The following is a draft passage from Lindsey’s upcoming book, Unlearning Racism. To engage with this work and give feedback as it evolves, you can hop into our Unlearning Racism Book Club. And, feel free to leave your thoughts and reflections in the comments below!
I’m 17 years old and I’m standing at the airport check-in counter in Xela, Guatemala. It had been a devastating Summer of growth. Viewing my country through the lens of my teachers, Madre-de-casa, and the women who’s latrines we’d spent the Summer building had shattered what little remained of my belief in my country as the land of the brave and the free. But still, when I found myself in line in front of the kind-faced, wiry woman who had just divulged to me by accent and in word her South Africaness I took barely a breath before stiffly shutting down the conversation and curtly turning my back on her.
You see, I’d grown up in the era of Mandela and the movie, Sarafina. Watching the news with my parents across the top of my peas and meatloaf I learned two things, Afrikaaner was a synonym for Aparthaid, and white South African people were Afrikaaner.
Shuffling through the airport security check while congratulating myself for swiftly ending the conversation I made my way to what appeared to be another checkpoint, and the only thing separating me from the last minute souvenir shopping I committed to doing because I’d left gift buying too late. Lost in my own mind, it took more than a moment for me to interpret the security guard across from me and to realize the predicament I was in.
Apparently there was a visa fee that needed to be paid to exit Guatemala. That fee needed to be paid in Guatemalan currency. And I did not have enough in my wallet to pay it.
Suddenly wishing I’d paid way more attention in my Spanish immersion classes, and feeling the sense of panic rise up in my chest, I attempted to explain my predicament to the uninterested guard who seemed but moments away from waving me aside and leaving me stranded in the limbo between two countries.
And then she was there.
Although still encased in that high-lilting, abrupt South-African tone, her Spanish was impeccable. I watched side-eyed as the guards face softened and she produced from her wallet the money I needed and with it my quickly evaporating sense of dread. She smiled and winked at me as the guard stamped both our passports and ushered us through the checkpoint.
I thanked her, and asked if she would walk with me to find an ATM so I could repay her. She smiled and said she had a better idea.
Sitting across from one another, the smell of hot chocolate laced with chile pepper, simultaneously softening and emboldening me, I laid out my cards. “I don’t understand,” I told her. “I thought all white South-African people hated Black people?”
“Many do,” she said.
“But you don’t?”
“I don’t,” she replied matter-of-factly.
I must have made a face because she laughed aloud. (Like most Black women I know, we communicate 70% of what we are saying or not saying with our face)
“You’re right. It’s not that simple. Let me try to explain. I grew up in a time when it was normal to teach your Afrikaner children to hate Black children, Indian children, Muslim children… basically anyone who wasn’t like us. It was in everything, the stories we told, the songs we sang, everything had this barely hidden message that Afrikaner was better, was right. But then I went to college and I met people who were different than me, and had been exposed to things I hadn’t, and eventually I also became a protester fighting against apartheid.” She paused and looked down into her hot chocolate as if the words she was seeking would bubble up like one of those magic 8 balls I played with as a kid.
“But as I grew older, I realized it wasn’t just enough to be anti-apartheid and to fight in the streets with my friends to be cool. I realized that I had to be anti everything I had been taught from birth onward. I had to do more than protest in the streets. I had to protest every day in my heart and mind”
We chatted for hours, one cup of hot chocolate turning into three or four. She was a nun now, and had spent her life traveling throughout Central America as an aide worker.
I was too young then to know then what a profound moment I’d just experienced, but I knew as I watched her stroll away down the airport corridor, long salt and pepper hair trailing down her back, that I had just met a good person, who had been taught racism, who then taught herself a practice to unlearn racism.
To engage with Unlearning Racism and give feedback as it evolves, you can join the Unlearning Racism Book Club.
And, feel free to leave your thoughts and reflections in the comments below!