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Finding humour in racism

To mark the European Action Week against Racism (18-26 March), civil society groups, educational institutions and city governments are carrying out activities to protest against racism and celebrate the diversity that enriches European societies. To commemorate the week, our contributing editor Sarah Udoh-Grossfurthner, writing from Vienna, narrates a story that will make you laugh and then feel pity for racists.

Who says one cannot find humour, albeit of a bizarre kind, in racism?

Racism can engender a life-long enmity and bitterness between the discriminator and the discriminated against.  However, some who have been discriminated against sometimes choose – possibly for the sake of sanity and their own peace of mind – to accord some of their encounters the triviality they believe they deserve. 

 As incontrollable laughter wracked our ribs and brought tears streaming down our cheeks, my friend Helen and I were aware that we were drawing differing looks of interest from those around us. 

Some were amused looks, others were envious, while others still were irked looks of annoyance at ‘these Black girls who dared to be so happy’: this, after all, was the street of Vienna (the stately and classical capital of Austria) where overt display of emotion was a thing reserved only to those ‘tiresome foreigners who have come to steal our jobs and deplete our social amenities.’ 

Sarah Udoh-Grossfurthner lives and writes in Vienna

It was the tail end of summer, and Helen and I had decided to avail ourselves of the fantastic deals and offers at Mariahilferstrasse (the Vienna equivalent of London Oxford Street).  As we approached the entrance to the U2 underground station, we noticed an old woman – roughly in her seventies – struggling to carry a suitcase, a grocery bag and handbag, all obviously loaded and heavy with shopping. 

And so, as befit two well-brought up Nigerian ladies, we approached her and asked if we could be of assistance to her.  She accepted our help and thus, we found ourselves carrying her bags down the elevator, waited with her for the train to arrive and thereafter, helped her onto it.

When she reached her destination – which was fortunately in the same direction we were heading – we helped her out of the train and, still carrying her bags, escorted her to the exit of the underground station, at which point she informed us that she would be able to manage from there.

At the end of our ‘good Samaritan’ venture, we were rightly expecting her to offer us a smile and profusely smoother us with thanks: well, don’t hold your breath, for that was not what she did! 

Rather, she asked us where we were from; in bemusement, Helen and I looked at each other and, simultaneously, answered ‘Nigeria.’

She calmly responded, ‘Ich wünsche ihnen Glück denn, als sie Nigerianerinen sind, werden sie Glück sicher brauchen!’  Roughly translated, it means, `I wish you two luck then, since you are Nigerians, you will surely need it!`

As Helen and I stood there, mouth agape, trying to decide if we had just heard what we thought we’d heard, or if our minds were playing tricks on us, she took her bags from us and walked slowly, and righteously away. As comprehension dawned that we’d indeed heard her right, laughter rolled like thunder, in chorus, from deep within both of us.  We were too damned amused to be angry.

The irony of the whole incident was the fact that it was the two of us, two Black women, from a  ‘much less civilized’ race (amongst the endless faces of the White and the familiar) who were humane enough to be bothered  to offer her the much needed help she required. It was this realization which caused us to double over in mirth and stunned bemusement at the senseless logic of some, supposedly civilized, people.

And so, the reason for our incontrollable laughter on this hot summer day, on the streets of Vienna.  It was hard enough to comprehend the fact that a person could be so (blissfully and stupidly) ignorant, enough to lose complete sight of a, supposedly universal, sense of common courtesy.

To watch that person also display such stupidity and ignorance to the very people she considers beneath her in intelligence and in civilization, (and not realizes how totally at odds her behaviour was to her claim) was a comic relief of a lifetime. 

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Sarah Udoh-Grossfurthner,   a poet, motivational speaker and mentor was born in the Southern part of Nigeria.  She is blessed with two children and, in her words, ‘they are my joy, my hope, my inspiration and the light that brightens the pathways of my life’.  An Austrian citizen, she lives and writes in Vienna.

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