Let the last words between us remind you who you are

Der Künstler und Autor Isaiah Lopaz betreibt den Blog himnoir.com auf dem er einen offenen Dialog über Rassismus anstoßen will und somit auch Politik und Kultur verhandelt. Isaiah Lopaz wurde in Kalifornien geboren und lebt seit Jahren in Berlin. Die in Deutschland erlebten Vorurteile druckte er 2016 kurzerhand in großen Lettern auf weiße T-Shirts (die New York Times berichtete). Für SPACE hat er jetzt einen eigenen Text verfasst.

Der afroamerikanische Künstler Isaiah Lopaz trägt ein T-Shirt mit der Aufschrift: Where do you really come from

“I’ll kill you”, he repeated. The man behind the counter looked at me sympathetically, but did not move or speak. Moments later a woman with a French accent said softly, “Let it go.” Come here and be with me, I beckoned, sending a prayer to my ancestors. Kristof texted me seconds later: Thinking of you. Had I taken a longer walk, stuck to my plan, and picked up Jollof rice instead, this might not have happened. It’s easy to wander into the territory of what if, but housed within the archive of my Black consciousness, racial literacy informs me that encounters like these await us all. They cannot be escaped or avoided by making healthier decisions for dinner. “He’s a lot bigger than me. He probably could kill me. If he doesn’t kill me he could hurt me really badly. No one will try to stop him here. In Germany he could kill me and, my spirit looking on in the after life wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he got off Scott free, or maybe Sven free in this case.” Toggling between logic, emotion, and instinct I continued to access the situation. “I should have told him that I grew up in a household where I was beaten on a regular basis by a man who could have killed me. I should have asked him what killing me would prove. If it come to it, I would rather than die than be silent. When I have children I won’t be able to stand up for myself like this, because they will need me. I can’t die because I’m not willing to let a white man put his hands on me.”

Let’s start at the beginning. The restaurant was unusually crowded for a Sunday evening with only one way in and one way out. Like Mos Def or Yassin Bey in Alicia’s Keys’ “You don’t know my name”, I knew exactly what I wanted to order. He didn’t tap me on the shoulder as he approached, trying to make his way to the window where he was seated, he immediately pushed my right shoulder with his left hand. White Germans will tell you that Berliners are rude. Experience explains that these encounters, being reached over, bumped into, expected to constantly move out of the way others, having things snatched out of my hand like money and train tickets, that these moving violations have a very long history. “Can you say excuse me. I’m not an animal. If you want me to move, say excuse me. Don’t put your hands on me”, I blurted out. “Why did I say I’m not an animal”, I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t even push an animal out of my way?” He sighed, and put his hand on my shoulder again, this time shoving me with such force that I fell backwards, cushioned by the customers behind me. Like a school teacher, a police office, a soldier, or a plantation overseer he circled around me, got close to my face and said, “Behave yourself!” “You behave yourself”, I commanded. If I had doubted for a second what this exchange was rooted in, language, as usual was an oracle transmitting the law of the land, the ways of the world.

“Staying alive, might mean being silent, and in the future I might have more reasons to stay alive.”

In a racist social order, it is an infraction for the non-white subject to speak. In this moment speaking was more threatening than being thought of as in the way of a white man. That’s when he threatened me. “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you.” In a public place he had threatened to kill me, because I had asked, no expected, him to treat me like a human being. The thought that preceded his touch, was one that I told him that I was an object, subject to his will. Nothing more, but perhaps a lot less, and so it must have been a shock that I not only spoke, but in revealing my ability to speak, I challenged his view of the world and his view of himself. Later, I heard the woman sitting next to him exclaim, “He was right.” There were no curly fries when I finally made my way to the counter. My body, indicating that it was again my ally even though I was willing to betray it, had stopped shaking. When I left the restaurant, I noticed that he was gone. On the way to Senegambia, I saw police cars here and there. A protest march had just ended. What were they fighting for today, I asked myself while waiting for my order. I ate Jollof rice for dinner and asked me how this particular racist incident, not necessarily more violent than the others, might effect my life. “Staying alive, might mean being silent, and in the future I might have more reasons to stay alive.” My perception of reality snapped backwards, hitting me in the face with an electric shock. “They will kill you for speaking. They will kill you for laughing. They will kill you for being silent. You are not in control of what happens to this body. All that you have is your integrity, and your words, your ability to speak for yourself are an extension of this most precious, most vital force.”

T-Shirt mit der Aufschrift: "I'm having a party - can you bring african food?"

“Where are your parents from?”

We woke up almost at the same time trying to avoid thinking about the inevitable. It was an unexpected holiday affair. There was a Clark Kent Superman shift that occurred when he wasn’t wearing his glasses. A week of waking up together hadn’t dulled this effect. Without his glasses he was something, someone else. What am I doing here? It’s a question I often ask myself when waking up in bed next to someone else. He asked me what I wanted. I don’t know. He clumsily told me the story of two friends who were in a de facto open relationship and explained that he didn’t want to… be made a fool of? Okay, that makes sense. I don’t want to disrespect you but August is a long way aways. In the same breath he cautioned that it was much too early to be speaking about these things. Seesawing between agreements, my left brain queried “How is this going to work?” The problem was this: I had presented myself as a teacher from the beginning. Why had I done that? There was something about him that I liked, and I guess I’m still learning that liking someone should never involve contorting yourself into shapes that you can’t or are unwilling to maintain indefinitely or for the foreseeable future. Thirty-eight years on this planet, but by and by, I hope to get there. It should have been over when he asked, “Where are your parents from?” It didn’t, however, end there.

T-Shirt mit der Aufschrift: "I've never had sex with a black guy before"

"Every long term relationship that I’ve had with a white man has been littered with various forms of racism."

Every long term relationship that I’ve had with a white man has been littered with various forms of racism. There was the Brit who wanted a strong, Mandingo warrior, and was disappointed that he could not dial up sexual desire the way you dial up dim sum from Deliveroo. The German punk turned IT specialist was more subtle, but his assaults weren’t any less scathing. “I’m not responsible for the things my family says. What time do you wake up tomorrow. I’m going to come with a cab to bring your things. It’s over.” No, Clark Kent, didn’t seem to be violent like he rest but I recognized that he liked his theory of me, and not the practice that I’ve developed of trying to be myself. It isn’t as effortless as I would like it to be, except when it is. Three days ago, whatever this could have been, fell apart, for many reasons. Some of the broken pieces strewn between Berlin and Brussels included my doubts and fears about moving forward with Mister Kent. Like Oprah’s Miss Sophia, I explained in my own words my struggles. “In my life I’ve always had to make myself smaller.” Sure, today he admires the work that I do, my investment in telling the stories of People of Black African descent, the lectures, the panel discussions, and the workshops that I organize on race and racism. The buck or euro always stop short when friends, family members, colleagues, and even strangers who are white, meet the might of my unapologetic, unbothered critiques of their racism. In ghosts of relationships past, I observe myself as an apparition, floating through racist encounters in the company of insignificant others who often appear incompetent when it came time to apply their anti-racist views.

You are a sweet man”, he texted several times, and each time I read and received these texts, I reminded myself that I can be sweet because I am learning how to protect myself and to set boundaries. When I explained all of this to him, he replied with a message that meandered through the values of a racist/white supremacist society. The ones that good white people wind up like little toy soldiers in conversations about race, which go die in a potter’s grave of misdirected mores. “Actually I don’t really think about you being Black”, “You just have to be patient”, “It’s not the same, but as a gay man it can also happen that I encounter violence”, “Reading Americanah, I realize that we are really the same, we all want the same things.” This twenty minute voice message was a response to an epic text that I sent him where I expressed that being with him, that being together would mean that I would have to be a different person. He of course didn’t understand that knowing what I know, and being who I am, coupled with all of the things that he has yet to consider sets me back when I have worked so hard to move forward, to unlearn, to rediscover, to challenge, to express, to research, to believe, to act, to speak. Of all of the things that he said in this particular message, what knocked the wind out of me was the comment that he made about being gay.

T-Shirt mit der Aufschrift: "I'm black - I can't be racist"

By now I should, a word that I avoid using because in it’s very nature it indicates the possibility of doing just the opposite or failing to take action at all, be accustomed to white women and white gay men doing the best they can to leverage conversations about race and racism in their favor by calling on gender and sexuality to say, “We too have been marginalized, silenced, abused, and oppressed.” Why was I so hurt that Mister Kent had gone there. You know what bothered me? It was the expectation, the imagination that he would, no he should (self forgive me) know better. So, it was a relief to see a meme on Facebook featuring a quote by Seth McFarlane shortly before I shut my laptop off to prepare for bed. “I Aint Too Bright At All So Perhaps You Would Be Kind Enough To Explain To Me Precisely How Refusing To Serve A Gay Person Differs From Refusing To Serve A Black Person.” It’s supposed to be witty, to be challenging, and in some ways commanding. Explain the logic of refusing to serve a gay (white person), when in this day and age you cannot (um, you shouldn’t) refuse to serve a Black person. If Mr. McFarlane had conceived of a world where Black people are gay, where we chart ourselves along LGBTQIA spectrums, or we define our sexualities and gender identities in ways that we have done both before and after colonialism, the zinger, the punchline of this post would not in any way, make sense.

"I want to come home to relationships where I do not have to teach others (white people) about the social realities of race."

At 01:06 in the morning I took a photo of this said meme and sent it to Mister Kent. The photo was followed by a seven minute voice message where I explained to him that I too am gay, and therefore susceptible to all forms of homophobia. That I can be attacked for being both gay and Black. That I consistently have to deal with racism in gay/queer spaces, and that I am vulnerable to homophobia in several other spheres. “Explaining all of this takes me away from myself. It demands patience. It demands that I teach you, and I don’t have the room or the capacity to do this. I want to come home to relationships where I do not have to teach others (white people) about the social realities of race.” A white friend explained to me the other day that the process of deconstructing the racisms that white people have been socialized to practice, is a journey that is not linear. This is, perhaps, something for me to meditate on, but at the same time, I know that it cannot be a Sisyphusian task that I carry out in my relationships with white people, be they friends, lovers, or strangers. It’s important to stress that I am not exclusively interested in dating white men. Coming from a multicultural, multiethnic lineage, it makes sense that you love who you love and in a world without race, racism would not be one of the challenges that we would face in intercultural matches. Because we do live in a world where race and racism impact our individual and collective experiences, if I date a white man I cannot cut out my tongue to be with him.

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