Three weeks ago, my house was pelted with watermelon rinds. No other garbage. Just watermelons. As soon as I heard the noise, I ran outside. When I saw the mess, I was enraged. I wanted to confront the culprit.
My anger was caused by something much deeper than watermelons. You see, growing up in the United States, I’ve been culturally conditioned to see the world always through the suffocating prism of race. And it’s not just me. This is a basic instinct for Americans of every race. No matter how much we say “everyone is equal,” our government policies, our history and our daily social interactions betray this lie.
Without a second thought, I freeze with terror when I see a police officer — in any country — or wake up in a panic when I know that my son is driving home late. It often feels like there’s no escape from this nightmare.
So when I saw watermelon slices scattered all over my patio, I took it as a form of racist intimidation. The problem was, I wasn’t in the United States. I was in Costa Rica, where watermelon is just a delicious fruit enjoyed by all. There’s no racial stigma attached, no lingering racist Reconstruction Era cultural stereotypes about lazy blacks and watermelons.
Calm down and breathe is what I told myself as I cleaned up those watermelon rinds. It’s nothing. But generations of toxic cultural indoctrination do not die easily and even now, weeks later, I’m still trying to get over it and my suspicions about some of my expat neighbors, many of whom like me are from the United States and travel around the world towing their own racial baggage as white Americans.
This is what racism does to you. It scars you and dehumanizes us all. It makes us mistrust one another. And if you don’t fight it every day, the hate will defeat you.
And this is exactly why a trailblazing woman like Michelle Obama is so inspiring. As the nation’s first black First Lady, Michelle was the object of equal parts adulation and scorn for eight years. And she still is. Recently, she spoke at a women’s empowerment conference in Colorado. She told the crowd that the racism she faced as First Lady was extremely painful, specifically one incident where a woman called her “an ape in heels.”