Foreign House: Seventeen

FRIDAY

The training continues and we learn more about the power structures which make white people racist. We learn about white fragility: the way white people are apparently unable to talk about racism, despite them being the people who never seem to shut up about it. We learn about the difference between not-racist and anti-racism: but I must have missed something because anti-racism sounds like racism to me. We learn about the pyramid of racist activity. The thin point at the top representing the least frequent, but most impactful incidents of racism, such as genocide. The fatter base of the pyramid representing incidents that happen more frequently, but with less impact, such as microaggressions. Sally tells us these contribute to continuous racial trauma.

Finally, to prove the theory, she shows slides of some recent examples of racism that have been in the media. Police brutality, stop-and-search statistics, the Kenosha shootings. I’m sure I heard some of these had been debunked, but I can’t be sure. I stopped watching the news after 2016. But Cindy reads articles out loud to me from Vice and other lefty sites. Things about genocides in China and Burma. Something about Yazidi Christians too. I don’t know if they’re true – but there’s no mention of them today, which seems strange since Sally has included examples from America. 

A few questions get asked throughout. But only clarifications and complementary anecdotes. Nobody challenges anything they’ve heard. Sally announces a coffee break followed by an open discussion. 

This time I just get water. And this time it doesn’t feel like I have to avoid anyone. Everyone seems to subtly adjust their bodies so that it would be unnatural to start a conversation with them.

When we sit down again, Sally says that she wants to begin a conversation about our experiences of racism at work and what we can do to improve DIE in the workplace. 

One of the girls from the UX team, I think she is called Amber, says that she has seen what she thinks was a microaggression, this weekend. Someone asked Yu Lee, “where do you come from?” 

“That’s a very common microaggression,” says Sally. “Yu Lee, how did that make you feel?”

Yu Lee shrugs, “I didn’t really think about it.” 

“That’s probably because you’ve developed a system of resilience for dealing with racial trauma,” says Sally, “But that doesn’t prevent it from being damaging.”

“Or maybe it wasn’t a microaggression,” I say. I try to sound neutral but I sound patronising. There’s no way to make these interventions without sounding like you’re being reactionary, rather than genuinely concerned. “Yu Lee, where are you from, buddy?”

“Singapore,” he says, evenly, before anyone can stop my microaggression. 

“Singapore,” I repeat. “Maybe someone was just curious about where he came from. Maybe the question was intended to gain understanding and invite someone to share their background. Not to exclude them or other them.” 

“But if Yu Lee was white, he wouldn’t have been asked that question,” says Sally slowly. 

“If he was white but still had an accent he would.”

“Then that would also be a microaggression,” says Sally. “Accents can…”  

“No. It would just be curiosity.” I interrupt. 

“But it’s not the intention that’s important,” says Sally. “It’s the lived experience the person of colour that matters.” 

“Your projecting the lived experience,” I say. 

Sally takes a breath. “Do you think that you are displaying any symptoms of white fragility?” she asks, with genuine sympathy. 

“Me?” 

“Yes.” 

“I’m black,” I say. A hidden camera team will surely reveal themselves at any moment. 

“You don’t have to be white to be invested in, and unintentionally supporting, the systematic…” 

I feel lightheaded for a moment. Noise in my eyes. Something sharp and metallic behind my eyeballs. I raise my fingers to my temples and rub. Force my eyes open as if fighting against a bright light. 

A scene flashes in front of my eyes, colours dulled as if on the other side of thick aquarium glass. My colleagues look slack and gormless in their seats. The creamy white figures are suddenly stood on the round tables. Their mouths against the mouths of my limp colleagues. Their heads moving in a pumping motion, as if feeding. They all have a figure attached to their faces. Except Ashley, who continues to look at me with her empty stare. A small white figure stood by her side. One of the figures pulls its face away from Yu Lee. A long, black tongue slides out of Lee’s throat. The tongue is toothed down its edges. Little chunks of bloody oesophagus flesh stuck between the spikes. The tongue wraps up into the white figure’s mouth. Then it turns to me. 

“Does that make sense?” asks Sally. The vision is gone. Everything is as it was a few seconds ago. Ozzy is looking at me, concerned.

“Yes of course,” I say. “Just playing devil’s advocate. Don’t let me hog the Q&A, Sally. The team must have other questions.” 

Someone suggests an anonymous way to report microaggressions. No one wonders if this could be used maliciously. Most of the group just seems to be waiting for the session to end. Sally wraps it up and Ozzy tells us where to be for dinner.

The delegates don’t hang around for any non-mandatory socialising. The first thing they all do, instinctively, is pull out their phones. Then one by one they sigh as they remember that there is no internet connection. 

But my phone does rumble. I take it out. An SMS. Two SMS. My phone briefly shows one bar of classic, 1G GSM signal before fading away. 

I excuse myself, explaining the text and saying I am going to see if I can catch a bar of signal outside. Ozzy smiles and says it’s fine, but adds that we will, “catch up later”. 

The hotel lobby is empty again. I pass through the porch and into the reception courtyard. I raise my hand against the snow-shine until my eyes adjust. The snow is going nowhere fast. It crunches under my feet. A shell of ice over unevenly packed snow. The texture of a poorly baked macaroon. Sometimes it supports your foot, sometimes it gives way, leaving a jagged footprint. 

The first text from Lara simply asks if I got her WhatsApp. I’ve not been showing online. The second SMS is longer. It looks like three messages. It seems to be downloaded in a muddled way to my phone. Lana is saying that Maya has been asking if I am OK and have I been texting her. But then it breaks into nonsense characters. The bottom of the message offers to load more but when it click the invite it doesn’t load.

I write out a text explaining how bad the phone signal is and that I haven’t spoken to Maya. I walk into the carpark, waving my phone above my head until it sends the text. Attached to one of the large, timber plant pots is a orienteering marker. That definitely wasn’t on the map. The text sends. 

I can feel a gentle pressure coming from the rear of the hotel. 

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