It was early October and I was sitting in a restaurant in downtown Tunis, catching up with a former classmate. Besides talking about the usual – how have you been, how’s your family, work, love life, future prospects, moving home soon? – we also touched on my experience living in Tunisia. Something I have written little about, besides when I was still in glazed-over tourist mode and this one on censorship, freedom, and responsibility. At some point between a sip of water and a bite of the fish, it hit me. What we’d been discussing – and what has happened multiple times this year, all over the world – was not racism, but dehumanization. The act of “racism” would preclude that the victim of such of an act is a human, a person, one whose skin color you don’t approve of or like. One whose biological features astound, nay, stupefy you to the point of denial. No, what had been happening throughout 2014 – not just in Tunis, but all over the world – was a denial of the “humanness” of the “person” in question. Dehumanization.
From the many subsequent shootings after Trayvon Martin to Mike Brown to Gaza and Syria to Nigeria’s Chibok Girls to the profiling around Ebola to Iran’s Reyhaneh Jabbari to the uncountable Indian rape victims and women whose personal photos were leaked – 2014 has been a gala of a year for dehumanization. Time and again, hundreds – if not thousands – have spoken out against it, yet time and again, the same happens. The “human” in humanity seems to elude us. Why?
I got introduced to my “blackness” when I first moved to the United States in 2005 for college. Until then, the concept of ‘racism’ was nothing more than a concept and a word to me. Within the brick red walls of Mount Holyoke’s buildings, the expanse of green and the gurgling creek, I learned about racism, and more importantly – read the last two words with a hint of sarcasm – how to be politically correct. Just as I realized that my initial impressions of having long, flowing, relaxed hair like the African-American women I had seen on TV were quite baseless, I also realized that there was an inexplicable divide between Africans and African-Americans: one that is ultimately influenced by our different experiences of history, and more specifically, of racism. Precisely because of this veil, in the US, I merely crossed paths with racism. We didn’t stop and greet each other – or if we did, I didn’t recognize it as such.
Enter Italy – the country which would give me an introduction and crash course all at once. My first blatant experience of racism was in early 2008 at an Italian restaurant in France where the waiter ignored seating us – letting other paler skinned humans out of the cold and into the foray of the restaurant. When he eventually did, he put us towards the back of the room at a table that had not been cleaned. It took my Ghanaian roommate and I a while to realize what was happening – something other diners had caught onto before we did – we were the only two black people in the restaurant. We left.
Three years later, in Bologna, I encountered racial profiling and exotification of blackness. Full frontal, down to the leering sneer on his face as he muttered what was most likely sexually debasing Italian at me on the bus. The day a bus conductor crossed over the length of the bus – bypassing the other (paler skinned) passengers to ask me for a ticket and ignoring the fact that I was standing right next to the ticket machine with my coins in hand – I knew I had been fully indicted into the hall of you-have-officially-been-racially-profiled. Later, as I tried to explain to him through a mix of Italian, French and English, that I was just getting my ticket, I realized: to him, I was an African immigrant. Most likely illegal. And hence, a statistic. An inconvenience. It didn’t matter that I was educated, well-traveled, that I would pay the fee without hesitation if I was clearly in the wrong. Forget the fact that my school ID card said otherwise, or that the I had a digital copy of my temporary visa – he still wanted “confirmation” and then, asked me to produce a receipt for my iPad, which of course, couldn’t belong to lil’ ol’ black me. None of it mattered, except my blackness.
Compared to the US and Italy, Tunisia has knocked me out of the ball park on this one.
Last year, I did my research before moving to Tunisia – online, talking to people who had lived here, talking to people who still did, reaching out to the only Tunisians I knew – after many travels and living in multiple countries, it had become somewhat of a drill; a process I go through mindlessly. I wrote this in my first piece on Tunisia:
“Prior to moving to Tunis, I’d been told my experience here as a black woman might be a little…distasteful… To be honest, Tunisia is the first place where I’ve had my guard up right from day one. Not just because of the ongoing political turmoil, but also because there seems to be a fair amount of hostility in the air.”
Reading that now, I laugh. Because I was wrong. So wrong. Hostility is an understatement. None of that prepared me for Tunisia – or more specifically, Tunis. And no, it was not culture shock – being Muslim, speaking French and some Arabic, I had the makings of tools to help me navigate the transition well-enough. But no. This city has picked me up on the throes of expectation and thrown me down, crashing all of them. I cannot describe the feeling of being dehumanized. Of being looked upon like a piece of meat for the devouring. On being regarded as an inconvenience. It has done and undone me multiple times over, made and unmade me, until I’ve been quite unrecognizable in my own eyes and desperately searching for the semblance of compassion I know I have, of the person I know I am. When asked, How is Tunisia?, I usually give a two-part response: I talk about work, then I talk about living here. For the latter, this phrase pretty sums up what myself – and many other (young )Africans living here – have come to know and say about Tunis:
“Tunis is beautiful. But it would be even more beautiful without Tunisians.”
Dehumanization. Even when it’s staring us right in the face, we make excuses for it. Heck, even I have made countless excuses for why someone treats another person as less of a person (if at all) – maybe they didn’t mean it that way; c’mon you must be exaggerating; cut them some slack – they must have had a hard day; you must have misread the situation; they just came off a hard-time as a nation. Bullshit. The night I found a friend crying in the kitchen because a taxi driver – get this, black Tunisian – assaulted her in his car in front of a major shopping center, telling her “You people are not human, go back to where you came from,” in the full glare of other shoppers who did not even attempt to intervene – was the night I switched off as well: I started expecting a specific kind of treatment, response, behavior from all Tunisians. I stopped recognizing them as individuals, as varied as the stars in the universe. That night I lumped them all into one very unpalatable category and nobody could tell me otherwise.
Dehumanization. Even when we’re doing it ourselves, we don’t recognize it – that’s how you know it’s gotten you well and good. Because the precepts of humanity, of being human, are empathy, compassion, tolerance, of recognizing yourself, your humanness, in another – all of which you are no longer capable.
Racism is often seen as a one-way street: the one with less melanin (white) discriminates against the one with more melanin (black), leaving little room for the opposite or variances of the same. Good luck trying that with dehumanization! In this particular act, dehumanizer and dehumanized become one and the same. You treat me as other than a human being. In reciprocating, I become exactly that by virtue of the fact that I dehumanize you or another (reference, the black Tunisian taxi driver). The more any one individual experiences dehumanization, the less surprised they are when it happens (reference Ferguson outcome), the more likely they are to see it, experience it, know it to be true – even when it’s not there.
It’s a ruthless cycle which creeps upon you and will have all and sundry, perhaps until there is no humanity left. We call ourselves the “great human race” and insist upon our superiority in comparison to other beings, that we generally call animals. And yet, for all our touting of “progress”, it seems we are losing the very thing which – we claim – sets us apart from all the rest: our humanity. Maybe this is a function of our technological advances and the fact that news travels faster and more is out in the open. But for all our technological advances, for increased opportunities to connect, it seems we’re becoming the very machines we build – aloof, following motions, instructions. Matrix type thing.
Which way forward?
Some might say, so why do you stay? Leave, get out. True, some might have the option, but what about those who don’t? Are we to continuously run from the things that make us uncomfortable? And if so, until when? All of us – like it or not – have to share this planet, the very air we breathe. Mars notwithstanding, nobody is going anywhere anytime soon.
But hope is not lost. It is never lost. In the midst of dehumanization are pockets of compassion. Like Aya, the young Tunisian who not only joined in the country’s protests a few years ago, but also admits to the blatant disrespect for “black” people in Tunisia and works on creating awareness and bridges. Or my Italian friend turned sister and the lovely Italian family I lived with who countered every aura of hostility, judgment and discrimination I experienced in Bologna for simply being “black”. Or my friend from the restaurant who – despite her different experience of things – showed respect for the truth of my experience as a black woman living in an Arab nation. Or, the old Tunisian man – also a taxi driver – who upon seeing my friend being kicked, rushed forth and whisked her away. That one-in-a-million taxi driver who literally assuages the mental and emotional turmoil that countless Tunisian drivers have visited upon my being.
Today is international day for the elimination of violence against women. I’d like to use this day to make a passionate appeal to not only work towards ending the uncountable acts of violence (in general), but more specifically, to gravitate towards curbing the current spate of dehumanization. How? By entering and creating pockets of compassion, safe spaces where, going with Avatar terminology, “I see you”. By not turning a blind eye to the suffering of people – justified by the mere fact that they are different. By standing up for human rights and stepping outside of your circle of privilege to listen to and hear another’s truth. More importantly, by always trying – on a daily basis and regardless of how difficult it is – to remember that this individual, this being in front of you, is human precisely because of his or her shortcomings, and then, to act with respect for that humanness. Still asking why?
Because our lives matter.
Written by Jemila Abdulai
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.