The Bully at the Border

I have experienced racism most of my life in some form or another.

Don't forget, no matter where I am in the world, people will ask where I am from, and my answer is, "I am Dutch, from Amsterdam." The reaction, as you can imagine, is "no way." I always tell people that they are color-blind, as I am, of course, blond and tall but they just cannot see it. I am confronted with my adoption 24/7 when I meet new people. I very quickly state that I am adopted, in such a way that most people do not ask further questions.

I had a conversation with my mother about this a month after 9/11. I told her I might go back to live in North America, where I could handle racism easier than in Europe. It made her really sad; she said that she never thought of that issue while adopting me. I am glad she did not know how often I experienced racism. We discussed racism because of the way the news talked nonstop about the Taliban, Bin Laden, and everything that was going on during 9/11. The news showed terrible pictures of Afghanistan over and over. Pictures are very powerful and people started to associate the people on the news with people like me, who just happened to look like them.

When I went to work after 9/11, racism came back into my life; I had thought it was over and done with. I gave technical seminars on computer programs for multi-nationals and someone made the comment about my looks being identical to the people shown on television. It was surreal. I had watched the same images as my client, and I did not have the same reaction. I told her I was brought up in Europe, and how that war was not my war and had nothing to do with me. I should not have bothered to justify myself, which is a bad habit I have. She could not have cared less and definitely did not listen. All she cared about is that I looked like those people on television and wondered if I could potentially do harm too.

Often, being light-colored is perceived as being superior to darker shades. In many cultures -- for example, Japanese or Thai, just to name two -- people stay in the shade with umbrellas all summer long to keep their light complexion. It seems they want to distinguish themselves from the working class, who are tanned from working outside during the summer months.

One of my experiences with racism was when I was flying back from Tokyo to Brussels. As you know, Mark, I have a Dutch passport. European airports have two lines at arrival, one for EU passport holders and the second for foreigners. It was extremely busy at Zaventem that day, as several international flights from all over the world had arrived at the same time. Security personnel were guiding the passengers to the right line-ups. One of them came up to me, and without asking to see my passport, told me I was in the wrong line. I politely told him I had an EU passport. He told me it did not matter and I should go to the other line. This repeated itself several times. In the foreign line-up they were checking passports and they sent me straight back to the EU line. Finally, after going back and forth for 30 minutes, I saw a tall, foreign-looking man in the EU line. I positioned myself so close to him that he looked down and asked if I was okay. I told him in French that I was curious if he could pass that line-up, as I was having such trouble, and I told him kindly that his skin color was many shades darker than mine. He burst into laughter and told me to stick with him. I thanked him and told him he would not be able to pass, but that it would be fun seeing it all unfold. He said, with a lot of determination in his voice, "We will see about that, won't we?" He was a handsome, well-dressed black man, obviously a businessman.

Finally, our turn came and the man showed his passport, but I could not see very well as the counter was too high for me. Exactly as I had predicted, they looked at him with disdain and told him to go to the line for foreigners. In a very dry tone he pointed out that his passport was French and that he was a French citizen and a member of the EU. The man behind the counter could not care less and continued to speak to the man in a denigrating way. My man stayed polite, which I admired. (I could have learned a thing or two there.) He asked to speak to the supervisor and did not budge.

The supervisor arrived looking disheveled and rubbing his large stomach and asked what the trouble was. The man, my ally by this time, answered in a dignified manner that he was a colonel of the French army and showed his army credentials. Oh la la, what immense fun for me! I jumped up and down with such joy, such relief that this dignified man stood his ground. He turned towards me and said, "This young lady is traveling with me and she is (he glanced at my passport) a Dutch national. You better not give her any trouble either." It goes without saying that I passed in seconds. I profusely thanked the man, who asked if this happened a lot to me. I told him I was used to it, especially at that airport. He said he was ashamed that people would treat others like that and told me to stand up for who I was. I agreed. And I always did so after that!

It is a crippling feeling to be attacked for something you cannot change at all: the color of your skin.

Excerpts from With All My Might by Gabriella van Rij. (Vancouver: We Open Doors, 2011.)

Gabriella is a speaker on racism, prejudice, bullying, and other social issues.