Sunday, July 21, 2013

Something to talk about, a Story to tell...

The Outcome, if you so choose it.

This is a true story. For what that’s worth, and what difference that makes, is anyone’s guess.

The World is a strange place, populated mostly by strangers and strange people.

This is not a perfect world. It is the world we have – often devoid of reason and empathy; a world without solidarity; an unfair, often cruel world.

It is not a perfect world, but it is the world we have.

Before, I launch into my story, some perspective might be important. The thoughts that follow are mine and mine alone. I would not dare speak for anyone else.

 This story took place in one of the safest Cities in Canada; a city with one of the lowest crime rates in the country; a city which had only one homicide in the 10 years I lived there; assaults, robberies and other violent crimes were almost negligible; a city where the unemployment rate even in the midst of the great recession has never gone above 5%.

By every metric, it was a safe and wonderful city. I was proud to call it home.

In the summer of 2004, which I know logically was a long time ago, but can’t help feel was only yesterday, I was in the middle of a growth spurt. Smack-dab in the middle of that exciting, nerve-wracking time called puberty. I had gone from 5’2 to 5’9 almost overnight, it seemed. I still had the skinny frame and boyish face because, well, I was still a boy. I was 15 – and harmless.

I had just finished working the closing shift at my part-time job at a fast-food restaurant. It wasn’t particularly late, it must have been 10 or thereabouts. I walked to the bus shelter directly in front of the restaurant to wait for the bus that would carry me home. It had been a long day and I was tired. I decided I would sit in the shelter – an entirely uncontroversial decision.

There was a middle-aged woman already waiting there. She was sitting on the bench in the shelter as well.  I nodded politely and took the seat beside her. She was white, but for the purposes of this story, it doesn’t really matter. It would likely have happened the same way.

From the corner of my eye, I could see the lady fidgeting and looking at her watch. Within two minutes of my arriving there, she walked out of the shelter and began making her way down the block. She didn’t look back. I tried to point out to her that the bus wouldn’t be more than 5 minutes, but she was gone before I could say a word. She might have set a world record for the half-block dash, she was that fast.

The whole thing was strange, but I didn’t dwell on it. Not more than 5 minutes after she left, the bus arrived. I took the bus, happy to return home. At the stop directly after the one where I had been waiting for the bus, there was a passenger.
When the passenger entered, I noticed it was the same lady who had been waiting at the bus stop with me. I must have had a puzzled look on my face because she quickly averted her gaze and sat as far away from me as she could.

What to make of what had just happened? It didn’t make sense. Why did she do what she did? As far as I was concerned, I was just a child. She had no reason to be afraid of me. I was harmless. She outweighed me, but that didn’t matter. There was no logic, reason or empathy in her reaction, but this is not a perfect world.

The insidious thing about this incident was that I wasn’t sure what had happened. I still am not, all these years later. My first instinct was to rationalize away her behaviour. What other option did I have? Who wants to walk around knowing some people would rather take the risk of missing a bus than wait at a bus shelter with you for 5 minutes?

A kind of psychological violence had been waged upon me. That feeling of disquiet, of lingering unease would stay with me for the rest of the bus ride.

This was the first time I had been a victim of this kind of microagression. It would not be the last. Every time something like this happens – getting stopped “randomly” by police; little old ladies crossing the street when they see you walking towards them; being in elevators – don’t get me started about elevator, every time this happens, it steals a little bit of your soul. It is not the better because the violence isn’t physical.

The effects still run deep. It forces upon you, sometimes at far too young an age hyper self-awareness.

You look at yourself – what was I wearing? What was I doing? How was I acting?
I don’t think I’m alone in this. Every incident forces you to police yourself, to be wary and aware of how people view you. It forces you to constantly have to step outside yourself, see how the rest of the world views you and then step back into yourself. WEB DuBois called it double consciousness, and I can tell you it’s exhausting.  But such is our world – it is not a perfect world.

I’ve lived in Canada for more than half my life, and I still consider myself Sierra Leonean first. It’s not for a lack of wanting, either. When there are people who consciously or subconsciously seek to deny you your humanity, much less your Canadian identity, it’s hard to ever feel truly at home. No matter how far you go, no matter your accomplishments, all it takes is one such incident and you’re right back to being that 15 year old boy, puzzled and confused at the consequences of your changing body.

How does this story end? It doesn’t. I learned a valuable lesson; one I knew theoretically, but had now experienced. I had learned of the great divide – people like me on one side, and everyone else on the opposing side.

This wouldn’t be the last time it happened, and fortunately for me, I had developed a strong sense of self-worth thanks to my family.

I had no choice but to beat ceaselessly on. The alternative would be to give in-to anger or despair. That would do no good, so you continue, you strive, you dream of a better world, a dream so large and impossible, that you have no choice but to reach out and grab its incorporeal form, all the while ignoring the reality that for some people, this is already a perfect world.

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