“GO BACK TO AFRICA!”, he yelled. I was shocked and angry and hurt and ashamed, each an individual feeling, but all experienced at the same time. It was our first day in Karlsruhe, Germany. The sun was shining brightly and my husband (CH) and I had just left the hotel, excited to explore this beautiful new city on foot. We had the promise of new possibilities in our minds and I was acutely aware that we might be walking through our new home for the first time. After a few blocks, we stopped to check out a menu posted outside a local pub. It was, of course written in German, so I was staring intently at the words, trying to translate when I heard the man yelling. I turned to CH and asked him what was said because I didn’t hear it clearly. I saw this man still looking at my husband angrily as he walked away. He was an older German man of fairly slight stature. We were instantly transported from our carefree day into a place neither of us wanted to be. How dare this man do this to us. How dare he verbally assault us this way. But he wasn’t really directing his anger toward me, only my husband. My white skin protected me from his scorn. That even made me more angry. Why would this man feel it was OK to call out another person like that in broad daylight in the middle of the street? After talking for a few minutes about how much the situation sucked, we both decided to “let it go” and continued on trying to enjoy our day. It kept nagging at me though. I couldn’t help but wonder if that could happen again at any time. I was now on guard.
What bothered me the most was that someone had tried to hurt my husband. That man doesn’t know how caring and loving my husband is. He doesn’t know how smart and successful he is. He doesn’t know that my husband is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. He didn’t even know that my husband is not African, not that it mattered. The fact is……that man knew nothing about my husband, except that he has darker skin.
I often hear on the news and in social media people saying that they are sick of hearing about race….wondering why people of color can’t just stop talking about it, thinking about it. What I have learned by being the caucasian wife of a black man is that when you aren’t white, society requires you to think about race. Not thinking about race can put you in questionable situations at best, dangerous situations at worst. You could be walking down the street with your wife in a fabulous new country and BAM! you are reminded that your race is a problem for some folks.
I certainly don’t think this bigoted man is representative of Germany. I met many wonderful Germans on our trip and overall we were treated very kindly. Racism and xenophobia know no borders. Something similar happened to CH in our neighborhood in the US a few years ago. We live in a nice upper middle class community that is more racially diverse than most and only 25 miles from from the center of liberalism, Berkeley, California. CH was out walking our little dog one night and a group of young white men drove by yelling, “Go Home N!#*$r!” I was blown away that something like that could happen in our neighborhood. It still breaks my heart. Just as on the street in Karlsruhe, I was shocked….shocked that it happened a block from our home and that young people in our community would do that to another human being. I was angry that my comfort in our neighborhood was being challenged. I was angry that someone would target a member of my family. I was hurt that the man I love was treated in such a degrading way. I was ashamed because people that I share a heritage with could be so cruel. I know that those young men in the car also aren’t representative of our community as a whole. That is important to keep in mind, but it still stings when such an ugly experience happens. To pretend that black people just bring race issues onto themselves and that if they only stopped thinking and talking about it, everything would be fine, is a lie.
So the world is imperfect….this is no revelation. We move on and don’t let others’ negativity determine our reality. I try to do what I can to be a good person and reflect the change I want to see. However, you can’t deny it leaves a mark. We are all a sum of the vast experiences imprinted on us. As humans we are fortunate when we are still net positive.