My Turn: Let’s not end the discussion on racist graffiti superficially
On Tuesday, the Concord Monitor reported that a 42-year-old man, Raymond Stevens, had been charged with writing racist graffiti on black, African refugees’ Concord homes in 2011 and 2012. This was after Detective Wade Brown had painstakingly combed through 1,500 gun permit applications to match the handwriting to a suspect. Unlike some of the commentators responding to the initial news story on wmur.org, I am pleased at this news.
As a scholar of postcolonial African studies, I must issue a disclaimer. Though African, I am not a resettled refugee. Rather, I am here because I just so happen to have fallen in love with – and subsequently married – a New Hampshire native while we were graduate students in the United Kingdom, where I completed a Ph.D. on a Rhodes Scholarship. Furthermore, I do not come from a war-torn country that I either needed or was eager to leave. And, though some refugees (despite working as cleaners or at Walmart here) were qualified doctors and accountants in their home countries, unlike many, I speak English at first language proficiency.
I open with this because it is important for the reader to know that I am not representative – and therefore do not essentially have the right to speak on behalf – of African refugees. Nevertheless, on one of my first visits of any length to Concord, where my husband then lived, I was called the N word while walking down the street. A Caucasian man in a truck slowed his car, rolled down his window and hurled this expletive out of his window.
In case you wonder if I might have been mistaken that it was directed at me, I too wondered, so I looked around to see if he was talking to somebody else. After all, I didn’t immediately think of that word as one that could be directed at me, given that I was not of American origin. (Not that the word should be applied to anyone at all; I simply mean that, if anything, I was more experientially prepared to hear its South African equivalent: the K word.) I was alone on the street.
Since then, I have been told to “go home to where you come from, you *!@$# foreigner.” At the time, I was singing along to country music on the car radio with the window down. When I looked up to see what was going on, I saw that the young driver of a sedan diagonally across from me at the traffic light had leaned back over the passenger seat and, aided by one of his two backseat passengers who opened the window, had shouted this at me. He continued to gaze at me intently and make vaguely threatening gestures. In the moment it took me to gather my thoughts, the traffic light turned green and he sped off – the whole car laughing.
Regardless of my not being your stereotypical African in New Hampshire, these experiences taught me it did not matter. Because I am recognizably African, I am treated just as African refugees are by those who do not know me; at least, before I open my mouth. Hence, concerning the significance of this matter for my feeling welcome in New Hampshire, I share common cause with other Africans.
When I heard the news of the worst of the spate of graffiti incidents, I was back home in South Africa. After three years of long distance, my husband had moved there to be with me for a year while I wrapped up the socio-legal research and human rights advocacy work I was doing there. I remember being grieved.
As one who – because of my education – frequents spaces where I am the only black person in the room and personally knows what it takes to overcome the fear that I might not be welcome, hold my head up high regardless and engage with others like I never noticed the differences between us, I felt a great loss. After all, New Hampshire was the intended home to which my husband and I would be returning shortly.
Suddenly, the two verbal incidents that I had experienced in Concord were no longer just isolated incidents by a misguided few. They were now symptoms of a more severe and widespread social ill that I could not be sure would not ultimately lead to physical violence against me and others who looked like me. At this point, the hope of ever feeling fully at home in Concord (and being able to pretend that my race was not an issue in social interactions) was dashed; there could be someone with such views lurking behind every new encounter.
Indeed, the overwhelming responses condemning the violence and public show of solidarity with the refugee families expressed by many white Concord residents were of comfort. However, the limited degree of innocence – really willful ignorance – that had gone before these events still could not be regained. Yet even for one such as myself who studies the limits of the law, there is still something psychologically powerful about feeling that the law can be counted on to vindicate you. That is the hope the news of the long-suffering labor that led to Stevens’s arrest – for what, in my mind, is a low-grade hate crime – gives me.
My husband and I recently moved back to his love, New Hampshire. Instead of Concord, we are living in Nashua. I cannot say that the crimes of which Stevens is accused were the main reason we did not settle in Concord on our return; however what they symbolize was definitely a consideration. And so, I am relieved to learn that the police took this matter as seriously as they did and that there is a real chance that the perpetrator will be brought to justice.
Worth paying attention to
Regardless, the online comments defending the graffiti violence should not be ignored. One of the positive outcomes of the initial acts was the public discussion they provoked about what it means for New Hampshire’s demographics to be so swiftly shifted by the resettlement of distinctly African refugees. As I learned through the experience of a refugee teenager I mentored in 2010 and 2011, this was particularly important in schools. She too had been subject to and witnessed several peers being called derogatory names referring to their being black and African. One question that therefore needs to be asked is whether these discussions have gone far enough.
South Africa is perhaps a larger-scale example of the dangers of “transitional justice” through public discourse not taken far enough. Despite the praise that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that South Africa put in place to deal with the atrocities of apartheid received from abroad, it has left a sour taste among South Africans.
The main concern with it is that, by allowing superficial truth-telling among a handful of perpetrators of violence (not even requiring apologies from its main architects), it gave the white public the artificial sense of having dealt with the past but without radically overwriting the narrative that they preserved of apartheid ultimately having done “the savage natives” a favor by bringing development.
Not disconnected from this is the fact that South Africa is now being subjected to the Red October campaign by white South Africans protesting against what they say is the government’s oppressing them by means of poor infrastructure, unemployment, unsafe parks and inadequate health care and education systems.
Regardless of the ludicrousness of their claims – given that, for example, white South Africans own more than 80 percent of the country’s wealth and unemployment affects 7 percent of white South Africans compared to well over 30 percent of black people (and with crime, health and education problems similarly) – it is important to acknowledge the emotional place from which these white South Africans’ complaints come. As one Red October protester answered when asked to respond to the fact that crime disproportionately affects black people, “We’re just not used to this.” (The subtext was that black people are, and, of course, black leadership caused it.)
Sense of being beleaguered
I bring this up here because of the similarity of the arguments made by the white South Africans engaging in this protest to those of the white New Hampshire commentators who argue that the black Africans are undermining their way of life and will lead to their being a disadvantaged minority in their own country. This sense of being beleaguered is important to work through, especially engaging with the truth of what has been the particularly bitter impact of the struggling economy on Americans and how easy it is to unduly blame some, if not all, of this on the refugee population.
I am not proposing anything like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in New Hampshire. However, I think the warning against a superficially completed public discussion of the underlying causes of the tensions that manifest in the form of acts like Stevens’s should be heeded here, too. Such a discussion is dangerous as it leaves people feeling good about how they addressed the situation, even as the underlying situation actually remains largely unaddressed. And so, beware, lest Stevens be a mere scapegoat. As the online comments sadly reveal, he is not all alone.
(Sindiso Mnisi Weeks is completing a book on vigilantism and dispute resolution by informal justice forums in South Africa as a resident scholar at the University of New Hampshire School of Law in Concord.)