INTERVIEW WITH GERALDINE
On Racial Stress, Community Care & Helen Oyeyemi [Part 1]
Taeyin: Hello Geraldine! Welcome to POC Abroad where we’re here to learn more about the experiences of people of color who have been abroad or are abroad. Tell us about yourself.
Geraldine: My name is Geraldine Mukumbi. I grew up in small towns all over Zimbabwe. At 17, I moved to Johannesburg, South Africa for high school. Thereafter, I attended university in Indiana. My life has been marked by constant movement and change.
Currently, I teach at a high school in Bratislava, Slovakia that has a mission to develop the next generation of young shapers for the Central European region. What drew me to the organization was this dedication to giving students access to passion-driven education and life-changing opportunities regardless of socioeconomic status. I have been very lucky in my journey and I want to play a role in affording other kids those same opportunities.
Taeyin: What do you miss the most while working in Bratislava?
Geraldine: I miss how easy it is to exist when I am home. Now, Zimbabwe is not without its flaws, but, I miss how with all the chaos and struggles that mark daily living, I at ease there.
I think when you’re living in a country outside of home, a space you have no roots in, it constantly feels foreign. When I’m home, the assumption is, you belong here. But, when I am anywhere else the question is always, why are you here?
“When you’re living in a country outside of home, a space you have no roots in, it constantly feels foreign.”
Taeyin: In that space, what privileges do you hold?
Geraldine: I have a degree from an American institution so that holds a lot of weight. I speak English fluently so that’s a marker of privilege as well. I am able to travel for work and have access to different institutions due to my job.
I am still trying to find the language for this space that I am in. Due to my work and immigration status, I have access to regions that without my green Zimbabwean passport, would have been closed off to me. I am yet to find words to reconcile the two: this idea of being visually a foreigner and yet being able to legally inhabit this European space.
Taeyin: How do you hold your marginalizations and privileges together?
Geraldine: One of the things that my friends and I talk about often is the need to push our communities towards creating space for complex understandings of belonging. We’re living in a world that is comfortable with binaries. To exist in the grey area is often to not exist at all. As a young professional, I have certain privileges. As a black woman and an African immigrant, my identities also bring with them certain marginalizations. Travel, for me, forces me to a place where I have to reconcile these aspects of my identity and always push for a complex understanding of how I am read as I traverse this world. It’s complicated.
Taeyin: How are you aware of colonization and imperialism in your abroad context?
Geraldine: I always say that I am still bitter about colonisation. While most come to the conversation about imperialism from a purely academic perspective. I can not help but always begin with the fact that when my parents were born, Zimbabwe was still a British colony. As a result, it is a topic that I had no choice but to delve deeper into. It is also a topic that I teach to my students or try to make space for in conversations. I taught briefly at a high school in South Africa and found teaching European imperialism an easier task. I would teach colonization in the context of the enduring legacies of imperialism. One of the things that worked well was to get my students to put their African countries’ modern issues in conversation with the historical.
In Bratislava, conversations around European imperialism are much more difficult due to how Slovak history is also marked by occupation. So whenever the topic is broached there is a certain distancing that makes it harder to have a meaningful conversation about the role colonisation plays in instituting a global white privilege. As a teacher, I often find it a challenge to get people to unlearn the racist understanding of colonisation and move toward a complex understanding of its legacies today.
“Conversations around European imperialism are much more difficult due to how Slovak history is also marked by occupation…[It] is…harder to have a meaningful conversation about the role colonisation plays in instituting a global white privilege.”
Taeyin: As a woman of color, a Black woman, and a Shona woman, how do these identities affect your wellness in the Central European context?
Geraldine: Being a woman, being a woman of color means living in constant defense mode. Your intelligence is always questioned. Your competence is always questioned. When you’re already starting from that point, and you inhabit a world that is in a different culture and language, it’s a lot of pressure. So, I make it a point to constantly remind myself that I am enough. That I am not the problem.
There are also things such as how people stare a lot when I’m walking down the street. They don’t even try to hide it which is very uncomfortable. It’s a reminder of how I’m made to feel that I don’t belong. I could give a lot of examples but what makes it worse is that you don’t just experience these scenarios, after the experience any efforts to discuss or address them is often met with this idea that it‘s not due to race it‘s that I am an immigrant.
When we talk about Critical Race Theory, one of the things you learn is how whiteness derives its power from being invisible. I find that the language around race in this European context colors my experience. People are often quick to dismiss certain things by saying, “ Oh, this didn’t happen because you’re Black, but because you’re a foreigner.” It steers away from the conversation from whiteness towards immigration and nationality. That approach gives whiteness more power and takes away from a more complex understanding of identity.
Taeyin: Thanks for taking our conversation to the next level.
Geraldine: It’s always a difficult conversation to have because people have a way of explaining it away. I think when you are a POC, in the back of your mind, there’s always that knowledge that you don’t get to have the benefit of the doubt in any situation.
“I am yet to find words to reconcile the two: this idea of being visually a foreigner and yet being able to legally inhabit this European space.”
Some weeks back, I had a situation at a restaurant. It was in the Old City district where there are multiple outdoor seating areas for different restaurants. A colleague went into one of the street food places to buy fries and I remained outside and took a seat. The next thing I had a waiter shouting at me in Slovak.
I tried to explain that I was sitting and waiting for someone who was buying food inside. But, they were very rude saying please leave. I hadn’t even shared this experience with anyone because they may just excuse it. The thing is I could have been a customer of that restaurant. There was no reason for me to be treated that way. It is not only terrifying in the moment but very dehumanising.
Taeyin: Thank you for sharing an thank you for being vulnerable with us. Even if it’s not the first time, it always hurts, doesn’t it?
Geraldine: When it’s happening, your brain just freezes because you know you are not doing anything wrong. You are left with so many questions and hurt.
Taeyin: What helps you heal from this kind of racial stress?
Geraldine: I find that creating distance works for me. Whether its physically removing myself from a specific space or withdrawing into a different world through books or films. I am a big reader and I find comfort in stories because they allow me a reprieve. That is how I survived University in the Midwest of America – distance and seeking out communities of comfort with whom I do not have to explain my identity. So, if I get settled more and I find a community of other POC, that could be helpful.
Taeyin: Well, Helen Oyeyemi, the writer, is supposed to be in Prague. So I think you should hit her up.
Geraldine: Just casually send her a message. I love your work. I think you and me, we could be friends. What do you say? (laughs) I’m pretty sure she’d jump on that.
Taeyin: I think she would.
Taeyin: Who else is in Central Europe?
Geraldine: I think that’s it.
Taeyin: For POC?
Geraldine: I will Google: People of Color living in Central Europe. (types for a while) There is no database for POC in Central Europe. No.
Taeyin: Well, maybe you should create this database. Track down every single POC.
Geraldine: Challenge accepted. (laughs, pauses) Actually, no, it sounds like a lot of work.
Taeyin: If there aren’t many of us, it wouldn’t be a lot of work.
Geraldine: (Laughs) Right.
Taeyin: Best of luck with that.
Geraldine: We should tag Helen Oyeyemi in this article. #Let’s Meet.
*Keep your eyes out for Part 2 of our interview with Geraldine to talk more about self & community care!