The Syllabus on Racism

I cannot even fathom the fear my black friends in the United State face in their day-to-day lives, while buying groceries, selling loosies, jogging, or even making a phone call in their own backyard. The murder of George Floyd in police custody is not an anomaly. His murder is reflective of global systemic abuse against dark skin, and his death speaks to the intergenerational and ongoing legacy of racism that prevents equal access to justice and the chance to live a life free of prejudice.  I’ve only encountered glimpses of everyday racism across the world, and the encounters make up my nightmares.  It frightens me to imagine living like this across generations for four hundred years.

Two summers ago, I was at a women’s writing residency where we lived in six cottages under cedar trees that overlooked the Puget Sound. One evening, along with two black poets, an Iranian poet and I walked through the bird sanctuary off the road past the cottages and to a beach across which we could see Seattle in the distance. A slip of rock separated us from the private beachfront properties. The tide closed in. We inched closer to this rock with torches, by twilight. We made night-videos of the algae with our phones. Drank cabernet sauvignon. Then I noticed the ominous shadows of a man behind us, watching us, with his gun holstered, and I screamed. 

He was a police officer, called to investigate breaking and entering reports by the neighbors. He had trekked through the mile-long bird sanctuary to respond to the report. He clambered forward and announced himself. Surprisingly he was kind and said that we’d done nothing wrong and the neighbors needed to put up “no trespassing” signs. He apparently had been watching us for several minutes to ascertain what we were up to. Imagine if he hadn’t stopped to listen though?

The videos of protest in the US these past weeks jolted me to my childhood in Bangladesh, growing up with curfews and bomb blasts that were normalized by the state—given the state was often behind the attacks. Racism exists everywhere. Nothing prepared me though, for the extent of racism in the US, or in the western world in general.  There was one instance in upstate New York a couple of years ago, where a friend refused help from locals with gas during a blizzard, and drove miles without a four wheel drive in over a foot of snow, just to avoid encountering the people whose yards they passed that were lined with confederate flags blowing wild. The reality of being a target of hate crime because of one’s skin continually influences daily decision-making around safety.

This past fall, at the end of a leadership retreat, I was at the Penn Club with the other leaders as I buttered dry croissants. The woman sitting next to me had graduated from an Ivy-adjacent university in the 50s, and between sips of coffee, the woman and her husband told us stories about visiting Camp David, confirmed their support for the current fascist Brazilian president, and upheld the atrocities of the Chinese government against Hong Kong protesters as legitimate. Normally this would be the point I walked away, but the proximity to this racist was so disconcerting, I was immobilized.

The white woman explained how all her friends carry guns in South Carolina, and “Everyone knows that in order to avoid the charges, if you are going to kill someone, you bring them to your backyard. That way it’s called breaking and entering.” She added, “Don’t worry, I’m not carrying a pistol here.” 

Why should anyone have to worry about a racist killing them, and during a meal of disappointing croissants of all things? Systemic racism is so embedded that this kind of rhetoric and systemic threats are viable. And even then, racism is much more harrowing than the non-exhaustive glimpses I’ve presented. 

I strongly believe that if you’re in a position where you can consciously include, and you’re not doing thus, then you’re not fulfilling your basic function as an editor.  While Columbia Journal’s predecessors over the past few decades have made many important inroads in redressing our own legacy of privileging white voices at the cost of black voices, we can and must do more. We have a fantastic team of talented editors who are working to reach underrepresented communities. We have begun highlighting work from black artists in our social media in the next few weeks. We are already making plans for special issues that privilege black voices, and are open to ideas from our community of readers.

The Columbia Journal opposes racism and discrimination, the staggering violence by the police in recent demonstrations for equal justice, and the systemic violence and injustice against blacks and people of color that this country is founded upon. We believe that writing provides in-roads to understanding, justice and truth. 

Twenty years ago, I first read Richard Wright’s Black Boy in my boarding school in India. Reading the book was the beginning for me, of a lifelong inquiry into systemic oppression. I still remember the scene where Wright drinks from the water fountain reserved for whites only. He is in his teens when he finds—despite his long anticipation and desire to drink from this particular water fountain—that the water tastes no different from the water fountains marked for colored people. Though decades have passed since the book was written, and we no longer have segregated fountains, supremacists continue to believe in oppression and violence through sustaining systems of erasure. I believe literature allows us to bear witness to human rights atrocities, and find empathy through understanding those whose oppression far outweighs our own. At the Journal, we look forward to highlighting work that commits to highlighting a robust spectrum of experiences.

Black lives matter.

Raad Rahman

Editor-in-Chief, Issue 59, Columbia Journal

Image Credit: Patrick Behn from Pixabay 

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