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Monday, January 23, 2012

the silence of our friends

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars- Martin Luther King Jr.

We had just left the opera held at the underwater bar. There was a round of singing remaining but there was also impatience among the group. We walked to the stage and saw that the bus we were to take was  seven minutes away. Now seven minutes is a long time to wait for a bus at 11 at night when the temperature is below zero. We're not quite used to the sun setting at 4 so my body thinks its 1 am and am only kept awake by that which I wish to escape, the bracing cold. And to keep each other alive we exchanged barbs and made fun of the weakest and wrongest among us.

The bus came and for some reason we all piled into the front. Some of the buses in Norway have a seat that's just for one person, these seats are huge, couch~like but there's no partition and in a country where personal space and distance is paramount this is an obvious invitation not to share. I sat down on one of these seats as they were all that were left and one of my companions sat on the one behind me.

We were in a good mood, laughing and talking, there was happiness inside all of us, happiness at being in Europe, happiness at just having watched the opera in a bar, happiness at finally understanding how the bus system worked and not needing anyone in order to get anywhere.

Then this man appeared, when I think about it am not sure if he was on the bus the whole time or just got on at a stage nearby, maybe he was just shrouded by our happiness and the mist was dispelled by my curiosity in him. First of all he had a dog, I notice dogs. I see them everywhere, I have hate in my hearts for the cousins of the beast that bit me and fear in my soul that it could happen again, am not sure what breed this was{the only breed they fall into for me is bitches and sons of bitches} it was black and shaggy and big enough that a bite would hurt. But its owner had a firm grip on it.

On his grip he had these exquisite leather gloves, they had groves in them and they looked expensive. He looked to be in his fifties, with hair flowing down to his neck, and he was drunk. He was so drunk the dog was being used as a pillar of support so that he wouldn't come crashing down. And when a man uses a leash as a pillar of support you have to wonder what he had been drinking and when he takes his dog along for company at a bar you have to wonder where he had been drinking that allows this. He also looked rich. The average Norwegian makes a lot of money because they have to spend a lot of money so when you see a Norwegian who looks richer than the average he's probably minting  money like chewing gum.

The man spoke to me in Norwegian indicating his dog.

I can't understand Norwegian and I let him know that I couldn't, most people in Norway can speak English and will if you let them know that's all you understand. So I  smiled and listened because an open countenance is important to me.

“you can't speak Norwegian? Why.”
“I’ve only been here for ten days.”

then he said something to the effect that it was crazy to be in Norway and not speak Norwegian, as he said it he tapped his head in the universal signal for looniness.

I haven't mentioned yet but he was white. In many interactions between a black and white person racism can be construed. Prepare for it. I was told but I didn't listen because I didn’t want to prepare for it. If you put yourself on guard for these things you will find them everywhere. You will find them in the hesitations before people give you directions, you will find them in the hostility you encounter on a night out on town, you will find them in looks not meant for you but the person behind you and you will find them in the hand gestures of old rich men on buses. I had determined for myself that I wouldn't be on guard for racism that I wouldn't expect it or look for it. That a lot of the instances I could chalk down as racism could as easily be explained as someone having a bad day, or being naturally shy, distrustful or drunk.


well, now I wasn't misconstruing things any more. I was in the middle of my first racist encounter. I have always had a very mind over matter based attitude to this word. This word that has been used to derogatively describe people of African origin for centuries. This word that coming out of a white mouth in sincerity screams racism more overtly than the most obvious policies. I told myself it didn't apply to me. I considered the history of the word and the fact that it had been used on African American slaves and that the children of these slaves probably carry a cultural memory attached to it. I told myself I wasn't African American, this was not a word that applied to me so it didn't matter. Not that  I wanted it used against blacks but that it was meant for other types of blacks. This opinion had been informed by the debate during the presidential race of America in two thousand eight when there was a cadre of blacks who said Obama wasn't black enough since he didn't carry in him the cultural stains of having ancestors mistreated and misused by the white man for centuries and centuries, some said he wasn't black in the sense of the African American, there was no cultural or genetic history of being mistreated. Paradoxically it took reading his book for me to finally understand what it can mean to be a black man in America, to understand the feelings of inferiority that are put on you by the culture of the place and by its history. It took reading his book to realise that cries for reparation are not the lamentations of the lazy but whispers of the wronged.

He held up his middle finger and pointed this black leather glove at us.

Intellectualism and the argument it provides are never solace for the soul or a balm for the burned, they are mind exercises that work in theory. This was the first time I heard the word meant and I was shocked. I didn't expect it to happen, to happen here in Norway, you'll be fine I had told myself but I wasn't. I was angry and unable to do anything about it. The shock wore off and was replaced by anger, I put my gloves back on my fists, slowly, deliberately, angrily. I am not sure why I did this but I imagine it looked menacing like action was about to be taken

what do you do when you are called nigger in 2 weeks in a foreign country?

I wasn't prepared for it. A lot of my life I have believed in the overwhelming power of words, to mend, to destroy, to break and rebuild. Words are more than just sounds, they are associations to all the other things that combination means and the word nigger is disabling. I wanted to pound him, my fists were in gloves, I wouldn't get really hurt. But at the same time he was Norwegian and I wasn't. Even the most fair judicial system in the world is skewed towards protecting its own citizens first. He had a dog, a dog that obeyed him. But all these are excuses and not reasons for my lack of action.

All this time he continued to insult using Norwegian

Its difficult even now to explain the reasons. The whole group of people I was with, who were also participating in the program went silent. A black mood descended on us and we weren't speaking. The power of this word is amazing, its not some kind of curse or placebo effect that's only strong because you make it strong, I had convinced myself that it wasn’t strong for me, that it was weak and wouldn't affect me but it did. It made me sit there and be quiet, sadly quiet, cowardly quiet. And the truth is nothing in the world can prepare you for this, no matter what. Especially when its so open.

After a while I determined that this was not going to ruin my night, I talked to my friends and told them in the same loud voice that I had been using the whole night that we couldn’t just sit there and allow what had happened affect and decide our whole night, we had to keep talking, we had to keep laughing, we had to diss him back and so we did. Before we left the bus I stood and stared at him in the eye. I don't know why, but it had something to do with dignity and showing him I wasn't going to bow my head. I looked him square for a full minute and am not sure if he continued being racist or not, am not sure if he talked or if the whole world shut off its volume am only sure that for that minute all that mattered was the stare I locked him in. then we got off at our stop.

Everyone else on the bus looked off into the distance like nothing was happening.

There is a famous Norwegian politeness, that at that moment felt like Norwegian coldness. They can be chilly as their weather. They can pass you in the street without saying hi, but that’s OK. It also means that when a confrontation like the one that was happening is going on they can look off into the distance and not move a muscle, not get involved. This hurt too. Their racial openness and immigration policies are things that Norwegians are proud about. But what does it mean if its only passive support and that as soon as something happens you lock up and act like it isn't. They were so good at this they may have been deaf. All this made me think of the program I was involved in, cultural awareness through exchange is the summary. But we have all given up on the old racists haven't we? In Norway if you are past a certain age you can say nigger because you come from a different generation and it won't be a crime. So for the old racists we are just waiting for them to die. Cultural awareness is for the young people, who are ignorant and not hateful. But they have to  be willing to engage in things like this. The people on the bus were not.

Many countries have a date that they remember for an act of terrorism, September 11 in America, July seven in Britain, august eighth in Kenya. Here its July 22nd. Something that happened not a year passed. When a white Norwegian national bombed a government building and went to a youth camp to shoot up the youngsters while dressed in a police uniform. He was protesting immigration policies, he was racist. so he struck back at the society that allowed integration. Very few other nations know first hand and so recently the dangers of fostering hate. And so they are careful. My Norwegian friends told me that only crazy people talk to other people on buses here. This is probably true. It would be a sin to let that one man and that singular experience colour the rest of my stay here.

But the anger was there. It's hard to focus hatred and I finally understood the martin Luther king jr. quote this started with. It is very easy to give in to hate, to violence and rage, they are the easiest of the emotions but they achieve nothing except more hate violence and rage. So on the other side of this  won't change I’ll still engage people in conversations in buses if they look friendly because in the end allowing it to change you is the worst loss there is.

The next day I was talking to one of the Norwegian participants of the program, a white girl who had travelled to Angola some time before. I couldn't imagine that she would be able to relate to what had happened to me, that she could have had any experience or expectation that prepared empathy. But. While she was in Angola, walking down a street minding her own business,

someone yelled out, “PUTA.”

This is the Portuguese word for whore. There were other girls walking down the street and the man didn't want his insult coated by confusion so he yelled out,


immigrant whore. For no other reason than that she was white someone yelled this out. And the people on the street did nothing about it, our famous African hospitality did nothing to help, our natural inquisitiveness into the lives of other people, our instinct to help did no more to serve her than Norwegian politeness. She felt small like I did, she felt that maybe the society she was in covertly supported such hate.

This is the idea that people carry in their heads about societies that don't speak up. Edmund Burke once said that all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing. Its true. Evil prevails and hate grows when the weak and the alone are not defended. So do something If you feel that what's happening is not representative of your society. Only the loud are ever heard and only those heard are ever remembered.

in the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends-Martin Luther King Jr.


  1. This is one of your 'I was here' posts ... because I can't think of anything else to say. I probably will, later, once it has ruminated and settled in my mind. Then it'll probably be enough to fill a post of my own. But for now, I was here.

  2. When evil is done at my pals from other lands, I'll speak up; spit my mind and not let evil prevail. Even in the local scene, don't let tribalism to be a pivot of everything. We are all ONE.
    Sorry from your experience, nonetheless, it made you stronger ;-)

    1. thanks and speak up do, another martin luther king quote that recently came to my attention, "in the end we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends"