American racism is insidious. It is pervasive. And it is omnipresent. As a black person living in America, I have never been made to feel anything other than a black person first and everything else second. Society has imposed on me that blackness defines my identity, and not my personal traits or character.
I have often said to my friends that I became a black person when I first moved to the United States. When I was growing up in Cameroon, I was just Blaise. Racism was a concept wholly unfamiliar to me. The idea that we should divide the world into races seemed alien.
It is against this innocent backdrop that I first moved to the US in 2009 to attend college. But once I stepped foot on campus, I lost touch of this innocence. Washington and Lee University is one of the most conservative institutions of higher learning in America. Students from New England felt out of place on campus, let alone a kid from Africa who had never traveled abroad. As I tried hard to fit in, I found that fewer and fewer people felt comfortable hanging out with me, or interested in where I was from, or wanted to build any meaningful relationship with me. To be fair, I do not want to conflate class and race. But it was evident from questions that I was asked – such as did we have houses back in Africa (said in jest, but racist nonetheless) by my peers what they really thought of me. But for a few exceptions, the white people that hung out with me seemed to be doing it as a favor. Or out of pity.
Cristina B. Kullberg, Open Dreams Co-founder, emphatically advocating social justice during an Open Dreams Zoom Session on Racism in US Universities
To get a better context of my college environment, I attended college in the South. Washington and Lee University venerates Robert E. Lee, a prominent Confederate General who fought to defend slavery. Not only is my alma mater named after him, we have (or used to have) a towering statue on campus, and the confederate flag used to fly on campus too. In Lexington, confederate memorabilia were everywhere one looked.
However, my ignorance of American history shielded me from this oppressive symbolism. Only after graduating from Washington and Lee and learning about the true history of slavery and segregation did I understand what all the symbolism meant and why it was so difficult for a boy from Africa to integrate into a predominantly white school in the south.
Personal stories, personal experiences - racism hurts
As I graduated and moved to other institutions in the US, namely Goldman Sachs, Schwarzman Scholars, and currently Harvard Business School, I discovered that racism was not unique to the south. It was everywhere present. What is insidious about US racism is that no one needs to be racist for one to feel they live in a racist system. In fact, I cannot point to anyone person in the aforementioned institutions to say they were overtly racist.
So as I learned, liberal leaning institutions are racist too. This kind of racism is worse than the jingoism of the extreme right. I know what to expect from the KKK, from overt racists, from the Banon-Trump wing of the GOP. However, people who identify as being on the left, and go on Twitter to condemn acts of racism, are often blind to their own biases. It’s cool and woke to condemn racism but bask in the glow of a racist system. It’s cool to condemn racism, but never really sit down to listen, to empathize with the plight of a black friend. It’s cool to condemn racism, but never have difficult conversations about how a racist system has led to generations of disenfranchised Americans who have essentially been denied the American Dream. These white friends on the left forget that to not have a conversation about the state of race relations in America because it is uncomfortable is to exercise privilege. Millions do not have that luxury. At a time like this, willful ignorance is tantamount to complicity. Either you’re helping to dismantle a racist system or you are a beneficiary of the power structures that prop up the racist system. Silence is tacit approval.
Open Dreams Scholars at the Yaounde Center getting ready for online classes. Our space allows for free thinking , leadership development etc within the context of global citizenship.
As an African, I too realize my own privilege. For instance, it was privilege of me to be oblivious of the racist symbolism that surrounded me at Washington and Lee. I was born into a poor family in rural Cameroon. My mom didn’t have a formal education beyond primary school and my dad was a primary school teacher. Despite these humble beginnings, I had the necessary emotional, social and educational support needed to get me to attend HBS someday. Now, imagine if I were born in Harlem or Queens or the South Side of Chicago to a black mother. I would still be living on the other side of the track. Or worse, I could be in jail or dead. So the American Dream is more achievable for a black child born to poor parents in African than it is to a black child born to a single parent living in American ghettos.
America today is at a watershed moment. The American project was conceived in sin and the country has never faced a reckoning. Much like Rwanda, South Africa, and Cambodia did with Truth and Reconciliation Commissions after their tumultuous episodes. So where do we go from here? I do not have a solution, but the opportunity and urgency of the moment impels me to try.
America needs a new national project. To fully realize America’s potential, the country must reckon with its past.
All across America, in communities large and small, at schools, on college campuses, in the work place, at community centers, in churches and civic centers, Americans of all stripes need to come together. Whites and blacks and Latinx and Asians must come together to have difficult but open and frank conversations about the state of race relations. We need talking, listening, understanding, and empathy. The pain and emotion of centuries of subjugation must be articulated so that the other America appreciates the rawness of the anguish and the depth of the sorrow that its other half feels.
Zoom session on racism hosted by Edwin Mikah, Open Dreams Graduate Scholar and Graduate Program Coordinator.
Out of such a process of national dialogue, a new social contract must emerge. A contract that holds all Americans to be equal not just on paper, but also in practice. One that recompenses Blacks for centuries of lost economic, political, and social opportunities. One that gives black Americans the opportunity to catch up in a race that disadvantaged them and gave other groups a 400-year head start.
What is true is that racism cannot be legislated away. No amount of congressional bills will change a person’s heart. But exposure and dialogue and education can.
Yet, we have hope. This protest against racial injustice has been a global movement. It has been everyone’s movement. It has been heartening to see people across the world come together. We are all writing the pages of tomorrow’s history and should be excited to be a part of positive change. A lot of work remains to be done, no doubt, but the foundation for such work is being laid by you. Let us all draw inspiration from this to engage in civic and political life. Let’s be the change we want to see.
Open Dreams organizes conversations around the issue of racism under the theme, "Open Minds".