If you’re not a person of color, please read this.

Twenty-nine years ago, an amateur videographer stood on his balcony and used his camcorder to videotape an unarmed black man being brutally beaten by Los Angeles police. This video was one of the earliest video-taped evidence of modern-day police brutality against unarmed people of color in America.

These are photos of the man – Rodney Glen King – three days after the beating. He had a broken leg, a bruised, swollen and cut face, and a burn on his chest from a 50,000-volt stun gun.

This was 29 years ago.

During the same month, a 15-year-old African-American girl named Latasha Harlins was shot and killed by a store-owner after being suspected of trying to steal orange juice. It was later discovered that Latasha had intended to pay for the juice and was holding the cash in hand when she was shot. The killing was caught in a grainy security footage.

The store owner was charged with a $500 fine and probation. The four officers involved in King’s beating were tried but all were acquitted. Less than three hours after the verdict was announced, unrest began, a rallying cry turned into the 1992 LA riots – 6 days of protests, looting, fires and destruction.

This was 29 years ago. Today, African American youth protesting the same injustice likely know little about Rodney King and Latasha Harlins. But, here they are, fighting the same fight, because the generation before them failed to care.

Only after a closer look are you able to tell that these two photos are almost two decades apart.

April 1992 vs. 5 days ago. Photo sources here and here.

Twenty-nine years is a long time. I was six years old then, living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. An African dreaming about a life in the great America, the land of opportunities. Opportunities I’d enjoy because of the strong, beautiful black people who’d come before me, whose fruits of labor I proudly consider myself to be. But six-year-old me was naive and oblivious to the repeated horror I would witness against people my color. Against young men who could easily be my own brother. Even more horrifying – that even after the recurrent trauma of viewing evidence of racism in its flesh and bone, no real change would ever come.

Tamir Rice wasn’t even born at the time of King’s beating, but the LA riots were a cry for you to care about his life. The same cry of today – that his life, a black life, does matter. For you to care as though King and Harlins were your own.

But you didn’t. Or perhaps you didn’t care enough. Thus, Rice became another victim of the same injustice 23 years later, when he was only 12 years old. A beautiful, innocent black boy, unarmed and gunned down by a white officer.

Twenty-nine years ago, George Floyd was only 18 years old, and Eric Garner 21 years old. I wonder how it made them feel to see King being beaten, and all four white officers who beat him go free. America, their country, simply moving on.

Over two decades later, at the age of 43, Garner cried out “I can’t breathe” as he was suffocated to death in the hands of white officers. This led to protests and outcries, yet another pleading for you to care. To be convinced that black lives should matter to you. But you weren’t convinced. So here we are today, watching as Floyd echoed the same last words – “I can’t breathe” – as he, too, was suffocated to death in the hands of a white officer.

Twenty-nine years. Sandra Bland had just turned four, Ahumad Arbery had just turned three. Mya Hall wasn’t even born yet, it’d be another three years before she would be. They were innocent and unknowing of their tragic fates.

As I try to account for all of the black lives lost due to injustice, it’s impossible to see their names and not get lost in them; my vision blurs. The sheer density is dizzying. And it also makes me feel uneasy – like peering into a killer’s secret manifest. But it’s the easiest thing we have to show you. Look. And these are only the ones we know about.

Twenty-nine years ago, it was a camcorder. Today, it’s the cell phone. Twenty-nine years ago, it was a local news channel. Today, it’s the Internet. That seems to be all that has changed. Everything else is the same. The recurrent scenes of horror and blatant injustice seem to only haunt and traumatize us. The cycle continues:

Video-taped evidence of brutality or injustice against people of color ➡ psychological trauma ➡ anger, unrest, protests and vigils ➡ no action at all or only superficial action (e.g., a fine, a firing, charge followed by acquittal) ➡ anger, unrest, protests and vigils ➡ the whole country waits for us to quiet down, collectively shrugs and eventually turns away ➡ return to normalcy.

The word “normalcy” sounds so benign. But we aren’t fooled. The state of “normalcy” in America isn’t “normal”. It’s characterized by the insidious kind of racism. The subtle and everyday kind. The less overt and more institutional kind. Eventually, it isn’t a singular, isolated, colossal thing that leads to the murder and injustice of an unarmed person of color. It’s the minuscule but chronic and pervasive occurrences that you are apathetic about.

Here is a tiny sliver of the current state of normalcy in America:

  • COVID-19 is killing a disproportionally higher number of African-Americans than it is white Americans. This is because of existing health disparities (higher burden of chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes), long-standing housing and economic disparities (lesser likelihood of owning a car and a single-family home) and the higher likelihood of working in the service sector without the luxury or option to tele-work.
  • African-Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.1
  • African-Americans are three times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans, although they are less likely to be armed.2
  • African-Americans are imprisoned for drug charges almost 6 times the rate of white Americans, although both use drugs at similar rates.1
  • Over 20% of African-Americans live below the poverty line, compared to 8% of white Americans.3
  • There is a pervasive distinction between African-American history and American history.
  • Black history, slavery and racism are taboo subjects.

And this is only for African-Americans, the majority minority group. Look at the normalcy surrounding Asian-American and Latino-American lives.

Look at the picture.

What is the difference between current attitudes and behaviors of white America and those of the women in the front of the bus in this photo? Complacent and silent in the face of a sickening state of normalcy. Accepting of white privilege. Veiled and protected by white blindness.

What is the difference between these two images, besides being 57 years apart?

Whether 57 or 29 years, it’s disheartening to realize not much has really changed. You see, “black lives matter” isn’t just about not killing black people. It’s also about the quality of life lived. Are people of color really free to pursue happiness? As free as you? Do we have the same quality and quantity of life as you?

People of color only make up 13% of America’s population. They’ve been asking you – you, the majority – to care about their lives. They can’t dictate or demand how you care. Which is why the ask seems so low; just first and foremost, simply understand that their lives matter, equally as yours.

Now, for more specific asks:

Listen.

Start with yourself. Reflect on your biases – implicit or explicit. We all have them and we all need to do this. Whether you are a teacher, doctor, scientist, lawyer. How do your biases dictate how you see the world and your everyday interactions with people of color compared to white Americans? How do people of color benefit from the work that you do for a living, and your passions, compared to white Americans?

If you’re a parent, why don’t you talk about race with your children? Why don’t you talk to them about ideals of beauty, so that they can grow up seeing that brown and black faces are beautiful, too? And non-menacing.

Why don’t you question the default Eurocentric setting of the American educational system and do your own research to understand that Black history is also your history, because you benefit from centuries-old attitudes, behaviors, policies and laws that provide you with the social position you now have?

Why don’t you become incensed enough to march on the streets, the same way you did for women’s rights, donning “black lives matter” masks the same way you did your pink pussy hats, or holding high a “Justice for George Floyd” sign the same way you held a “There is no Planet B” sign during a climate march?

Why don’t demand transparency and accountability from leaders and individuals in institutions that sustain racial disparities in your community? Or if you see this happening point blank, why don’t you say something or do something?

If you’re in law enforcement, why don’t you fight to have policies in place that would’ve prevented an officer like Derrick Chauvin from being able to continue to police after having had a total of 12 police brutality complaints against him?

If you’re a social scientist, why don’t you conduct qualitative studies to tell the stories behind the raw data on racial disparities (in the criminal justice system, law enforcement, health, education, gender identity and human rights, environmental rights, income and many more sectors of our lives)?

We have got to find a better way. I understand this more than ever now. I wholeheartedly feel the gravity of my own inaction, too. Listen to the cracking voice of this 31-year-old black man pleading with a 16-year-old black boy to “find a better way.” He exemplifies everything we are all feeling – completely devastated, angry, and tired. We are tired. But we know we have to find a better way for this 16-year-old black boy.

The better way is for you to care and do better. This time, even the whole world is imploring you to.

Welcome to IO

5C710728-1CD1-407F-A58E-18B4F2944AAFImage: Deseta Emojis

Wednesday, 6:05 PM.
IO (Injera-Obsessed) group meeting, Silver Spring Library, meeting room 3.

Yoseph: Hello everyone. Thank you for coming.

Room: Collective shuffling, nodding and hushed “hello”s.

Yoseph: I see our regulars – great job on the consistency guys – and some new faces. Our group is growing. For our newcomers, just a quick intro. on how things go here: this here is a judgement-free zone. You are free to say and express whatever you’re feeling about your obsession or excessive love of injera. Rest assured that you have something in common with each person in this room; each one of us love injera, to a fault. We have come together because we’ve recognized that it has become an issue and we hope to help each other through it, to problem-solve. Generally, we each take a moment to introduce ourselves and say our piece. This is voluntary, of course, you can just listen if you wish. Any questions?

Betty, raises her hand and proceeds: [Clears throat] Umm, well not really a question but just wanna say, I’m really glad I found this group.

Room: Murmurs, and collective agreement.

Yoseph: Great! Let’s get started.

Room: Brief silence, shuffling in chair.

Henok starts, faint voice at first, barely audible. Then, abruptly louder when he says Henok: Tadias everyone. My name is Henok and I think I’m addicted to injera. It’s pretty much all I eat. Except when I’m at work, of course. Only because it’s not practical to eat injera at a desk, you all know this. I learned the hard way. I told myself not to care what my coworkers would think about the smell or eating with my hands and I actually brought some misir wot one day, tibs on another, or firfir or yetsom beyainetu, to work on several occasions, because I couldn’t bear to not eat injera for even one meal. My coworkers weren’t disgusted or turned off or anything, no. It’s just that I got a lot of questions. Wayyy too many questions. And stares, lots and lots of stares. Many double and triple takes every time someone passed my desk. And curious sniffs as soon as they entered my floor. I could just tell that everyone felt compelled to be extra culturally-sensitive or whatever, too. You know when someone is pretending to be totally casual around something they’d never seen before. It really made me despise the open, shared workspace concept. I’ve also tried eating in my car from time to time but, again, there are always people passing by, peering in with shock coupled with curiosity in their eyes. Now, I’m at a point where, even with my insatiable craving, this – the curiosity, the attention, like I’m socially aberrant or something – is actually starting to make it not worthwhile to try to fulfill my craving for injera. I need to find alternatives that actually satisfy my craving. I need to be able to withstand not eating injera, at least for lunch Monday through Friday, and actually be happy eating something else. The fact that I haven’t found anything equally satisfying is starting to worry me, and trying to eat injera at my desk at work is affecting my work life.

Room: Collective agreement and reassurance from the room. A few people next to Henok give him an approving tap on his shoulders.

Betty: Wow, thanks for that Henok. I totally know what you’re talking about. I pack Ethiopian food for work, and have figured out a way to make it discreet. I basically make it lasagna style, layering the injera and the wot, and so on. And I eat with a fork, and cover the Tupperware with its lid after each bite. Also, I am so grateful to have a row of Ethiopian restaurants so close to my job. And that my coworkers love it. At least once a week, we go to one for lunch. I even have a coworker, who’s originally from Vietnam, who buys Ethiopian food for lunch, brings it in to work and eats it with chopsticks! Because she doesn’t want the smell on her fingers. What a creative solution, right? She doesn’t get many stares because everyone is used to it now. Anyway, this is not helping any of you. And it isn’t helping me either, it’s enabling me! It doesn’t help my underlying issue. That I do crave injera, and only injera. All. The. Time. And absolutely nothing else excites me as much as injera. Whenever I’m hungry or when the time for the next meal comes around, it’s the first and only food that comes to mind. I picture a plate of injera and my favorite stews and my fingers digging in and the morsel of juicy injera and …. [Betty is clearly distressed now. She swallows, and so do all the attendees in the room. She proceeds]. I need help figuring out how to diversify my diet. And turning this craving for only injera down a bit or totally off. Like, why am I not like everyone else, normal people who are in the mood for an array of other dishes – pasta, burgers, sushi. None of these excite me, ever.

Yoseph: You are normal. Be careful about how you talk to yourself. Telling yourself you’re not normal, or focusing too much on it being a problem, isn’t going to help you.

Korerima: I agree. Hi everyone, my name is Korerima and I’m totally addicted to injera. I think my parents were, too, hence my name. Korerima happens to be my absolute favorite spice, also. It just adds the taste of home, to each dish, you know? I think I’ve figured out why I’m addicted. It’s because I grew up eating it. It’s part of who I am, it’s home, it’s comfort. How can you not be addicted to the ultimate comfort food, the food that defines your safe place. The very food that defines even love itself.

Room: Echoing steups. Collective agreement and hmmms.

Yoseph: Yes! You hit the nail on the head. However, we have to adjust. We have to learn to be open to new things, we must adjust.

Negus: Yea, because to be honest, I am living with regret right now. A year ago, I missed a huge professional opportunity to move to Japan for a year because I knew I would be absolutely miserable without being able to have the option of wot or injera. I don’t have family here or in Ethiopia who could ship it to me. Just the thought of it was completely unimaginable to me. Being alone, in a totally different land, and not to have the one thing that reminds me of home, or that brings me comfort. This was not how I wanted to test how long I could go without injera. So I declined. And I regret this decision to this day. Oh, hi everyone. My name is Negus and I think I love injera a little too much. So ya, it has totally affected my professional life; my inability to be open to and feel satisfied with other foods, or to go extended periods of time without it.

Betty: Wow. Yea. Another huge, huge issue for me is the calories. Holy crap! Do you guys realize how many calories a tiny piece of injera has? Even with the kind we get now, the 100% teff kind. I recently found this out: 1/4 of one injera is 140 calories. We each eat at least one full injera per meal. At least! So that is 560 calories right there. And add on the actual “meat” of the dish – the kitfo, tibs, even the vegan food with lentils and green beans and potatoes. Won’t this add at least 500 – 1000 more at a bare minimum? I don’t think our people really realize this. I mean, 1000-1500 calories PER MEAL, guys. We never had the calorie count before. Now our store-bought injera is labeled just like all the regular grocery-store foods we buy. Talk about “ignorance is bliss,” you know? For the past several years, I’ve been trying to lose some weight. And it’s been impossible with my injera-heavy diet. We’ve all heard about teff being the new super grain and a nutritional powerhouse, now even sold at Whole Foods, headlines talkin’ ‘bout “Move Over Quinoa ….” This is not helping me, because we all know, deep down inside, everything in moderation, right? And let me just say, I have a major, really major, issue with moderation when it comes to injera.

Lydia: Oh my God, I know!! Me too! I was so shocked when I was counting calories at some point. It’s damn near impossible to stay within your calorie max per day when eating injera, damn near impossible. But you know when I realized I had an issue? When I was out partying the other night, and you know when the night ends, everyone has the munchies. And of course nothing will truly satisfy it for me and my friends except injera. To my horror, though, our usual late-night Ethio spot happened to be closed for maintenance!! All my friends seemed to accept this, like, “ah well” [Lydia shrugs]. But I just couldn’t. I got extremely upset and was determined to find an alternative. I drunk-dialed people, who might know people, like an owner of a restaurant or something, or an after-hours spot serving injera. This was at almost 4 am in the morning! It was totally embarrassing. I even walked around asking random people standing outside the habesha spot we’d just partied in if they have injera at home, and if we could come over. At first, my friends thought it was funny. But that changed real quick when I took it this far, and when they realized I wasn’t joking and wouldn’t give it up. I knew I had an issue when I realized everyone else seemed totally happy with going to a 24/7 diner instead. I, on the other hand, just could not accept this. It totally fucked up my mood and night, and I became a total bitch. Oh! There should be a term for it. Not just hangry, it’s worse than hangry.

Room: Laughter. Ice officially broken, shoulders relaxed; the quiet ones are now ready to speak.

Dear Addis

Addis dear,

These days, we dare to fall into each other and in love despite our knowledge that our time together will be brief, predefined and premeasured. Our reunions are seldom born on a whim or from careless abandon. Not for an un-grim reason or no reason at all, anyway. We have grown to appreciate this, the slice of time carefully rationed and appointed, few and far between, and that we may not meet whenever, wherever, however and whyever we please. In fact, I think we have embraced the uncommonness of our reunions and the premeditation they require, and much prefer it this way.

This is not in the same way one finds gratitude for not having something they cannot have anyway, or because of logistics; you are only 7,000 miles and a day away, and not entirely a bargain.

It’s because impromptu or too-frequent reunions would be too tolling on our hearts.

It is a matter of the immaterial, of the heart, the rise and fall it endures each time. We begin on a lovely high even before we begin, with excitement and anticipation. Once we reunite, with time in the bank, we truly relish and live in it, painting the town red in a manner that is only possible when one understands the very impermanence and perfection of the present time. Of course, it is not always perfect, per se. Sometimes enidebaberalen; we tire each other and grow grumpy like the long-separated and recently reunited old couple that we are, trying to readjust to each other’s sudden and constant presence.

When our bank runs dry, and because we can’t have the cake and eat it too, we conclude our time half-grudgingly, giving in to an end we’d known about all along. The most tolling on the heart is the uncertainty with which we part. Uncertainty of the when and if of the next time, whether you and me will be the same or different, and whether the difference will be for better or worse.

This is why, recently, I’ve reduced you to a mere stopover. I could not negotiate a place between all and nothing and chose the latter, despite my kirrita–a sense of dissonance that hangs on the heart–for passing up a perfectly good chance at a reunion. I’ll remain within the confines of Bole International, safe from an inevitable goodbye. If you do find out about my stopover, and cowardly omission, I hope you understand.

Forever yours,

Surreal to Me Now

Vignettes from the days rebel groups took hold of Addis Ababa, overthrowing the Marxist Derg and ending the Ethiopian Civil War in May of 1991. True to the memories of my six-year-old self and not in any particular or chronological order.

No light. No electricity. No running water. Candlelight. We each carried our own personal candles. We always sat huddled on the floor in one part of the house. To go from one room to another, we never walked upright, always bowed and took long strides. This was the thing to do, to avoid ricocheted bullets that may come flying from any one direction. Someone told me that a neighbor I was fond of–a tall and dark man with a salt and pepper beard and a kind smile–had been hit in the arm while seated on his couch in his living room.

My parents put me and my three siblings in a tiny storage room to sleep for the night. It was the safest place in the house. It had no windows and was within a room within a room. We slept on the floor, or tried to anyway. The walls vibrated from the incessant tewks (shots) being fired beyond our walls and neighborhood, just two miles away near the palace. I’d always been a tosser during sleep, the sounds of battle at our doorstep not required. So this particular night I was a special kind of nightmare to sleep beside. Just when I finally sunk into sleep, I was jolted by something heavy that had fallen on my chest. It was a mouse. Cranky and upset now, and clearly a source of great annoyance to my siblings, I got up and walked out to the room beyond the room where the storage room was, and found my parents. Lights on, both awake and sitting together up against a wall on a mattress they’d placed on the floor. My dad held my mom, his arm around her shoulders, and their bodies vibrated to the rhytmless drumline playing outside. They had to raise their voices to talk to me over the percussion of tewks. It was much louder in here. I whined and griped and told them about the rat, and how it was impossible to sleep. My dad cajoled, pleaded and reassured. I reluctantly returned to the room figuring, with respect to getting any sleep that night, they had it worse than me.

I woke up one morning to frenzy. My mom frantically tossing clothes from the tall wooden wardrobe into suitcases. Kinde, our housekeeper and nanny, who by then was like a daughter and confidant to my mom, pleading with her to stop. I understood that my mom was doing this against my dad’s wishes. He’d decided it was best to stay put, while my mom felt it was best to flee Addis until things quieted down. My mom was trying to do this quickly, while my dad wasn’t home, so that we were ready in case we had to leave.

The four of us kids stood huddled under Kinde’s feet at the stairs just within our front gate. We’d ventured out of the main part of the house to her after she’d talked to our neighbors, gathering intel, listening to what others had heard or were doing or planned to do. We heard  and felt the vibrations of a loud blast. Kinde, suddenly muscled by shock and the flight in fight-or-flight, picked all of us up off the ground and carried us across the yard into the house. Four children between the ages of two and fourteen, and a combined weight of at least 260 pounds. For many years that followed, we’d marvel at the seamless way she’d done this, despite the physical difficulty or even impossibility of lifting, balancing and running with us in her arms. We’d wonder what else adrenaline and love-instincts could do.

We gathered on my neighbor’s balcony to get a good view of what was happening in the city. Theirs was a two-story house and the balcony on the top level afforded a view of the roof of our house, and whatever lay past the row of tin roofs of our street. I was too short to see anything, so I looked up at everyone else, using their expressions as surrogates for their view. They weren’t too impressed and the balcony view seemed disappointing.

When the radio was finally back in service, only one station was on, and it re-played the same one-minute-long message for 24 hours. A male announcer made clear that the civil war was over and that a new government was in power. Due to the repetition, my older sister would memorize this message, and, to this day,  can recite every word.

In the news, the terribly sad and melancholy tune of the washint (flute) played to images of the Derg’s horrific doings.

When the dust had settled and it felt like the country was back to business as usual, young soldiers of the new government visited our home. They were sent to do rounds, to survey households for hidden weapons. My parents were at work, so my older sister stood in as the head of the house. She calmly and eloquently answered their questions. They were young, a few years older than their teenage years maybe, and seemed kind, not so serious, smiling at us kids. Perhaps they realized their life was far from threatened in this home, where a 14-year-old girl was the acting representative. The rest of us listened in, giggling shyly at them, studying the embroidered insignias on their over-sized uniforms, their weapons and humongous boots. This was the closest we’d ever been to soldiers. We trailed behind my sister, who trailed behind them as they roamed through the house, opening cupboards, checking closets and chests of drawers. When they got to the storage room, they asked what we kept in there. My sister told them that miscellaneous items, like old books, broken appliances and our dad’s mesaria were stored there. She said mesaria casually but it wasn’t received as such. The soldiers became visibly tense. “Mesaria?” they asked. My sister, realizing that the word mesaria could also mean weapons, not just tools (my dad’s work tools), quickly offered clarification. The soldiers relaxed again, and laughed at this little mishap, and so did we, although my sister had to explain to us later what it was that was funny.

 

 

A Give and Take

I was assured that it would take very little work on my part to learn the English language, that my young brain would simply absorb it through the process of osmosis, adsorption or saturation. Not only would I learn it, but I would speak it with a tongue lacking any evidence of having known or spoken any other language.

I’d seriously doubted this. I’d kept the little colorful backpack the flight attendant had given us, the airline’s logo printed on its sides and in it, a children’s book and some toiletries. I’d opened the book and stared at the foreign words many times in the days leading up to the first day of school in a new country, thinking how impossible it’d be that in a few months, I may read and understand them.

First day of school came. My little brother and I were both in elementary school; me in fifth grade and he in first. We hopped off the school bus holding hands and looked around quietly, bewildered. Finally, an adult approached and knelt down to our level. “What’s your name?” she asked my brother. He replied in the same way he’d practiced many times in rudimentary English in Ethiopia, starting with a slow “My name is ….” I was embarrassed by his formality; he’d given us away. I’d watched enough TV over the summer to know the norms of conversational English. Lesson one: do away with the formal. One mustn’t reinsert the question into the answer.

In class, Mr. Alexander was already spewing words, English words. Elastic and slurry, nothing like the sharp edges and staccato required by my mother tongue. I waited for the process of osmosis to work, but the words left Mr. Alexander’s mouth in quick succession and dissolved in the ambient air. I panicked. When he paused to take in a breath, I raised my hand (my index finger rather). He looked my way and indicated for me to proceed. I stood up and announced “I. Do. Not. Understand.”

I was paired up with a fellow Ethiopian girl whose assimilation days were well behind her. In addition to her normal 5th-grader duties, she was to be my cultural appropriator and translator. I felt relieved to be able to communicate with someone, to have someone I can direct my many questions to. For instance, how did she learn English (through something called ESL), does she think in English or Amharic (she thinks she thinks in English), when did she realize she wasn’t thinking in Amharic anymore (she hadn’t thought about that), why does that boy always wear a wrap around his head (he’s a Sikh and must never show his hair, but word has it that it came down to his hips), and how come there’s a boy named Jesus in our class?

Luckily, I was in such a culturally-diverse school, which meant that I was not the only awkward non-English-speaking, culturally-inappropriate newbie. Ironically, the ethnic and cultural heterogeneity of my classmates made me feel as normal and uniform as was possible. My classmates were patient with girls who didn’t understand them or spoke in a tortured English, or who accidentally went into the boys’ bathroom, or wore chunky tennis shoes with pretty dresses, and clothes that bore a nauseating scent of exotic herbs and spices.

In the present time, my mother tongue finds herself in an unfortunate place on the opposite end of the spectrum, hanging on like a vestigial organ. She is no longer instinctive but now a conscious decision, called upon when English will not do a thought justice. I wish someone had stressed to my 10-year-old self that my real feat wasn’t in adopting and perfecting the new but in nurturing and preserving the old.

Featured image: Wosene Worke Kosrof

Woman

In the languid afternoons at home after school, or on the weekends, while doing homework at the dining table or playing in our quiet and enclosed back yard, my sister and I would hear the call of visitors–the shrill of the doorbell or loud banging of the tin gate–and perk up in excitement. She ten and me seven, the task of answering the door was far from mundane for us; we’d earned the trust and privilege to be the guest-greeters, to handle strangers with caution and care. The doorbell was reserved for our frequent and more confident visitors who knew about its existence in the narrow space between the gate and the brick wall separating our home from the neighbor’s, visitors who knew to wrap their fingers in their netela to avoid being shocked by electricity before pressing the button in its center. Whether the bell or the bang, we’d spring to our feet and race towards the front gate, our rubber sandals slapping against our feet and the cement floor of our yard.

Our favorite visitors to greet were those who’d come to see our mom. “Is sister Yeshareg home?” they’d ask. A young woman who’d brought a feeble parent, or grandparent, whose hand she would hold to support them as we led them in. A woman with a slight bow, with her child snugly swaddled on her back, his face at the same level as her shoulder peeking out at us from the swathe of bright cloth. They’d refer to my mom as “sister” because it was a common title for nurses in Ethiopia. My mom had turned a small detached room of our house into a community clinic, complete with a sign outside our front door. Her patients were our favorite guests because they were new faces, strangers on whom we were free to make any impression we wished, to decide which story we would tell about ourselves during the brief encounter we had. One day, though, we were humbled back to our true identities when, after deciding to be non-Amharic-speaking kids who were visiting from wich hager [literally “outside of the country” but in practice, “from the more affluent West”] and who spoke only English, were met by a visitor who spoke perfect English. She’d brought her ailing mother and had replied to our limited words of English informing her that our mother wasn’t home quickly and with something we didn’t understand. It was probably simple, perhaps “when do you think she’ll be back?” My sister and I turned and looked at each other wide-eyed, and our guest rolled her eyes and proceeded in Amharic, satisfied that she was not fooled by some little kids and irritated that we hadn’t understood the serious nature of her visit.

My mom has long left this clinic but my aunt tells her that, for a long time after she’d left it and moved here to the States, people still visited our Addis home asking for her. My mom was the happiest and most fulfilled in her career in this tiny room of a clinic. She worked in it during her off days or after work from her full-time job in the OR at Yekatit Hospital. A room made of tin, which, long ago during more thriving times, had housed my parents’ Volkswagen. It was this room I was circling in a giggle, being chased by my sister when its sharp edge caught my right arm, tearing my skin in a clean line from just below my wrist to halfway up my arm, the cut’s angle telling of an arm caught mid run. I screamed at the blood, though what I’ll never forget was my mom’s calm assertiveness. After my sister ran and got her, she quickly wrapped my arm to contain the blood, picked me up, carried me down to the living room and plopped me down on the edge of the dining table. She teased at my screaming and told me to quiet down, and I did. She told me to hold the wrap just like this, and I sat quietly at the edge of the dining table, my feet dangling, watching her quick and confident moves as I’d done countless times before.

IV fluids for the housekeeper who’d gone to her remote hometown to visit family and returned with diarrhea; white, milky benzathine for injection for swollen patchy-white tonsils; packs of white gauze and antibiotics to patch oozing wounds; antipyretics for the febrile; a script for labs for those with mystery symptoms. Some were too weak to come to her so she would visit them. They said ikele–this or that person–had referred them to her. Many could not afford to pay or go elsewhere for medical care and so she seldom required payment. Their countless mirikat, payment in the form of blessings, were compensation enough, the most enriching of its kind she would say.

My mom always made it clear to me and my sisters that she would not have gone to school and would’ve likely stayed in her small hometown of Dessie if it weren’t for my grandmother, who, even to us grandchildren, was always strict and stern, her eyebrows in a perpetual furrow. She herself hadn’t gone to secondary school but had done whatever she could to send her girl to school in a country where women and girls significantly trail behind boys and men in attaining primary and secondary education, or even literacy. So my mom had grown up to be the woman that she is – confident, skilled, resourceful and indispensable to her family of six, her extended family and her community.

Her nursing friends were like her, too. During their mahaber meetings at our home, I saw women who walked with sureness in their steps; assertive, practical, quick, kind and nurturing. Women who mobilized to help each other, or So-and-So. There are some perks to having a mom who is a nurse, especially in a place where resources were hard to come by. Tangible perks aside (like the opportunities to be entertained by her visiting patients or injections in the comfort of your own home) there is the intangible effect of growing up saturated with examples of being a woman, and to understand that the power is often passed down, mother to daughter, or across, peer woman to woman. It is no wonder I followed (somewhat) in my mom’s career footsteps.

Mom and grandma

Implicit Bias

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Within the context of race and identity, the experience of the African immigrant in America is a unique one. I am black, and a minority, in America. At the base of the “American” part of my Ethiopian-American identity, are these two facts.

This understanding seeped in slowly, subtly and over a long period of time. A result of teeny tiny occurrences that, when seen alone and singular, seem trivial, barely causing a ripple. That is their evil and power. So insidious and negligible that, with time, repetition and consistency, they become commonplace, casual, normal.

Slowly but surely, the American experience leads to this pervasive implicit racial bias. One that defines how we meet the world, how we see ourselves and each other. Everyone has it, but we are oblivious to the fact that we do. This is the vestige of colonialism, a silent normalcy that is a complete contrast to the overt prejudice seen just five decades ago.

It seems this year, with the spate of police shootings of unarmed black men and women, the phenomenon of implicit bias and its effects have materialized very loudly and concretely. Most of the shootings were followed by short-term national attention, suspensions, lawsuits, convictions, protests, riots, more shootings and, maybe, “reform.” Frustratingly though, there have yet to be any initiatives that address the fundamental issue, that aim to change the attitudes, behaviors and biases of individuals in public service, so they can unlearn the associations they have unconsciously made, that we all make.

There is no question that race is an important determinant of the quantity and quality of life lived in America. Numbers and statistics prove that. What most of us have failed to see are the minuscule processes–beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, associations, norms, stereotypes–that, on a large scale, have made this the reality. Despite the term “implicit bias” having been thrown around a lot lately, following the police shootings and as a topic in the presidential election, I don’t think the average American really knows what it means.

Social science best explains it through a simple experiment where one sits in front of a computer screen and, by hitting a key on a keyboard, has to quickly associate faces of African Americans with negative words, and faces of white Americans with positive words. Then these two associations are switched, and the individual is tasked with linking a positive word with a black face and a negative word with a white face. In this latter task, the individual slows down significantly; their finger hesitates and almost freezes over the keyboard. (Test yourself here.)

There is no doubt that implicit bias is pervasive. There are numerous studies that show that even individuals who identify with a minority racial group show bias against this very group. Unconscious, implicit bias shouldn’t take all the blame, not by any means. But it is an essential understanding to have, to admit to one’s own prejudices and feel the shame, so that change can follow.  It is not just a law enforcement problem. The split-second decisions we doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, judges, politicians, policy-makers, employers and, simply individuals, make countless times a day are influenced by our biases.

Our prejudices extend beyond race, to gender, ethnicity, sexuality, social class and countless others.  After all, our identities are neither this simple nor mutually exclusive, and we mustn’t walk around constantly and unconsciously negotiating the decision of whether to first be a woman, or Black, African, immigrant, middle class ….

Back Home

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The notion of home for diaspora is seldom a simple or singular one.

For me, home is here, where dark asphalt lined with bright yellow lines, paved concrete sidewalks and freshly mowed front lawns abound. Lawns, driveways, doors, and windows visible to all passersby, unobstructed by metal gates or brick walls. Such defenses are often unnecessary here, where even front doors are sometimes kept unlocked. Whereas, back home, such credulity would be considered didibena (stupidity).

My home here has been good to me. Safety, security, opportunity, health, wealth, efficiency, self-sufficiency, convenience and basic human rights. Good work, cozy city apartment, dog, happy hours, jogs. Weeks that conclude with brunches every Sunday with my parents, sisters, niece and nephew, followed by naps together in the lull of Sunday afternoons and evenings. What I miss when I am away from this home is them and this; the calm routine of the American life, and the comforts found in it.

Back home is also home, but for the greater part of the last two decades, has been a mere collection of memories, old and new. A box of sweetness, in which are my childhood, two aunts who practically raised me (it really did take a village) and who take care of me each time I visit, and cousins, all my age now, who share my childhood in Addis. They are all in one place, in the exact home I grew up in and return to when I visit. A home they make sweet simply, modesty and with rituals.

Aromas; charcoal burning incense, roasted coffee, shai be dabo (hot sweetened tea with bread), steaming injera off the hot metal pan, bekibay yabede shiro (chickpea stew “crazy” with Ethiopian butter). Time. A reprieve from the fast-paced life often lived on the surface. Stark contrasts to my reality here reminding me of what’s important.

I’m not sure if I’m entitled to it as home, though. Residence is an important qualifier of home, no? My experience of it now is brief, always with the knowledge that I will leave it. As an expat, somewhere between an outsider and one who has returned home.

Not sure if I’m entitled to home here either. Place of birth is also an important qualifier, isn’t it? But it is the home in which I’ve made a life, and that my parents had labored for.

It is a special place to be – this in-between. To be granted more than one home, without one which the good of the other cannot be fully understood.

Woohaw Teftual

_nImage: Charity Water

Moments that make up the awkward and often painfully embarrassing period of acculturation, when shared by fellow diaspora and talked about in retrospect, can be really, really hilarious. Remember the time you didn’t know what a certain word was, and went into the school library to Netscape-it (because Google wasn’t as popular back then) and learned to your horror that it was slang for a very bad word, just as your college professor happened to pass right behind you, eyeing the screen you were on? Or the time in high school you were asked what you did over the summer, and you pronounced “beach” very, very wrong (as though the “ea” was an “i”)? Or that time you raised your hand in class with your index finger pointed up towards the ceiling, and then stood up, to the amusement of your elementary school peers, to announce your question. Or the peculiar and curious looks you receive when you squeal and run away, or cross the street from apparent fear of that Golden or Labrador Retriever, or Poodle. And the time you told the cashier at the fast-food restaurant that you would like “hick” for your drink, instead of HI-C. Or when you wore shorts to the swimming pool (you’re a 10-year-old girl, by the way).

I could go on.

My favorite such story was shared with me by a friend of a friend while at a housewarming party recently. Shortly after arriving to the States from Ethiopia, he was invited to a friend’s house for dinner. While there, just before dinner was served, he went to the bathroom to wash his hands, but could not get the water to come out. He tried turning the strange-looking faucet every which way, to no avail. Finally, he concluded that there simply was no water at all. So he went over to the host and said “Simma, woohaw teftual.” Loose translation: “Listen, the water is gone, disappeared, zip, zilch, nada.”

Speaking of wooha (water), you might be able to help alleviate embarrassing moments like the one above, involving the commonplace and casual absence of water in certain parts of the word, by going to my “Clean30” charity:water campaign. My 30th birthday is just around the corner. No presents, please. Instead you can give my age in dollars. Each $30 will bring clean water to one person in countries like Ethiopia, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Even better, every single penny that you donate is used directly to fund water and sanitation projects, like wells, rainwater catchments, water purifications systems and latrines.

Just a tad disappointed I’m not getting any older, for water’s sake I mean.

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Image: @charitywater 

Free-Range

In the summer of 1996, when I was 11 years old, I learned how to ride a bicycle. It was a skill only my new residence in Alexandria, Virginia, could afford.

Back in Addis, my siblings and I were forbidden to play outside of our front gate. I grew up with the understanding that the cobblestone driveway outside the gate, the busy streets leading to it, the strangers, who seemed to be in a constant jostle or loud banter, were no places for children to play or roam about in bicycles. Surely not girls. It was an understanding that came subtly, implied. From the years of being accompanied by a hired man – tall, bearded and strong – who walked children to school for a living. He would hold my hand or my wrist tightly and refused to let go, even when I protested or tried to wriggle my hands away, annoyed by the sweat that would form or embarrassed that my hand would just dangle when he held my wrist. From having seldom traveled anywhere but to school and back, or to St. George’s Cathedral down the street and back, or to a cousin’s house close by and back. From the brick walls keeping us safely inside, their top lined with shards of glass and, when that clearly wasn’t sufficient, the 5-foot piece of tin that my father had installed as a vertical extension of our front gate, making our walls either dangerously sharp or too tall for a robber to climb over. The only trip I was ever allowed to make unattended by an adult (still attended by someone though, albeit an older sibling) was to Almaz’s, maybe 10 steps directly across our house. Almaz would sell us our favorite treats – a few glass-bottled Mirindas or Coca Colas – from her small home also serving as the neighborhood convenient store.

Even if we could learn to ride bicycles, there weren’t many places we could ride to, or quiet and even sidewalks on which we could learn. Between the main streets, a scramble of pedestrians and blue taxis, cattle, buses and wiyeyets (a shared form of public transportation, something between a bus and a taxi), and the cobblestone driveway right outside our gate, we would be out of options. Even so, it would be difficult to find an intact bicycle, new or otherwise, and training wheels, or to prioritize such a purchase.

So riding a bike was one of the first things my dad taught us upon our arrival here. Nevermind that we were too big for training wheels. Only my then-6-year-old brother could make use of those. For my 15-year-old sister and me, our determined dad was our training wheel.

We would wait until 8 pm or so, until the scorching summer heat and sun we had yet been accustomed to left behind an ocher hue and comforting humid air. For many such nights in a row, my sister and I would take turns on the bicycle, and my dad would hold on to the base of the bicycle seat with his right hand, balancing the bike itself with our weight on it, while trailing in a jog behind us. He would get tired, and his white t-shirt drenched, within half an hour or so. But he was always smiling, proud and excited. This is what I saw when I turned around once in a while, to check if he was still holding the seat. It helped that we lived in a small immigrant hub of Alexandria, VA. We weren’t afraid of being teased by our peers or embarrassed when bystanders–mostly Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Sierra Leoneans and fellow Ethiopians–looked on. It was quite easy for them to explain why two grown girls might be taking turns pedaling an adult-sized bicycle and being trailed by a middle-aged, seemingly winded man holding on to the seat and jogging behind them.

It wasn’t the safest way to learn. I fell off the bike one night and sustained a pretty deep gash on my right thigh. Perhaps it happened during my early attempts at freedom. I must’ve pedaled for mere seconds after my dad let go before going down. Still have a prominent scar in its place now. A few days of reluctant recuperation later, we returned to our nightly routine.

I wish I could remember the exact moment I realized I was on my own. The moment I turned around and realized my dad wasn’t holding on anymore, that he was standing, not jogging, and getting smaller as I pedaled away. A blur of a brown face, white teeth, white t-shirt and gray sweatpants.

I’d become free-range.