The classmate whose name I never asked
As I was reading an essay A Revolution of Values by bell hooks in the book Teaching to Transgress, I kept underlying passages where she recalled memories of segregation and de-segregation of white and black pupils in school. I was struck by nuanced details, which unveiled to me a whole new understanding of racism, making me aware of my own situatedness in the post soviet Georgia, where it was not skin color or race, but ethnicity and accompanied religious belonging which segregated us.
The following passage was so impressive that I stopped and read it out to my (white male) friend, who listened with the same effort that bell describes later as the effort of progressive white folks to understand and unlearn racism…
I still remember my rage that we had to awaken an hour early so that we could be bussed to school before the white students arrived. We were made to sit in the gymnasium and wait. It was believed that this practice would prevent outbreaks of conflict and hostility since it removed the possibility of social contact before classes began. Yet, once again, the burden of this transition was placed on us. The white school was desegregated, but in the classroom, in the cafeteria, and in most social spaces racial apartheid prevailed.bell hooks Teaching to Transgress
I read the passage three times and wanted to feel alongside the rage that bell was describing, as well as the discomfort white pupils might have felt at the same time. The exercise made me catapult 33 years ago in the freshly collapsed Soviet Union in my home country Georgia and my experience of segregation in primary school.
Only after having immigrated to the affluent west, having spent time as an asylum seeker together with other refugees; only after being the only parent who did not speak Dutch fluently at the parents’ gatherings at my daughter’s school; only after having gone wary of joking and innumerable times pronouncing my “hard to pronounce” family name MOSEMGHVDLISHVILI – I came to become aware of my privilege of having belonged to the cultural majority in Georgia.
Yet, it was through bell hooks writing that I suddenly remembered an ephemeral image of a classmate from the second grade of primary school. A classmate whose name, no matter how hard I tried to recall – I could not remember, perhaps because I never asked her. her sitting in the first row, closest to the teacher, her long hair tied with a colorful ribbon (what we back then would call a sign of being a ‘goimi’ someone not fashionable, with a bad taste in all aspects of self-expression). She belonged to either Armenian or Kurdish descent, the rest of us were Kartvelians. The very fact that I am not able to recall her ethnicity, speakers about the privilege of majority I have been raised with, where all others were simply the Others.
As I sit and write this, I am puzzled to recall how we – seven years old pupils managed to internalize the ethnic and religious segregation so well that it was unspoken truth, hard, unmovable.
My classmate, whose name I never knew, left after the first semester. When we came back from the Christmas holidays, she was gone, and no one missed her, no one remembered her. Only now, after more than three decades, I wonder what her name was? How did she feel being alone in the class with other 7-years old, who sat behind her, never spoke to her, never asked for her name, never heard her voice? I wonder how her voice was… ?
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With my appearance being white (Caucasian) yet growing in a country that is considered poor (in transition) I sometimes felt a conflict between my positionalities. Having been raised as a privileged majority, but having moved during my early 20-ies into being a minority, left me with mixed feelings; On the one hand, the remnants of the pride and entitlement that the privileged majority emanates, and on the other hand, lived, embodied experience of racial prejudice, being excluded, feeling outside, weird from the group.
On 5th November 2008, Omotola (adapted name) and I were standing (as often it would happen) aside from the rest of the colleagues. He had smuggled in a beer can, and I was having a big cup of coffee. We both had stayed up the night before, waiting for the outcomes of the elections, because it felt like a historic moment.
As Omotola was sipping beer and we were giggling, I felt the moment of bonding with him, celebrating the election of the first black president, almost co-owing the celebration, when he told me with a smile of a tired mother, whose child keeps bothering her: “Ah Lela you are a nice girl, but you are white. You don’t understand… You can not understand. Even if you come from a poor country, you are white! When you walk on the street you do not stand out“. I laughed and agreed. Despite the fact that back then, I felt very much a minority and an outsider in all social groups (as an immigrant), Omotola’s words touched something in me and stuck with me for many years.
After graduation, I lost touch with Ken even though he always had a warm place in my memory. I thought of him when meeting and interacting with liberal white folks who believed that having a black friend meant that they were not racist, who sincerely believed that they were doing us a favor by extending offers of friendly contact for which they felt they should be rewarded. I thought of him during years of watching white folks play at unlearning racism but walking away when they encountered obstacles, rejection, conflict, pain.
bell hooks Teaching to Transgress
Was I feeling what bell hooks was describing in the above quote, the urge to run away from the first sight of discomfort?…
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Whether on this side or on other, whether within burdened by guild majority or excluded by very efforts to include – minority the embodied feeling of racism (be it across race, ethnicity, sexuality, religious, or non-religious, epistemological and so forth differences) is what needs to be attended. The hardest is not the adjustment of laws and policies but staying with the feeling inside one’s body, witnessing racism in one’s being…