I am standing in line outside Sweet Maple café in Chicago, waiting to enjoy a special brunch on a warm and sunny Sunday of August. I have come here often to this café and, considering the long line outside, I realize that I am not the only one so affectionate about this place. From time to time a young waitress comes out to call the next person who can be accommodated at a free table. This time she comes out to call my name “Giulia” (Julia in English), but I don’t even answer because I have a few people standing in line before me. She calls out again my name, and this time she is looking at me. Quite confused, I reach her and I answer her question: “Do you mind sharing your table with other people?”. “Oh, no I don’t mind. Actually, it’s great”, I say. Then, I tell myself: what a nice opportunity this morning!
Shani and her son Jeremiah welcome me with a big smile and together we head towards our table. “Thank you for accepting to share this table with us”. The lady says. “They first asked other people but they refused”, she adds. Now I am even more confused and I ask why. “Because we are Black”, she says. I feel bewildered and astonished by the weird situation, and unable to say a word, I give them my best smile, seeking to enjoy their company without sad thoughts.
The café is beautiful and the atmosphere all around is so pleasant. I order the Sweet Maple Special (eggs, bacon, sausage, and fries) and they order many other different meals. We start talking to get to know each other a little bit while the first plates arrive. “Oh, delicious, yummy!” I say enthusiastically. “Giulia, taste these pancakes with the best Vermont maple syrup, and these Cinnamon Roll Pancakes”. We are talking while the waiter is coming with many other colorful plates and our small round table becomes a triumph of flavors and aromas that they keep offering to me while I am so pleased to share.
“I am a social justice activist”, she says “And what type of work do you do Giulia?”. We continue to talk, then I discover that Jeremiah is fond of comics, and the conversation spans various topics until Shani makes a revelation: “Today is a special day”, she says. “My son Jeremiah is turning 18 years old and we are delighted to celebrate it with you. This is a very important birthday and it’s also the beginning of Jeremiah’s Rites of Passage Ceremony because today I recognize my son as a man, he will take care of his life and of mine too. I have protected him since he was born and now he will protect me until I die”. I am touched by this revelation, and while Shani keeps talking to her son, delivering a kind of initiation speech, I am moved to tears and I thank the Universe for the moment I am living right now.
I ask for the check, it’s time to go. The waiter comes and tells me with a big smile: “No check today”. I think he is joking but Shani and Jeremiah’s eyes tell me I was a guest today! Guest of two unknown people who felt happy to invite an unknown Italian woman to celebrate this great day. I am happily surprised.
“In this case”, I say, “I want to be fully part of your birthday Jeremiah. I came across a comics shop while coming here. So please, let’s go there together so that I can buy you a gift”. In a few minutes, we are in the shop and he chooses the thinner and cheaper comic and there is no way to make him pick up something more valuable.
“Happy Birthday, Jeremiah!” I thank, embrace and say goodbye before returning home.
On my way back my mind starts wandering with thousands of questions. Why racism between people? What is racism? “Racism” what an abstract word. Yes, abstract like the feeling that can be delivered to something unknown, something abstract indeed. I mean, we are real people, with real lives but become insubstantial when we are put in a space that can be white or black people, different confessions, different sexuality, and so on. Sometimes our minds create a separate place where to allocate people we don’t feel similar to. But this mental process is not an independent mechanism but it’s something that was created by the social system in which we live and that it is above us. Sadly, it could be easy to develop bad feelings, driven by the social system, towards people we don’t even know. Any identity of every single person disappears when his life is put in a kind of category. And discriminations take into account categories and stereotypes, not the single person.
For this reason, I think that racism or any kind of discrimination are abstract because even when they are shown against a defined person, they are actually addressed to an abstract category created by the system.
To be racist or discriminating means to give up our own personal mental freedom submitting to a general and abstract thought that is not ours, and it’s not the fruit of our personal experience with that particular person.
Now I feel so sad. The happiness I was feeling before is fading away because of my thoughts and my reflections. I feel a sense of pity for the people that refused to share the table. A kind of pain, because I am really sorry for them and their conditioned minds.
I would like to go back to that moment at the café and tell the people who refused to share the table with Shani and her son that racism is a feeling that enslaves people to the system without them even knowing it. Today they missed the chance to celebrate a big day with wonderful people but in the future, they could miss the opportunity to celebrate the very meaning of their lives. The meaning based on the freedom to decide on loving and connecting with other people without limits or barriers.
Human Connections are the biggest power we have in our lives to deeply exert our freedom, reject ideas created by the social system, and act forever through our hearts, and only through our hearts. And this is not utopia but it’s just a conscious action that any human being can take in a responsible way.
Sharing a table, food, ideas with unknown people is always an amazing enrichment, and we should never miss this chance when life is offering us this gift!
I deeply agree with your sentence: “To be racist or discriminating means to give up to our own personal mental freedom submitting to a general and abstract thought that is not ours” Beautifully written! It´s amazing how you approach all people through your heart first and I strongly believe that this is our nature. The more people are able to see it and do that, the better our world will be.
As for the racism, I first encountered it when I was living for 5 years in the USA. I studied it in my history lessons, read about it in many history books and became deeply interested in this topic because I couldn´t understand how can people even get an idea like that, how they can justify it to themselves and others.
However, my very first experience with racism was actually the opposite racism. I had a very dear friend at the US collage and she was of Afro-American origin. With time I noticed that she keeps blaming many people for mistreating her because of her skin colour. I was coming from 100% white, ex-communist Czechoslovakia and this topic was completely new to me.I simply wasn´t getting her point. I was convinced that people weren´t treating her badly and weren´t being offensive to her. People don´t simply always do everything you want them to do, whatever the colour of your or their skin is. In the end she ended our friendship, because supposedly I had no idea what she was going through. I almost felt like that I was rejected because of my skin colour. I was really puzzled.
My next first-hand experience was with my American boyfriend. He was an amazing guy, extremely intelligent and polite. When he told me one day that he was actually unable to shake hands with people of other skin colour or that he feels disgust when he sees mixed-race couples, I was shocked. But I didn´t reject him for it because I never recognised it in his behaviour. He was always very nice and polite with everyone. He just confided in me and said he had no idea why he felt that way. But he simply couldn´t help it. Supposedly his dear grandpa had always stressed to him how important he found it that nobody in his family should marry anyone of a different skin colour. This time I felt like I was being accepted and loved because of my skin colour. I was puzzled again.
I have had many similar encounters in my life and then,about a year ago, I read a book which was a major eye opener to me. The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. He explains very simply how to get yourself rid of patterns and stereotypes that slow down your growth so that one can start living a simple and happy life. The third agreement was : Don´t make any speculations. Then it dawned on me. Perhaps my black friend was making speculations that unless people do what she wants, they mistreat her because of her skin colour. Perhaps my boyfriend was making speculations that his dear grandpa was always right. Perhaps we all make some speculations and these speculations then limit only ourselves because then we don´t open our hearts easily to others and we may lose the chance to get to know many new, wonderful people who could be very inspiring to us.
I believe there is no reason to be sad or sorry that some people have prejudice against people of different skin colour (unless they show it in an offensive or violent manner) or to be sorry that some black people automatically speculate that people don´t like them because of their skin colour when they most likely have their own personal, deep-rooted motivations for such behaviour. This is their own burden, their own battle. Everyone has his/her own battles and hidden limitations. Each one of us should look for them and try to overcome them with an open heart. Like you do it, Giulia. That will be a good start for each one of us.
thank you so much for your comment. You added a valid contribution to this article about racism, analyzing this social problem from another perspective too. Yes, sometimes racism or discrimination are evoked without a real reason. It happens when a person, because of some reasons linked to his/her background, has not developed a strong personality and tends to feel insecure or rejected by others. in this case, a vulnerable person can easily fall into the idea of been socially persecuted due to hostile general feelings. This aspect has something to do with specific people that should be helped to be more self-confident and open to others. But this is also an issue that can touch any sphere of people’s lives, independently from social stereotypes. To work on the importance of human connections, in this case, can be a valid way to overcome this discomfort and start building solid relationships. Sometimes people need only to feel loved in order to get along with the world and lose that sense of adversity that is not real.