied to the evangelical/faith-based population. Some leaders in the evangelical church have allowed Christianity to be hijacked by a political party that benefits from racial animosity. It breaks my heart because most Christians are not racist. This summer was crazy! The voices of the bigoted few drown out the vast majority of folks who really don’t care about racial or religious differences. I wanted to hear folks like Franklin Graham stand-up and stop it the way his dad Rev. Billy Graham did but he did not.

    The other side of the coin is – those of us who are darker skinned need to remember sometimes people don’t just like us! It has nothing to do with race! There are folks I disagree with and its not because they are white or lighter than I! The greatest mistake we make is to attribute racism where there’s none – it poisons the well and the conversation comes to a stand still. We mentor community teens and the first thing we tell them when they are in trouble with the law is “the white man did not make them steal from the convenience store, they chose to break the law so they could buy an ipod!” I also get irritated when we cry racism because someone of a different culture disagreed with us. Subtle racism exists and the best way is to confront it face on – I’ve flat out asked people what they meant when I heard phrases that sounded racist. They either withdraw the phrase or explain it. Let’s also not confuse ethno-centrism with racism, we all tend to think our culture does certain things well or better, I don’t think that’s racism – for example Kenyans/Ethiopians tend to win marathons! Had to put that in there :) Can we just not be super sensitive? We get offended when someone calls us a certain name because WE gave that name power. If the name does not describe me – I certainly will not OWN its meaning!

    Thanks Minda for opening this door ….. you are brilliant!

  5. Emang says

    I once tried to challenge “educate” an Aussie girl a few years ago, who was the exact same age as me. She commented that I spoke good English. When I tried to illustrate how rediculous the comment was, and replied, “Well, you speak good Engilsh too”, she immediately seemed irritated and exclaimed, “Well, why wouldn’t I speak good English, I have been speaking English for the past 25 years!” I was gobsmacked! Another story is of when I went for a job interview in the Netherlands at one of the world’s biggest oil companies. In attendance was an Israeli guy, he openly commented in front of everyone that he though black people were all just as lazy as the Somalies he went to school with. He said that in front of everyone and nobody reprimanded him, not a single person. I really did feel as though the Dutch were looking upon me as a dirty creature, wow, the look I got from one woman at the hotel I was staying, yikes. I really really hate that. I know Africans can be racist too, but do they really treat people the same way we have been treated? I would be interested to know which group of people in Zimbabwe were racist towards Madomasi

    • Minda Magero says

      I have met some racist Africans and they “talk a lot of smack” but I’ve never seen them engage in racist actions. Usually, I also find that they chose a racist stance as payback for the racism they, people they know or their ancestors experienced at the hands of Europeans/other caucasians.

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