My friend was eyeballs-deep in his phone when his surgeon arrived to check on his progress after his tonsil-removal surgery. The location was a small, private facility in West Oslo, surrounded upmarket department stores and chain coffee shops, while the office itself seemed a little worse-for-wear inside. Oslo seems reluctant to give up its rain for the summer, and so the weather was spitting a little bit on me as I trudged around the area trying to find the correct painkillers, at the surgeon’s request, for my friend, to take during his recovery.
The first meeting with the surgeon went OK, he was one of those brusque, masculine types that shakes one’s hand too hard and laughs heartily at things that I don’t quite see are funny. I put this down to him being buried to the knuckles in people’s throats every day and not having to have much actual conversation (what with his tools down their throats) with people on a regular basis.
But after the surgery, as my friend, let’s call him Pal, convalesced in a room filled with a few others recovering from their operations, and a nurse who oversaw it all, the surgeon returned to check on his progress. He started talking immediately from the doorway and then turned his attention to me, sitting beside the bed, holding a little tray in one hand for any bloody spit that might want out of Pal’s throat, and a phone in the other to alleviate the boredom of the convalescing room.
“Everybody is always on their phones these days!” the surgeon exclaimed, referring mostly to the people he witnessed outside on the street, but also to Pal who was scrolling through his Instagram feed and hadn’t noticed the man’s arrival. And so the surgeon’s attention turned to me, fellow phone-addict, who admitted, before he could ask, that I was not ready to give up this vice.
Suddenly, with no provocation, his line of questioning changed and he gazed at me with a deeper curiosity and stepped a little closer. We spoke only in Norwegian.
“Are you Tamil?” he blurted.
My initial thought was “Where the fuck did that come from? We were talking about phones a second ago.” This thought was quickly followed by, “He seems nice, he probably means well.” It is my default thought. And it is the one that hurts me most often.
“No, I’m South African,” I smiled. Few people guess, because it’s not a common place to come from here in Norway.
“You must have some Indian in you, or…” and he started listing ethnicities I might likely be able to slide myself into, something to justify my presence and appearance, a conversation I never thought I would have to have in 2019, but still allow some space for in people who are curious. But it was not his curiosity that got me, it was the way he asserted his assumptions.
“You have some Indian in you, or some Sri Lankan, some… blah blah blah…to explain the way you look.”
I did not have time or desire to get into the history of “Coloured” people in South Africa, but I started to explain a bit, only to be interrupted by his loud, so loud, assertions. And as I closed my mouth, knowing he would not listen, he did a thing I have never experienced in my entire adult life.
This large, muscled, brick of a white man, stepped over to me as I sat in the chair by my friend’s bed, leaned his towering physique down toward me, took his big hand and gripped my chin with it, yanking my face up toward his, and started to say, “Let’s see, your eyes look like they are from…” along with a detailed analysis of my other features which I did not hear clearly, so much in shock I was at being handled like a dog in the hands of a breeder. The words “Indian” and “Tamil” kept leaping from his thin mouth, and I pushed him away in shock, saying:
“Hva faen, gjør du?” Translation: “What the hell/fuck are you doing?”
He didn’t flinch, nor apologise, only stepped back while I gasped,
“Jesus Christ” and adjusted my mouth to a normal position again.
And tried to pull myself together. His touch was neither gentle nor simply ignorant. Although he did not grip hard (and I could tell how hard he could grip by the demonstrative handshake he had given us earlier), it was violent, without my consent, hidden behind a veneer of friendliness and supposed curiosity. I was a specimen to him, a black specimen for him to make sense of.
And although all of this disgusted me, here is the thing that disgusted me the most.
After I swore at him and pulled away, I sat there. And did nothing. After being humiliated by this man, I turned all my anger on myself because I did nothing.
I let him keep talking in a jolly way about South Africa, his trips there, how wonderful it was, how difficult the country was, Nelson Mandela, Jacob Zuma. His words flowed through my head as I tried to smile and nod and let him have his say and go away. He had authority here. I shamefully appeased the man with authority.
But I also didn’t feel like I had, initially, a right to be upset, despite swearing at him at first. He was smiling the whole time, being friendly, and just let my angry response to his grabbing me and inspecting me wash over him and fall away, and this stopped all potential confrontation. It often takes time for anger to set in with me, and I was in a state of surprise, the real anger yet to arrive like a slow-building tsunami, to hit only after he left the room and everybody else in it went back about their business.
At one point, before he left, he told me that I spoke Norwegian like a local and that it was hard to tell that I had only lived there for five years on and off. To this I was briefly ignited again and asked why he had asked where I came from then? I said that it was rude to have asked that. Pal, still a little dazed from the drugs and surgery, hist throat likely on fire, tried to defuse the situation and said that earlier I had spoken English. It was true, I had. Perhaps that was the reason. To me it didn’t matter. For that brief moment I had found my spark, let the anger start to find its place. I told him again that it was rude to ask people where they came from. Because their skin colour is different, it does not mean that they are not Norwegian. And I thought immediately of my son, with skin darker than mine, hair curlier, growing up his whole life in this country: he will never be seen as Norwegian by people like this.
His response, unflinching and unapologetic, was that he was simply interested in people’s backgrounds.
I waited for him to go, nodding and smiling, pretending to participate in the conversation the others could all hear; the black girl being talked at by the big, jolly, curious white man trying to figure her out and where he would put her specimen upon his shelf. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had whipped out a pair of calipers and measured my head. And even in that moment, anger did not set in. It came later. Along with the shame.
Why did I not feel it then? Why did I appease this stupid man? This man who knew nothing about identity, about humanity, about feminism, about treating people with respect? This man who operates on people on a regular basis, gets intimately inside their mouths and throats and has to see them as equal to each other. I can accept that he may see things differently – that he treats the body the way an engineer treats a machine. That he might struggle in the real, social world.
But he is a fucking doctor. And, in my experience, a racist one.
In all my years living in South Africa, and for seven years under apartheid, I have not been manhandled and inspected the way this big white man thought he was allowed to do to me today. It was such an intimate physical act, gripping my chin and pointing my face toward him – something one would probably only allow a lover or a parent to do. I still feel his thick fingers on my chin; my neck being yanked upward; my eyes, nose, cheekbones inspected by his piercing eyes; the gaze of the other people in the room upon me, the only Black person around; being objectified by this disgusting man. My history caught up with me fast when I felt that, it felt like being inspected as a slave or a servant. Though I know his action was out of curiosity, I was also not altogether human to him in this moment and it is this I share with my ancestors today. It is not a joyous connection.
And even so, in my furious state, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. He is a doctor. He probably manhandles people for a living. It might be unconscious. Perhaps he does it to white people too.
But then I wake up. Fuck that.
Honestly, fuck the hell out of that. He’s a fucking human. He did nothing to any of the white people in the room. It was me he had singled out. Hands on my chin and cheeks – MY chin and cheeks – spitting words like “Indian, Tamil, Indonesian” at me like some kind of archaic anthropologist; trying to place me in the spectrum of human existence, but not quite able to fit me in anywhere, not finding any humanity for me in all of it.
I can see him on a beach somewhere now, a warm place, probably Asia by the sounds of his enthusiasm for fitting women into his prototype of The Oriental, and harassing and fetishising the women he encounters. “Big eyes, good cheekbones, small nose. Are you Thai? Are you Indian? Let me see the shape of your eyes.”
He fits in with the horrible men I’ve encountered on dating sites here, who out themselves, thankfully, before I actually meet with them, by telling me how much they like dark skin, or how they only like Black Women/Asian Women/Whatever exotic ethnicity I fit into.
This is a strange country to find myself in these days. Which is bizarre, coming from someone who grew up under apartheid. I feel equal here in so many ways, but racism remains pervasive here, clearly. Working from home, limiting day-to-day contact with people has left me ignorant of much of it. But today I was exposed, and I wondered how many others experience these things.
Initially, all I wanted to do was nothing. Get the fuck out of there and forget this guy. Because I felt foolish and ashamed and felt perhaps I was making something out of nothing, since nobody else seemed too stressed about it. Life’s already been weird lately, and I have avoided 80% of the grown-up problems I’m having by deferring them to another time to make space for my anxiety. But a night of clearing my head and letting the anger build, has pushed much of that anxiety away.
Compromise and shame. The words of this phase of life. I think I’ll pass these on to him to take now. Perhaps they can buoy him in the tsunami that’s about to hit. Because now, I’m fucking pissed.