Ferguson through the eyes of an African immigrant

Police in riot gear approach a man with his hands raised in Ferguson, Missouri.

Police in riot gear approach a man with his hands raised in Ferguson, Missouri.

By Parfait Bassalé

Last weekend I attended a multicultural event in the Portland area hosted by an amazing organization “Colored Pencils.” During the event, the presenter introduced to an audience of immigrants, representatives from the local police and fire department. In his introductory remarks, he said to the crowd: “These people work for you. They would rather be shot than see you hurt.” In light of the historical relationship between the police and minority groups in this country and the recent events in Ferguson, I could not refrain from asking myself: “Really? Are they really here for us?”

When I moved to the United States some 14 years ago, I first could not relate to the Black American experience. Century old narratives of discrimination and segregation were not the family stories I heard at the dinner table when growing up in Africa. For me at that time, racial profiling or prejudices were mere theoretical and historical notions which were no longer current. Up to that point, I had been privileged to never have needed to discuss race because my humanity was never denied me based on my color.

Consequently, I had naively assumed my experience to be true for everyone and became intolerant with Black American culture. I condemned it for being too angry, too “stuck in the past.” What I did not realize was that like many white people in America who never had to discuss their whiteness, I was suffering from the complex of racial privilege. A complex which results from a lack of empathy for those who have suffered historical trauma related to their race and still face triggers of this trauma on a daily basis.

Parfait Bassale

Parfait Bassalé

Fast forward 14 years, I am now a father of an African American son who serves as a bridge into the Black American experience. I can now put a face, a name, a smile, a scent to the alarming statistics. My son, compared to my white colleague’s kids, is six times as likely to be put in jail for a minor crime. He is ten times as likely to be sentenced for a drug crime if as a silly and rebellious teenager he gets caught experimenting with drugs.

I must consider teaching him to be cautious about wearing hoodies for fear of being suspected to be a thief. I must ensure that he is proficient at white culture because otherwise, his African American behavior from a white point of reference might be interpreted as confrontational and violent. He could be the next Trayvon Martin, the next Michael Brown or one of the thousand anonymous victims who suffer fatal brutality due to the fears associated with the color of their skin. These facts cause hurt, pain and anger as I realize that for the sake of my son’s safety, I must pierce his bubble of innocence much earlier than needed because of his brown color. How disheartening!

As more facts about the incident in Ferguson surface, passions will rise, opinions will form and positions will polarize. My question to everyone is the following: How can my neighbor not fear me when he or she does not know nor understand my story, my hurt, my triggers and my fears? How can the police who are supposed to look after me, protect me when they are programmed to be suspicious of me, my language, my walk and my expressions?

What I am arguing for is a need for White America (anyone with the complex of racial privilege) to cross over into the Black American experience.  Maybe then, she would think twice before holding tight to her purse because a black man stepped into an elevator. Maybe then, she would verbally discipline a derailed teenager rather than criminalize him. Maybe then, she would not use lethal force as a last resort when dealing with an unarmed teenager.

This piece originally appeared on the author’s Colombe Project blog.

Photograph: Jeff Roberson, The Associated Press

Benin-born artist, educator and author Parfait Bassalé specializes in the use of storytelling, music and reflective inquiry as methods for teaching empathy. When he is not performing his original music in cafes and pubs in Portland, you can catch him in classrooms facilitating empathy workshops using his invention: The Story and Song Centered Pedagogy.


Editor’s note: I met Parfait in 2008 through my work at The Oregonian. At the time, he was pursuing a master’s in international conflict resolution at Portland State University. For a time, he and his wife lived on the same block as us in Northeast Portland. They later moved to another neighborhood but I was delighted to recently reconnect with Parfait, who is a gentle soul as well as a fine musician.

Tomorrow: “Tiger lady” by Lakshmi Jagannathan


19 thoughts on “Ferguson through the eyes of an African immigrant

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences and the challenges your face as you raise your son. My heart hurts over the events in Ferguson and I feel helpless knowing this is just one instance of the multitude of ways we all participate in racism.

  2. Raising kids is a constant challenge. And I do think their being white boys works to my advantage in that challenge — especially if I lived elsewhere. Growing up in the PNW, I, like you, would get annoyed at race talk and thought it was so over. I didn’t get the hang up. Then I moved to Memphis for a semester of college in my early 20s. WOW. I got the hang up. I saw, first-hand, the tension, the discrimination, reverse discrimination, two races sharing a place — but not sharing a place. It was heartbreaking, educational and something I carry with me and summons whenever I read about things such as what is going on in Ferguson. Thanks for your piece, the questions, the reminder to ask questions.

    • Dina,
      Thank you for sharing your story. This is an area of passion: how do we systematically scale experiences like the one you have described. They are so transformational and educational but unfortunately not happening quite enough for many of us. That’s why I believe in storytelling as a great vehicle (not the only one) to achieving this end.

  3. Parfait – I find it difficult to provide commentary to topics like this, being fearful of saying the wrong thing … or the right thing wrongly. The part of your essay that leaves me struggling is in your concluding remarks, when you said this: “What I am arguing for is a need for White America (anyone with the complex of racial privilege) to cross over into the Black American experience.”

    As a white American, I simply cannot have that crossover experience. It is not possible. My skin is white. I do not think it matters in what class of white Americans I was raised … my skin is white and my experience is as a white American.

    An African American couple is one of my family’s closest friends (Fred, a pastor, refers to my family as his white family) and he and his lovely wife, Evelyn, have one child, a son. They fear for their son’s life solely because of the color of his dark skin, in spite of his higher education, based on their daily experience as black Americans.

    I can feel empathy about this, but I cannot share this experience in my worries about my adult daughter. These worries are different and something perhaps others do not understand as you argue that we (white Americans) cannot understand your experience. My daughter experiences discrimination as well solely because she is very obese. She suffers daily from the thin among us glaring at her with no respect for her as a human, but merely disdain for her fat. In the end, they suffer by missing the chance to know this amazingly kind, gentle soul.

    It makes me terribly sad that we live in a world where people are still judged by factors other than their character, whether it be race, gender, age, sexual preference, etc. As a woman, I have experienced issues associated with my gender (first as a young woman dealing with daily unwanted harassment in the form of catcalls, etc., and now as an older woman, dealing with becoming invisible as elderly people do).

    I find humans generally to be an inferior species. We are too self-consumed to look beyond “packaging” to learn the true nature of our fellow humans, which is a huge reason why my submission to this year’s VOA was titled “helpless.” Please keep teaching empathy to our children, Parfait, because if they learn empathy instead of hate, we may be able to save this small planet yet.

    • Sister Lynn,
      Thanks for your comments. They are pertinent on many points. I could not agree more that one’s experience will never be identical to someone else’s experience. However, let me try to address your statement “As a white American, I simply cannot have that crossover experience. It is not possible.” I think the key is how we unpack the construct “crossing over into another person’s experience.”
      I like to use the analogy of a bridge. A bridge allows a pathway between two spaces which otherwise would remain separated. By crossing over, we are not claiming to become someone else (it would be arrogant to pretend so). Instead we are getting access to the other space and therefore hearing, seeing and smelling what it is like on the other side of the bridge. As a result of crossing over regularly, one becomes familiar with both spaces and become a guide for others. Some have referred to it as becoming a cultural translator.
      I am sorry about your daughter’s story. That is a very hard place to be. I wish her strength and lots of love from family and community to hold her spine through this.
      Despite, man’s ability to be cruel, I do believe that the human race is a special race because of its God given potential to love a a degree higher than any other race. Unfortunately, such potential has not yet been realized. Hence, we are operating from a purely reptilian and carnal mind.
      Thanks for sharing!!!

  4. Parfait, this resonates with me on several levels. As a white woman, I hope you won’t think less of me when I admit to having at one time or another been that gal who holds their purse closer, or locks their doors – but it happens no matter the color of the man approaching – it’s a different fear that women live with sadly that makes men seem potentially menacing in certain circumstances. Also, it would be dishonest of me to say that I could remotely feel the same fear and anxiety about what my son will encounter in the world as a white child. I am baffled on an ongoing basis by what people in various areas of my life think is okay when they categorize people, and categorize they do. The only way for people to understand, is when they are put in the position of being the minority in a situation. That gets their/our attention. The challenge is how to raise children to ‘get it’ from the get go and make change. Thank you for your brilliant writing!

    • Thanks for sharing Tammy,
      To one degree or another we all have acted or reacted due to some fears and/or stereotypes. The key is to be aware and to be willing. The willingness to engage in a reflective analysis of one’s own behavior and thoughts held against divine standards of Love, justice, Mercy and Grace for all. Here is where lies the challenge. And you are absolutely right that it often takes being deprived of one of these standards to realize how it feels like. I do believe that teaching these principles to kids from an early age will help win this battle.

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on such a controversial subject. As an immigrant, I often feel that there is a cultural clash between many ethnic and cultural groups. Perhaps we need more education, networking or some other way to bridge the gap and understand the nuances of how people behave and interact with each other. White Americans tend to be very private and closed, interacting only with people with whom they have some context. Not so in other parts of the world.

  6. Yes! yes! yes! This reminds me if the Brent Staples essay “Black Men in Public Space” which I always use in my class for discussion. Now I’ll use this too when I am getting the critical thinking kettle going on the topic of race and experience. So appreciated!

  7. Pingback: VOA 4.0 meetup | Rough and Rede II

  8. I will read this again and again as well as the comments which are very moving. I grew up in the white experience with some discrimination because I was Jewish. That pales in comparison to the experiences on this page.

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