101 Stories of Racism

Our entrenched fears and suspicion
A policeman shot a teenager dead last week in another country. Media sources said that teenager and the policeman had different skin colours, thus drawing attention to different aspects of the death. I am thinking of those two. Doubt, suspicion and fear surround the death.
Five years ago, my family of four drove to a local fuel station in the afternoon. My partner filled the fuel and went inside the shop to pay. Our little fellow dropped his paper bag of snacks from his seat. I got out, came around from behind the car to his side which was behind the driver’s seat. I settled him, adjusted his child seat belt and went back to my seat in the front. My partner returned and we drove off. He then laughed and said “That guy at the counter was asking me if I knew you.” I asked him for the details. My partner said while he was paying for the fuel the guy at the counter saw me by the side of the car, leaning over, talking. He asked if there were kids in the car. “Yes, my children are there.” The guy told him there was a woman standing next to the back window, talking to “… your children. Do you know that woman?” My partner looked out, saw me and replied that was his wife. Then he returned to the car.
I remained silent for a moment. The guy at the counter might have felt concerned thinking oh, there is a strange person by the car talking to children. Why would he think of me as a ‘stranger’? How would he construct this ‘strangeness’? What would make him feel concerned, if he did at all?
I asked my partner if the guy would ask him “Do you know …?”, had he spotted a woman who had the same skin colour as his (my partner), which is light. My partner didn’t think he’d have received such a question. I said “He didn’t associate me with you because I don’t have your skin colour. That scared him? He got suspicious that I was talking to your kids? What if a stranger really stood there and talked to our children, but was a light-skinned woman? He wouldn’t have sensed the ‘stranger danger’ thing then? Now, that really concerns me. ” My partner went quiet.
Let me reverse the characters in this scenario. What if I was a light-skinned woman filling the fuel and paying. My partner was a dark-coloured man who got out of the car, went around and talked to my child in the car. How would the guy at the counter have reacted?
Did the policeman perceive the teenager as a source of harm because he was a dark-skinned male? What did he suspect him of, for and to be? Was the policeman afraid? Of what? Fear of accepting a skin colour that was different to his? Was he afraid of acknowledging the history? My Australian Indigenous friends tell me they get followed in the supermarkets by the staff. My experience too.
Was the policeman trained not to accept? Did he cultivate the fear for difference or was it handed down to him? That moment’s decision of not acknowledging and accepting removed a life.
How are we going to deal with such fears and suspicion? The difference in the shades of human skin colour has led to dispossession, destruction, death and depression. Of roots, languages, cultures, hearts, heads and souls. How will we unlearn doubt, rejection and distrust based on perceptions and judgements of colour difference? Can we relearn respect and responsibility?
At least there will be less people suspecting me when I am talking to my own children.
Cheers, Vinathe Sharma


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