‘Non-Western’. From the myriad of labels I can choose from, this is one I never use. I don’t, because it’s such an empty word. A word capable of meaning a lot and nothing at all. But here in The Netherlands, in the most innocent conversations, others pick up the label, stick it on my body and cover all the possibilities that I am. That is what happened not too long ago in the early mornings, after a workout at the gym.
Normally, when I workout early in the morning, I wake up, get out of bed, freshen up, put on my clothes and make my way to the gym or a park. I only have breakfast after my work out. This day however, I figured I needed some fiber; I had been eating too much pasta the days before. While I was getting in my leggings, I tried to remember what fruits and veggies I had at home.
Then I suddenly remembered the left over pumpkin soup from two days before. It was a happy coincidence: it would take me zero time to fix and I would have an instant boost in vitamins and fibers. So before I left home, I drank a glass of cold soup, straight out of the fridge.
The class I took at the gym was amazing. I felt totally energized and ready for the rest of the day. I took a shower, and as usual drank a cup of tea at the gym’s bar while chatting with the gym owner and other gym members before heading off to the office. It was then and there that for some reason we started talking about having breakfasts. It might have been because the gym’s owner was preparing hers.
Anyhow, I told them I had soup that morning. I was about to explain my reasoning behind having decided to do so. But before I got the chance, one of the gym members said: ‘O, this is something my granddaughters do too!’I looked at her and started feeling uncomfortable, like something was turning in my stomach. I noticed that I wondered wether she was now going to say something about brown skinned granddaughters.
She continued: ‘They can have their Surinamese grandmother’s bami [a dish made with noodles] early in the morning, no problem!’ And before I could react, the gym owner added: ‘Yes, it’s not a Western thing to eat these kinds of things in the morning.’
Startled by their remarks, and trying to grasp what had happened, I made a faint attempt to still articulate my own reasonings behind having eaten soup that day.
But it had been too late. I had already been labeled non-Western. Stripped of my own reasons why, my own choices, and thus my own agency I had become invisible. In a magical way I had become one with descendants of Surinamese and non – Westers people (whatever that might mean).
Still confused about what had just happened I said goodbye and took off to the office.
On my way through the small streets, I suddenly felt tears boiling up as my body became warm out of frustration and anger. From the moment I had started to feel uncomfortable during the conversation, it had all happened so fast. How did I let myself become invisible like that? Why did they not bother to ask me why I had a soup, but instead assumed that my skin color was answer enough?
By the time I got to the office, I had totally lost the high vibrations I gained during the workout. Fortunately, I was warmly welcomed by my colleague. I tried to process what had happened by explaining the situation to her. I noticed she really tried to see, hear, and feel what I was trying to express. It gave me space to breath, space to be. In that moment I was reminded again that in the same places and times that I become invisible, there are places and times where I am visible still.
In that moment I was reminded again that in the same places and times that I become invisible, there are places and times where I am visible still.
Btw 1: Maybe let me add what I just heard Michelle Obama say in her documentary ‘Becoming’. That what is important too is to find your tools to feel visible, to be heard and to find your voice.
Btw 2: Later, I did try to have a conversation with the gym owner about what had happened. I asked her (amongst others) if the other gym member had indeed spoken of brown skinned granddaughters. I figured that maybe, just maybe, it had not been about associating my personal behaviour with other people with a brown skin color. And well, not every Surinamese person is brown skinned, right? But yes, the granddaughters are brown skinned.