Why I don’t understand white

While I was working my way through college, I cleaned a doctor’s mansion that needed this floor cleaned with vinegar and that one cleaned with mopping solution and the other one wiped dry, and well, yes. 

I hated cleaning (and still do), but I did it for the money, considering it a comfort issue rather than a class distinction. Then one day, I overheard the doctor telling her friend that she didn’t really need a cleaning lady but, “They need work.” 

They?

I’ve carried that with me for years as a reminder of the lines that people draw between “us” and “them.” The lines that I draw.

“I think I finally saw a little bit of what you see every day,” I told a Latino co-worker later that weekend. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember he acted embarrassed that I, a white middle-class American, even wanted to discuss discrimination.

How can I really understand white privilege when I’m living it? When I stepped out of my white world and moved to North Africa, I began to have an inkling of the disparity between white and other colors. North Africans love foreigners… Well, they loved me and I was white. Now, in a Spanish province chock-full of immigrants, I’m not blind to how immigration officials relax when they see my blue passport. 

“Are you looking for an apartment for you?” one realtor asked during my apartment hunt. “Because if it’s for an Arab, I have nothing.”

“It’s for me,” I assured him, startled by the blatant discrimination. What would it be like to taste rejection on account of my skin color or my nationality? I honestly had no idea.

The occasional Spaniard lumps me in with the North African crowd, and not in a good way. In those times, my blazing internal response runs along the lines of, “How dare they?! They don’t know me well enough to judge me!” 

True. They don’t. But my subconscious assumption is, “If they only knew who I was, they would treat me better than this.” If they only knew I was white because white deserves special treatment. 

How I hate that I subconsciously believe this! Yet, it’s not hard when it’s all I’ve ever known. 

I’ve been watching other immigrants and I wonder. While I am busy taking offense at any implication of discrimination, I see most Arabs and sub-Saharans accepting it as a matter of course. They’re used to being used and unwanted. 

I’m not. Has the special treatment of whites the world around made me more fragile, more threatened by opposition? I say this because I am weak, I am white, and I wonder.

Recipe: bissap

Ready to say goodbye to the summer heat? Well, maybe we can’t say goodbye quite yet, but that gives us an excuse to pull out this recipe for bissap, or hibiscus tea.

I first fell in love with this drink in Mexico where it came under the label “jamaica.” Now in Spain, the recipe has a bit of an African flair. Do you have access to dried hibiscus? Have you even looked for it? This recipe will make it worth your while…

Note: Bissap is meant to be a powerful burst of flavor, but you can water it down to taste.

  • 50 g (about 1 c.) dried red bissap (hibiscus)
  • 1 1/2 liter or quarts of water (Some will evaporate and you’ll end up with a little more than 1 liter)
  • 125 g (heaping 1/2 c.) sugar
  • 1 8g packet of vanilla sugar
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp. orange blossom water (Orange blossom water adds a distinct taste. If you’re not sure you’ll like it, start with 1/2 tsp. or mix with fresh squeezed orange juice instead.)

Rinse bissap flowers in cold water and drain. Bring water to a boil then add flowers. Cover and boil for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and steep for another 10 minutes. Stir in sugar and vanilla sugar. When cooled, strain and add orange blossom water. Serve chilled.

Good windows make good neighbors

Robert Frost once wrote a poem about good fences making good neighbors. But what if there are no fences, only windows that overlook walls of windows from neighboring apartments? Do good windows make good neighbors too?

Through the windows, I can sample the lives of my neighbors. Without really knowing them or even really knowing exactly what apartment they live in, I know certain things.

For example, a man sneezes about 9:00 every evening. It’s not just a sneeze, but a SNEEZE. Actually, it is a series of sneezes that gives me an estimate of the time not unlike the call to prayer. And since the Ramadan time change, the sneezes have been coming at 8 p.m.

There is an unpleasant child in a lower level apartment, whose screams are punctuated by the parents’ roars of disapproval.

I can smell what neighbors are cooking, at times even identifying individual spices. And there is often the clattering of women washing dishes or the hissing of a pressure cooker.

In a tiny courtyard below, some neighbors play soccer with friends. When there are five or six of them, I don’t know how they manage to fit, let alone play a game. Their shouting in African French echoes all over our mini community.

Parties on the roof until the wee hours of the morning mean that talking and laughter float through our windows with the cool night breeze.

One evening, a little boy appeared in his window wearing only a T-shirt and his underwear. Silently, he climbed up in the window sill and measured the window with a tape measure. Then he climbed back down.

See, good windows must make good neighbors… or at least provide daily entertainment.