June 16, 2020

The language of racism

A Black Lives Matter Essay by Angelina Bergenwall

Words Angelina Bergenwall

Photography Angelina Bergenwall

It is with a sense of stillness and hopelessness that I write this, I see it all unfold and almost collapse. But my eyes have been witness to this before. It is almost like a reflex, the quick and decisive notion that the feeling I might have is futile.

The language of racism struck me several times before I understood it. And before I understood it I felt shame and confusion, like I was to blame for the color of my skin.

First I understood racism at the choir. A hand on my hair out from nowhere, most often gentle, telling me that I had such beautiful hair. Your parents must come from another place, and it must be so lovely.

I understood racism at middle school. My fellow classmates, asking me and the only other black kid at school. What is exactly is a mulatto, and if so, was I one? Would I ever return to Africa, a place I had then never visited, and that was as alien to me as it was to them.

I understood racism in high school. When my best friend said my fathers food was strange and how she slowly but surely started to spend more time at other people’s houses and less at mine.

I understood racism on my own street. In the white neighbourhood where opinions where progressive and no one was a racist but somehow no one who lived there was black. Where the local pizzeria owned by the local middle eastern was bought up, the placed fixed up and suddenly the owner was white and the prices rising.

I understood racism in the city. Where Swedish people approached me and spoke English asking for directions.

I understood racism on other streets. In my car, a man outside making sounds like a monkey repeating that I don’t speak his language properly, that I couldn’t speak my mother tongue.

As an young adult I finally understood racism when my mother told me that once I had my fathers Arabic family name. We changed it to my mom’s when I was two, simply because my father had trouble getting a job. She thought it was beautiful, but sometimes beauty fades in the face of reality. My father nodded, not saying anything and continued to work, because for him there’s no opportunity to be nostalgic. For him there was only pragmatism, we could not afford any other feeling.

And yet, today, I do not understand racism. Not fully. But I know it’s there and have been walking beside me for a long, long time and the longer it’s my companion, the more I understand.

Now, what I am feeling is my experience, and they are all different. And some experiences you have seen, some you have not. Some racial slurs you’v heard, some you haven’t. Perhaps you’ve heard about the arrest in your neighbourhood but didn’t hear the job interviewer scratch a foreign sounding name from potential candidates. He’s not a racist, but he didn’t want to upset his boss. We don’t know how many times this happened, or what it felt like. But we know they all go by the same name. I’ll give you a guess, it starts with an R.

Languages are difficult that way, we think we fully understand but with a greater understanding comes a greater complexity. And slowly, we see that it is real, difficult and almost overwhelming. Can we truly grasp it? The language of racism can it be deconstructed, understood on more levels? Possibly truly learned by more people than just the ones that heard it all their lives?

And what I have felt throughout my life is reawakened, and I fear. But there’s still a small thing in me that has begun to feel something else.

I think it is hope.