Photo: David Prado Perucha/Shutterstock

Labels I've Had to Deal With as an African Woman in Europe

by Caroline Achieng Otieno Jul 11, 2016

IT’S EARLY EVENING when I get to my apartment block. It appears to be on lockdown with heavily armed police crawling everywhere; muted sirens rotate from atop their cars, flashlights search the area.

I bump into two police, one of them female.

The policewoman beckons for me to move closer and orders me to put my hands up and stand akimbo. I comply and she gives me a full pat down: my shoulders, chest, between my legs and feet. She waves me aside to pass, but not before mentioning that there had been a stabbing and they are searching everyone for weapons.

I nod and enter the lift to my apartment and on to other business. It’s humorous to me and then it’s not. Any violence is bad, but I never imagined going through a pat-down, something I only ever saw in movies. As a new inhabitant of Bijlmermeer, I’m made aware that it’s not the new normal, rather it has always been the normal.

Bijlmer is the most dangerous part of Amsterdam. A place where being toffee-coloured has people confusing me for what I am not; even being subjected to pat-downs for weapons, though my knives are neatly stacked in the kitchen and not in someone’s back on the streets.

Similarly, being a black woman in Europe has me walking around with labels my mama never gave me.

The refugee

There has been the unspoken assumption that I am a refugee. I have been treated like I am fleeing persecution. The crazies have told me to go back; they’ve made it clear they don’t care much about what I’m ‘escaping’ from, whether it be bombs, bullets, or brutal dictators. They have been hostile to my critiques about their traditions such as black face.

I am not escaping from anything. I have met people friendly enough to open wide their arms, give me sympathetic warm embraces, plant a few kisses on my cheeks and offer a readiness to ‘help’ me out… until they find out that I didn’t come to their land as an escape, but to study. Almost all the time after this new revelation, things have changed; people have withdrawn from friendship and made efforts to avoid me completely.

The shop-lifter

The one thing I have grown accustomed to is being followed around whenever I enter stores or supermarkets. As if on cue, the random security guy straightens his posture, like the presence of a dark skinned girl has somewhat jolted him awake from semi-slumber. His eyes follow my every move, and when I’ve walked out of sights, I notice him popping up round the corner to ‘check up on me.’ It’s annoying and ridiculous.

The sales people are worse in that respect. They shimmy up so close, hovering about, making it feel like they have perched themselves on my shoulders, as they chirp continuously, “Can I help you? Are you looking for something in particular? Have you found what you are looking for?”

It’s irritating, and I find myself wondering whether I can be left alone to shop in peace. I’ve learnt to quickly turn back and say, “Thank you, I’m actually searching for….” That, as well as a stern look, gets them off my back.

The Black Girl magic

I feel that I have been fetishized. There are guys out there quite quick to objectify everything about a black woman’s body. There has been talk about thighs, legs and breasts, which hasn’t been chicken but me being reduced to body parts. Worse than those descriptions is the actual groping, the light grazing of breasts, the grasping of butt cheeks and the inappropriate flirting.

As a dark-skinned girl, walking through streets in Rijeka, Croatia was horrifying as men in traffic from the opposite direction to where we were walking, kept on hooting, shouting lewd comments, and making gestures as we made our way up the hill. I chose to ignore them completely though I could hear the taunts.

Going from Mostar to Sarajevo was a little unnerving for me as a drunk guy grabbed my hand and planted slobbery kisses the length of it including the back of my palm, as he cooed, “My sweet chocolate..”

Then there have been guys that I have met around Europe that have said they loved my lips like that was meant to be a compliment. In parts of the continent where blacks are rarely seen in the flesh, and mostly viewed half-naked in music videos, the approach has been whack, outrageous and frightening to say the least.

The feral

Coming from Africa? I have learnt to brace myself for the dumbest of questions. I’ve met those absolutely befuddled by what means I used to arrive at their continent, as if planes cannot possibly land or take off from my country. “Did you trek through the desert or take long treks with your camel?” they have asked, “Did you swim across the ocean? It must have been tiring fighting off sharks and other marine animals.”

They hardly give me the space to answer, because they have other questions. They have innocently asked what animals I live with, and where it is I live anyway. “Is it on the trees with monkeys and chimpanzees?” or “Do you run on the streets with lions, giraffes and zebras?” Surely, you should be able then to understand, ‘animal-speak?’

I have had no suitable response to such questions, it is just too tiring,. They should see my country for themselves, so I just go mum.

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