October 23, 2018
“In every second of the day, we have the power to make others either add a positive image or a negative image to what they associate with people who come from our families, schools, and countries.”
I stood there, detached, while they threw rocks at me and called me a gorilla.
I was in fourth grade when it happened. It was a Thursday, and the school that I attended with my brother had just dismissed its students to enjoy a much-needed long weekend. The air seemed to have become lighter at the end of that day, no longer weighed down by thoughts of homework assignments and structured schedules. All that was floating through the arid, Tunisian air was the feeling of unrestricted freedom.
At home, I could tell that my older brother felt it, too. Breaks like this were rare, and to start ours off we decided to head to our local convenience store and get a snack.
The snack we were particularly looking for was a “Moulin d’Or,” a sweet, cakey muffin filled with a chocolate hazelnut filling. We headed inside the store and presented all the loose dinar coins we had saved to the friendly Tunisian man behind the counter. He handed us our muffins, and we excitedly started our walk back home.
Across from the store, a local middle school was letting out for the day. As my brother and I were walking, a group of Tunisian middle schoolers spotted us. “Gira Gira!” they yelled at us from across the street. Despite our lack of proficiency in Arabic, my brother and I knew that term far too well. “Gira Gira” is Tunisian slang for “gorilla” and is used as a derogatory word for black people. Our parents had always instructed us to ignore situations like this. But then the middle-schoolers picked up rocks from the gravel and started throwing them at us. We were far enough away that they weren’t able to reach us, but right then I no longer wanted to ignore them. I wasn’t angry, but I wanted to show that we weren’t going to stand there defenselessly and be targets of their harassment. Just as I began to pick up a rock to start my counter, my brother stopped me and told me that it wasn’t worth it. Back then I didn’t fully understand why, but I listened.
Reflecting back, I know that I represented black people to them. My brother was right to stop my retaliation because that would only have fulfilled their narrative of people like me being violent, angry “gorillas.” Instead, we decided to challenge and break the narrative. We maintained our composure which didn’t provide fuel for their stereotypes, and though our idleness may have been perceived as weakness, it was actually the strongest, most effective counterattack.
The truth is, those children were victims of past ideologies fed to them. They were taught by their society not to like us, and this hatred was not by any personal interactions or opinions, but simple prejudice. Our equanimity in the situation challenged Tunisia’s institutional racism by providing a different picture of black people—one of calmness and rationality.
Similarly, this past September I visited Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. To get there, I had to take a train from Baltimore to Philadelphia on a cold Thursday morning. I put on a jacket, a pair of Timbs, and a pair of blue jeans, hopped in a car with Ms. Masker, and was on the road to Baltimore’s Penn Station. In the outskirts of Baltimore, before entering the business side of the city with its modern, glass office spaces, we saw beaten up brick buildings and cracked, worn-down roads. As we drove by, all the signs of poverty and underfunding were on display. There were abandoned houses, yet the homeless and unemployed were left begging on the streets hoping to collect enough coins for a decent meal that evening. We also saw teenagers, just like me, on their way to school. It was obvious that the makeup of this neighborhood was predominantly black. Visually, I dressed and looked exactly like those kids. Other than our background and our upbringing, we were, to a stranger, one in the same. On the Forbes list for top 10 most dangerous cities in the U.S., Baltimore falls at number seven, and statistically, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, black males account for 37% of the total prison population despite only representing 12.6% of the population of the United States. For those reasons, there is a strong, unfair negative association with being a young black male from Baltimore, and it is something that, by association, I experienced first-hand.
Once I got onto my train, it was rush-hour and the locomotive was packed. I initially walked along the aisle, keeping an eye out for any open single seat that would allow me to comfortably sit by myself, but my efforts to do so were in vain. After I began to see that my wish to be alone was too ambitious, I decided to ask a woman who was sitting by herself if I could occupy the relatively empty seat next to her. Her reaction was instant apprehension. She began to slowly and reluctantly move her purse that she had sitting in the seat, before she looked up and said, “I would prefer her” while pointing in the direction behind me. I turned around and saw another woman who was white and seemed to be in her early thirties. In that situation, I stepped out of my shoes and analyzed the situation from the perspective of the woman in the seat. The woman behind me appeared to be friendly, approachable, and most importantly, harmless. On the other hand, I was a threat. So much so, that the mere idea of me sitting next to her was of such concern that she would be blatantly rude in order to protect herself from this potential menace. The lady behind me told her, “I don’t know why you would say that, but I don’t think that either of us would be interested in sitting with you at this point.”
Unfortunately, I did know why the lady in the seat said what she did, and it was purely because of how I looked and what she associated with how I looked. We both continued our search for a seat that would hopefully involve less confrontation.
Though this instance of racial profiling was intensely uncomfortable for me, it was significant in that I just happened to be profiled with one part of my character. In reality, I am fortunate that my family is in a comfortable socio-economic position and that I benefit from the positive profiles in that group. I also benefit from being a student of an esteemed private boarding school that most people would profile as a school that represents kindness and respect. If I were to have been of different socio-economic status or school, the prejudice of my character could be worse, making it even harder to represent myself without already being misunderstood.
I understand today that in all things I do, I represent more than just me. I represent what others think of my family, my school, my race, and any group with whom I identify. And in these same ways, we all represent more than ourselves. Sometimes it can be difficult to see it, but in all situations we find ourselves in, the actions we take are bigger than us. They are actions that represent who we represent, and they become actions that add to the narratives people already have of our representative sample. In every second of the day, we have the power to make others either add a positive image or a negative image to what they associate with people who come from our families, schools, and countries. Through these experiences, I learned that the first step to positively change the preconceived notions someone may have about me is to elevate my standard of character, and let my behavior stand in contrast to, and overpower, their prejudiced expectation. It only takes one act by one person to begin to change the direction of someone else’s expected narrative.