Guest post by Christel Ek-Williamssonaka
Hello! My name is Christel and I’m a Swedish teacher and book lover. I’ve had the honour of being invited to share some of my thoughts in this space by the lovely Ibtisam, whom I ”met” on Instagram (such a marvellous place if used right!)
I recently read the novel Small Great Things, which came out last year, by American author Jodi Picoult. Now I’ve had the chance to process it a bit, but it’s definitely one of those reads that will stay with me for a long time. This book really stirred a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions in me! Nothing I didn’t already know or hadn’t thought about before perhaps, but Jodi Picoult somehow managed to express things in a way that almost FORCED me to take a new, long, hard look at myself and my outlook on the world. I’ve always been a staunch anti-racist and in many discussions, perhaps naively, I’m pretty sure I have said things similar to those of Kennedy in the book on more than one occasion; stuff like “I don’t really see race” for example. Picoult says in a comment about her novel, and I wholeheartedly agree, that white people (such as the author and myself) need to become more aware of and acknowledge our own inherent privileges and not just other people’s disadvantages, and what the fact that these things even exist means in terms of how we treat and perceive each other. This is something that resonates very strongly with me right now.
I’d like to exemplify by telling you about a couple of the family stories that I’ve grown up with and always been very proud of. Firstly, how my great grandfather in the early 1900s (an immigrant to the US who later moved back to Sweden) saved an African-American man tied to the mast of the ship they were both working on (in Florida, I think) from being lashed to death. He couldn’t have done that if he hadn’t worn his white skin as a shield, of that I’m fairly sure. Or secondly, when my own father as a young seaman in the early 1960s, got on at the back of a bus in the American South while the Jim Crow laws were still in full swing. He thought the laws were “stupid “. They were of course, on that I’m sure we all agree, but whom other than a white dude would have had the privilege to both think it and act upon it at that time and in that place without more of a consequence than the punch in the face that he got from the confused, and probably scared, black guys in the back of the bus!? I’m still very proud of both of my relatives, but it’s also my duty to look at the flip side of the coin to understand deeper and move further towards true equality.
When I travel with my family we may joke amongst ourselves about how “painfully white” we may look in certain places and how we stand out like sore thumbs. But we must also stop and seriously consider how many times in our lives we have actually been in that situation, or, most importantly, if we’ve ever had reason to be alarmed by it in any way; the way that it is a daily occurrence for many people of colour to fear standing out in a crowd. What does that do to a person?
My husband has had the experience of standing out a lot, growing up as a white child in West Africa. He rarely, if ever, had any reason to be fearful of that fact though (the worst thing that happened was probably that the other kids didn’t always want him to come along stealing mangoes at night, because his white blond hair always gave them away!). That didn’t stop either of us from getting really irritated about something that happened while travelling in that particular part of the world three years ago. We, as the only car out of a “convoy”of three (we were travelling with friends), got pulled over and slapped with a, quite obviously, made-up fine. We were the only car with only white people in it! And yes, the car was nicer than many others on the road, but not nicer than our black friends’, maybe even the other way around. We got pulled over because we, as whites, were perceived as rich enough to be able to afford the fine! Pure and simple. Annoying as that may have been, especially to my husband who speaks the local language fluently and feels at home there, we STILL need to remember that we got pulled over because we are the privileged ones! And this is just a miniscule example out of many. We certainly haven’t chosen that privilege, but it’s still there! And the numerous people of colour who constantly need to worry about getting pulled over (or worse) and being treated with suspicion all the time just because of THEIR skin colour, they most certainly haven’t chosen that either!! And that’s why I feel that this is so important to reflect upon!
I just wish there was an easy way to create a level playing field and make sure that everyone gets the just treatment we ALL deserve and that the world truly didn’t “see race”! But I guess the first step towards change is awareness, right!? If you’re part of the problem you also need to be a part of the solution!! Thank you all who managed to read this far and stayed with me on this rant. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this topic in general, AND on this excellent book in particular! Perhaps I’ll ”see” you on Instagram!