For reasons that will remain undisclosed (sounds nefarious right?) I was liberated from my lab at an early, also nefariously undisclosed hour. Fully intending to arrive at my humble dwelling and instantly begin reading for my classes, I spent about 2.5 hours chatting with my roommate. We always have very interesting conversations to say the least. We talked about a wide range of things from politics to the economic crisis in the US to hair to race relations (both in my country and her home of Singapore) to education. Our conversation made me evaluate for the hundredth time whether or not I’ve chosen the right career for myself (but that’s a post for another day).
For those of you who don’t know, have forgotten or have chosen to ignore it – we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on Monday, though his actual birthday is today – January 15. I noticed as I navigated my way through the deep and murky mire of science over the past week, that many people simply did not remember that Dr. MLK’s birthday was indeed upon us. Does it make me sad? A little bit. I don’t blame them though. It’s not their fault that we don’t celebrate culture and history the way that we should. It’s not their fault that we don’t talk about race relations in this country and many others as much as we should or even in the ways that we should. It’s everyone’s fault, including mine, that, often, discussions of race get swept under the rug.
I opened this post by sharing that I’d recently had a very long, very thorough conversation with my roommate – who is from Singapore. I shared with her, as I have done many times in the past, stories about what it has been like for me to grow up as a black person in the United States of America – I told her about why I’ve chosen to loc my hair, why black women began straightening their hair in the first place, why it’s so difficult for me to ignore the explosive racial politics of this country and, more importantly, what it’s been like for me to interact with people of my own race in this country. What she told me, and what I’m sure many people outside of Singapore don’t know, is that the problems that face minorities in this country are much the same in Singapore. Issues of what hair is “good hair,” what skin color is the “right” skin color, which race is smarter, lazier, more prone to criminal activity, etc. Naturally, this is a dumbed down version of our conversation, and I could never ever hope to encompass the various issues we talked about in one single post, but I found it saddening.
I had no idea that she faced those issues in her home country, and I’m disappointed in myself. In my ignorance, I believe I thought on some level that Black people had a monopoly on discrimination and the self-image issues brought on by said discrimination. It is situations such as these, eye opening discussions such as these, that made me want an international roommate in the first place. My education doesn’t stop in the classroom. I’ve always known that, and I’m glad for it; most importantly, I’m glad for roommate. She’s given me perspective.
I shared a story with ye olde roomie about a visit to a local pizza establishment in Virginia when I was about 15 years old. Before this time I’d always looked at men like Brad Pitt and (my future love slave) Johnny Depp and stated “he’s cute, for a white dude.” At 14 or 15 years old I never really thought about the implications of that 6 word statement – as if men that weren’t black could somehow never be attractive! But at that very tender, very impressionable age, I walked into a pizza place to get some food and almost as soon as I breached the threshold, the young cashier looked at me and said “you’re pretty for a black girl!” Now, being 15, and having the emotional and self-esteem issues that most 15 year olds have, I did not know whether to be thankful for the comment or not. I said thank you – because my parents raised me to be as polite as their dilute southern genes would allow – ordered my food and went home. It was an insult wrapped in a compliment (like pig’s in a blanket as I recently told a Canadian friend). One never knows what to make of statements like that. The one thing I took away from the incident was the overarching implications of statements like “you’re cute/you’re smart/you’re well spoken for a [insert race here] person.” From that day, I’ve tried incredibly hard to never make comments even remotely related to the aforementioned formula.
As we proceed throughout our daily lives we don’t often think about how our words and actions affect others. We like to believe that they are just words, but – as we learned in elementary school – words have power and words hurt. We sometimes like to believe that our problems are the only problems that exist and are therefore the most important. We don’t think about the people a country over, or even over on the next street. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
I read a headline the other day that questioned why people are only able to unite in times of tragedy. My answer, though unfortunate, is simple. It’s when we are reminded in the harshest way possible that we are not the center of the universe. It’s when we are reminded that we’ve forgotten how to be kind to one another. It’s when we are reminded that our lives shift further every day from the basic teachings of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.
I’d like to end this by saying happy birthday MLK. He, like all of us, may have been flawed, but he fought for equality and, most importantly, for peace.