A week or so ago now my roommates and I, 3 white university students, were having a conversation about white guilt. The conversation had started somewhere around the african-ness of white africans and landed squarely in questions of identity formation, specifically tied to geographic location or nation states. Ideas of alienation, otherness and guilt filled the kitchen as we all danced around each other simultaneously making dinner and consuming dessert. My mind drifted backwards and forwards to various points in my short life when these presently tossed around conclusions held weight. I was reminded of the constructive nature of reflection, a moments pause, and the gifts of contextualizing the present.
I found myself thinking back to freshman year in Costa Rica, past the overall remembrance of what a roller coaster that was personally and academically, to the specifics of how I saw myself in the greater world. I remember feeling ostracized for being American, as if the weight of US history rested on my shoulders. I remember finding it difficult to trust others, because of prevalent crime, clumsy spanish, and an overall knowledge that to most I represented a politics that was most unfriendly. I remember feeling guilty about and angry with my country, as I accepted it as definitive of myself. It seemed the more I learned about our history, as individual nations and as neighbors, the more isolated I felt. In the end of my time in Costa Rica I took solace in something that was completely removed from the unsettling stigmas of the world, surfing. I remember thinking, this is the closest I will ever get to paradise, to a place where I am an accepted stranger and we are all just riding off the beautiful mysterious gifts of nature, a world of political irrelevance.
That paradise, and the love I found in the ocean introduced me to a man around which I formed many more memories, a South African. And I remember sitting with him one day in Durban trying to have a conversation, about what I cannot specifically remember, but at a certain moment I was at a loss for words. My opinion was swept up inside me with no politically correct position for release and I vividly remember this South African’s assurance in me. I remember him saying, ‘Just say it. I trust you, trust yourself and your good intentions. If it seems problematic to me I can question you on it later’. When I learned to trust myself in whole, as existing beyond a physical representation of structures outside of me, as an individual with reflective, proactive and discursive agency I was free. And in that moment I could find a similar piece of surfing paradise in the city, because the paradise was not solely the beach, the paradise was a foundation of respect for one another and our common humanity.
What I learned that day and continue to hold true is a belief in myself, as a person outside of the history of national politics, often even in objection to them. What I know about this world is that it is necessarily unequal. Just many connected larger versions of an instance in childhood when my best friend got a bike for Christmas and I didn’t. Sameness is impossible, and we will always have to confront the discomforts of difference, which are undoubtably and uncomfortably more than mere ownership of a bike. But I have met too many people to believe that I or they don’t belong. What I felt in Costa Rica was a rejection of unconstrained capitalism, of imperialism, of oppression, not of me. It was hate, probably well guided yet misplaced hate. Because, what none of us could see as Costa Ricans and Americans, blinded by the misappropriation of national politics for personhood, is that we agreed with each other. That inside each one of us was not a political party’s manifesto, a corporate drive for unconstrained profit compromising social or cultural sustainability, or a fundamentally compromising allegiance to our singular skin color, but a person who by some incredible happenstance landed on this earth situated in a national history and amongst a family outside of their choosing. A person, who like all persons, most fundamentally spends their days just trying to eat.