Wow. Racism sucks. I have a really white face and hair that is red in the bright sun, so I stand out pretty much anywhere other than Northern Europe. Even in Germany most people assume I am Irish.
I’ve experienced people singling me out because of my skin colour before, so it doesn’t come as a big surprise to me. The most extreme example was Indonesia, where many people would assume I was a superstar, because their only frame of reference for white people was what they saw on TV.
People would take sneak photographs of me. At the ancient Buddhist temples of Borobudur I was the main attraction, along with my Swedish friend whom I’d met in Jakarta. After we agreed to let one person have their picture taken with us, everyone wanted to join in. Before long we had 30-40 people sitting with us in a mass photo session. There were still people chasing after us, pointing at their camera, after we decided to leave and practically run from the place.
This afternoon I walked out into Madaba, a small town just outside of Amman, Jordan, famous for it’s ancient Mosaic in the Church of St. George, which portrays the region as it was about two thousand years ago, when it was created. It’s also famous for being the Christian capital of Jordan, with Christians making up about 40% of the population.
The guy who my hotel sent to collect me at the airport was a Muslim. Sign posts on the way from the airport directing traffic to the Iraqi border reminded me of just how close I was to an international trouble spot. The news was filled with images of Gaza erupting.
My taxi driver, however, was bursting with pride at the fact that in his town of Madaba, people were extremely tolerant of each other. “Christian, Muslim, it doesn’t matter, we are all Jordanians. We would die for each other.” Along with all the friendliness of everyone I’d met so far, I was starting to warm to the place.
Then I left the hotel for my first walk into the city. Someone had already passed by in a car and honked their horn, most likely at me I guessed. I then passed a scruffy pair of teenagers. As soon as they were past me, I heard one of them shout back “Fuck you!”
It was angry too, not the sometimes misspoken line from a film, or a phrase where the speaker doesn’t understand the full meaning of it. I heard his friend say something, and it was hushed, and reprimanding, like he might have been telling him off. Jesus, did I feel now that I stood out like a sore thumb.
I felt very out of place, and very uncomfortable after that, and it was really a nothing event. I was the only Westerner around. People were looking at me. Cars honked their horns, and people shouted out to me.
In truth, I think it was all meant with good intentions. Everyone who spoke to me after that said the same thing “hello”, “hi”, “welcome”, “ahlan wa sahlan”. And when I replied, they smiled. Maybe the guy who shouted fuck you had also said hello, and I’d ignored him. I wasn’t expecting attention, nor looking at him, so it’s possible. It doesn’t excuse him, though.
It made me feel extremely self-conscious, and I much prefer to be anonymous about town. In a way it’s good to get a perspective of the effects of racism, because as a white person I never experience it. If the smallest negativity from another person based on my race, when I am a minority, makes me feel like that, I’d hate to have to put up with some real nastiness on a regular basis.
It could be worse. I was reading about a guy who was teaching in a town in Sudan near Darfur, whose white face was such a shock to people that he once almost caused a car crash, when someone saw him, dropped his shopping on the floor, and staggered back into the busy main road.