"We have never been racist"
Have we ever been racist?
8 July 2021
Linda Xheza University of Amsterdam
When I first read the title of the event "We have never been racist" I struggled to understand what may have motivated such a choice. Thus, I had to read further to understand if it was provocative. Could someone claim that Greeks have not been racist? And, if someone can claim this, is this someone a person who has never been in the position of the outsider? Is it possible at all to claim something for the self that includes the Other – a claim that results from the encounter with the Other - and yet exclude the Other at the moment one utters this claim? The question of racism cannot be articulated without including the Other. Therefore, I propose to invert the title and ask: Have we ever been racist?
If I can ever reflect on the statement ‘’we have never been racist’’, it is only through its transformation into a question. It is only by asking this question that I may open up a space for myself to become part of the dialogue. Jacques Derrida says that the question of the foreigner is a foreigner’s question. The foreigner is the one who questions. In this sense, the question of racism has to come from the foreigner too. It is a question that can be asked by the foreigner the moment that she addresses the one who has been racist to her. In order to answer the initial question, I need to share a story that is not mine. Or, better put, it is partly mine. It is the story of a baby girl whose name is Lona.
It was summer of 1993. I was around eight years old. We were living in an underground single room with my parents. I remember this room well because of its paradoxical shape: the ceiling was constructed in the shape of the stairs leading to the ground floor. The room was lower on one part and higher on the other. There was a window that was so high up that I could not reach it to see anything, and it was also so small that I could only just fit my face. I used to stand on a chair looking out there for hours in the early evenings. From there I could only see the shoes of the people passing by. Many times, I could hear their conversations, and it gave me a strange sense of satisfaction as an invisible spectator. The shoes acted as a tool for my imagination, enabling me to envision their owners and how they looked. I never heard something worth remembering: their conversations were as boring as having to spend my time looking out that window.
However boring, the reason I am describing that window and the relationship I developed with it is because it grasps the relationship of Albanians to Greeks very well. The conditions of living in a house where you could only see the shoes of the other, point to a relationship that was never equal: we had to see only from below. One of the most infamous slogans against Albanians that grasps this relationship very well is the ‘’You will never become Greek, Albanian, Albanian’’ (Δεν θα γίνεις Έλληνας ποτέ, Αλβανέ, Αλβανέ). Thus, inferiority was understood as inherent of the Albanian as such, and thus the relationship has always been hierarchical. In everyday discourse the word ‘’Albanian’’ meant inferior, dirty, or criminal. Albanians themselves had internalised this shame at such a degree that I never remember seeing an Albanian restaurant or café similar to those that Chinese, Thai, or Kurds had. And, if such a place existed at some point, I think Albanians did not visit as most of them fear to identify with their community.
In Greece, there never emerged a mass politicised demand for the expulsion of Albanians, even if many would make this claim in everyday discourse. In this way, we were reminded that our place was fragile, and we would be sent back if we did not comply with the designated place that we had in the Greek society. Paradoxically, however, we were also welcomed - welcomed as long as we understood our position and did not try to disrupt the assigned roles. We were welcomed to be cleaners and low paid workers who neither had any rights nor the right to claim them. Like me, in that window, Albanians could share the space only if we remained silent, hidden with no demands and rights.
A few months later after I began standing on a chair to look out that window, another Albanian family arrived in the room next to ours. The husband, his wife, his brother, and a baby girl Lona. Lona must have been nine or ten months old. She was blonde, happy and only had a few teeth. That is all that I can bring to my memory of how she looked. Soon, my mom and Lona’s mom became friends and I spent time with the baby girl. During the day she was curious and playful, but a few weeks later she started crying a lot at nights. I could hear her clearly; our rooms were divided by a wall and our bathroom windows were right across from each other. Lona’s mother was often subjected to threats by an old Greek couple living on the same floor. I do not remember anything about that old couple except for their rudeness and that they always looked at us with such disgust in their eyes. Often, they would yell at Lona’s mother, threatening her that they would bring the police if she would not make that baby stop crying. They say it takes a village to raise a kid, but it seems that sometimes the village hates some kids. Indeed, one day they did what would seem impossible to do: they called the police and reported Lona’s family simply because they did not want to hear her cry. When you are a foreigner’s baby you are not allowed to cry.
We weren’t home that day. We had gone to visit my aunt who used to live in another area of Athens. When we arrived back, Lona’s mother called for help and her voice was trembling with fear. We went to their house – if it can be described as ‘’their’’ house at all – and she told us that the police arrested her husband and her brother-in-law. Before she even finished the sentence though, there was a knock at the door and a male voice said: ‘’Police. Open’’. And, they came in and arrested my father too. Then, they told my mother that we had to leave the country in two days, otherwise they would come back for us. ‘’The baby’’, they said, ‘’it’s very loud’’. When they left with my father, I was crying, Lona was crying, and our mothers were crying too. I still wonder if the collective cry in that room gave to the old couple the peace they were looking for.
Lona was sentenced and expelled for doing what babies do. They cry. Some of them cry a lot. The noise of the stranger is always more unbearable. Lona’s mother could not speak nor understand Greek and yet she was left alone with a small baby to figure out her way back. As I reflect on this now, I realise her mother had no support network and, because they were undocumented migrants, they also had no access to a paediatrician who may have been able to find out why Lona was crying so much.
This story cannot capture my whole experience of living as an Albanian in Greece, but the question this time is: have we ever been racist? Racism transforms the most vulnerable among the vulnerable - a baby, like Lona - into an object of hatred and disgust. Racism constructs a baby as a threat to existence. If our ethical responsibility is to respond to the Other, as Emmanuel Levinas contends, there was nothing ethical in that response to a baby’s cry.
Linda Xheza (University of Amsterdam): I am a PhD student at Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis. My thesis is on the Visualisation of philoxenia in the Greek media. I live in a small city of the Netherlands with Thomas, baby Alexis and Leo – a golden retriever.