So there I am in Guinea and I'm coming to the uncomfortable realization that I do in fact harbor some ugly bits of latent racism. I walk through the markets my second day there and I see the people all around me. There's garbage and waste and smelly dried, semi-dried, and rotting fish and that was the first time that I ever thought to myself "what have I gotten myself into?"
It was discomforting. I've never seen so much filth before. And on top of that the people are all black and I'm white and I can't blend in and I feel like everyone is staring at me. I've never felt like that in any place I'd been. I've never been more keenly aware of race. Why do I feel this way? Why do i feel this discomfort this anxiety? Like physically feel it. A visceral reaction. What's up with that?
I actually just put it aside for a time. Put it aside for a long time actually and eventually it went away or I forgot about it or I got used to it. I mean if you don't know what to do with an uncomfortable situation what do you do? You fake it! You pretend like everything's fine and eventually it is unless it isn't and then you have to fake even harder. I do this. You do this. We all do this, right? Whatever.
As I sit here and try to illustrate this for you without coming off like a total boob I'm doing my best to put it together. My discomfort was itself discomforting. I didn't want to feel like I felt but I couldn't very well not feel what I felt.
Put more formally, there are two parts to the racism game. One part intellectual and one part reptillian brain subconcious.
In college I learned and studied the intellectual side and understood conciously why racism is garbage. This served me well in lily white suburbs, uptown bars, and college campuses because the whole exercise was in the theoretical realm. I could tsk tsk thoughtless comments from friends and releatives and strangers. "I know racism is bad because I read yadda yadda by some dude and he said blah blah and I agree." I mean it wasn't that brainless but it was certainly that detached from any sort of real life experience.
The tricky part for me was to reconcile that with what I was feeling directly. Mostly discomfort and anxiety. My intellect tells me everything is gravy but my gut, my gut, il est pas bien la bas! Not good homes. There was a part of me that didn't respond to what I knew in my head. There was discord and it was frightening. How do you fix a knee jerk reaction that you don't control?
But like Andy Dufrane I walked through a filthy market and came out clean three months later. I'm not saying it was quick or concious or that I'm even finished really learning to be tolerant. At the least I've found a new part of me that needs more work and at the most I've taken my learned beliefs out for a test drive in the world.
I know now there is more to the game than intellectual theory. These things must be used and practiced. The reptillian brain must be challenged and conquered by repetition until the unfamiliar becomes routine. We fear the unfamiliar and once we get to know the world directly we might see that it's not so bad.