Albert Mhangami has an infectious, radiating smile. Yet, as a black student living in Maastricht, he is regularly confronted by racism. For example, once as he was cycling home, a group of drunks threw apples at him, calling him a nigger. As his teacher (and as a human being), I am infuriated, but as a minority living in Maastricht myself, I am not very surprised.
Albert often chooses not to escalate these situations: “It’s something that happens to me so often that I ignore it,” but doing so comes at a cost. Not only can such experiences be dehumanizing, but Albert says that minority students too often “try and make ourselves smaller [and] friendlier,” so as not to draw any negative attention. What Albert says resonates with me, but it also makes me wonder what is actually behind Albert’s trademark smile.
More recently, Albert was walking near Emmaplein at night with his friend joking around in Shona (a language spoken in Zimbabwe). When they notice two white girls walking towards them, Albert and his friend instinctively switch to English and start talking about their thesis deadline as if to project that they are the ‘harmless black guys’. The girls end up crossing the street anyway.
“There is this really horrible feeling when you’re a person of color that you are alone sometimes,” laments Albert, but he is convinced that there are more reasons for hope and optimism than fear and despair. He attributes his positivity and resilience in part to the support offered by the UM community: “The university finally got a diversity officer. Her name is Constance Sommerey and she is a gift to this world. That woman is amazing!” Albert’s friends also have his back, standing and speaking up with him when he is confronted by acts of ignorance and intolerance.
Sharing our stories, for many of us, is a way to build social cohesion and to ease our burdens. Moreover, Albert believes that through meaningful and compassionate dialogue, our collective spirits can be uplifted. He tells me that “ignorance fights to stay, but it’s a battle that it cannot win,” and in that moment, I smile too because I finally realize that Albert is always smiling because he knows this to be true.
Mark Kawakami, assistant professor at the Faculty of Law