Nine Americans were murdered in a church in Charleston, South Carolina this week because a racist white man had a gun and the privilege to use it. This country that I call home makes me sick. And it makes me scared. Not so much for myself, as I am draped in the security of white skin. But for my friends around the world. Fellow travelers who might someday wish to visit the United States and tour its majestic national parks and grand cities.
"I'm afraid to go to the US. People are always getting shot there," the woman next to me on the plane said. We were enroute from China to New Zealand last December and after ten hours of sitting silently side-by-side we finally started up a conversation over breakfast. I learned that her name is Agnes. She is a mother of six --three sons and three daughters--and was headed to Auckland for her son's wedding.
Agnes is the perfect example of everything American news gets wrong. She is a magistrate from Nigeria. Her husband served as the ambassador to South Korea and they'd lived in Seoul for three years. She speaks English with a beautiful accent and carries herself like a queen--a thought that made me chuckle as I remembered the emails from alleged Nigerian princes who cannot spell. As I starred at my free airplane breakfast, she lamented its inadequacy. "We eat big meals in Africa," she told me. I offered her my bread roll and yogurt, which she happily devoured.
We talked about the misconceptions people have of different places. No matter how many places I travel, I continue to be surprised by the unconscious stereotypes I hold. Agnes shared in my frustration. "CNN is always giving negative reports of Nigeria," she explained. "Is that why it exists?" she asked, genuinely bewildered by the misrepresentation of her homeland in western media.
And yet, she was terrfied to visit the US, convinced she would be shot. I told her that as a black woman, the chance she'd be shot by our police was probably less than if she'd been a young man. She nodded knowingly. But the Charleston shooting this week has once again proved me wrong. Beautiful black women and men dressed in their Sunday best are also gunned down in the US. Agnes would not be safe here. In fact, I would be safer in Nigeria than she would be in my home country. And that makes me angry.
As we prepared to exit the aircraft in New Zealand, she asked a tall young man to help get her suitcase down from the overhead bin. "He reminds me of my son," she said. "Except my son is black and he is white," she added. They had the same physical build and were about the same age. It surprised me when she said that though. Growing up in the US, it never occurred to me that two people with different skin colors might have more in common than not. But the more I travel, the more I see the truth of this. Like the little brown girl I met in Nepal whose spunk and laughter reminded me of my niece. And the black man who treated me like his younger sister even though we'd just met.
Before Agnes walked off the plane, we exchanged email addresses--both @gmail.com. She invited me and Josh to visit her in Nigeria and I asked her to get in touch if she ever comes to the USA. And then she opened her black rolling suitcase and pulled out a handmade bead bracelet for me from Nigeria. No matter how far I will travel, I am grateful to have met Agnes and I hope to see her again. But after the recent massacre here, I think it will have to be in Nigeria because I am scared of what would happen if Agnes came to the US.