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8. The Death of DEI
  • Writer's pictureAntonio Da Veiga Rocha

Racism and Antiracism (Part 2: Born into Racism)

Updated: May 23, 2022

As you may be able to tell by the title, this is a continuation of the previous post. In that post I spoke about evidentiary racism, the type you see and get a clearer grasp on. In this post I will speak about some of my personal interactions with racism and provide a more internalized perspective on the subject. This post may read more like prose from time to time, but sometimes the personal is filled with a combination of emotions that is often best released in this form.

A Europe-Africa Backdrop

In the About the Founder/Director page of this website, there is a section titled My Story. There I mention the impetus for entering this type of work, my earlier life in my birth country of Portugal, a Mediterranean country and one of the major players in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

My parents moved to Portugal from Cape Verde, a small archipelago in west Africa. It was given independence in 1975 but not before years of guerrilla warfare and intellectual political maneuvering by independence movements and leaders like Abel Djassi (AKA, Amilcar Cabral) and his independence party Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC).

In the modern history of Africa to Europe people movement many Africans make their first stops in their former colonizing countries. This can be for many reasons, but principally it is to do with familiarity. Language and immigrant kinships are often the main ones. My parents were no different. They went to Europe for these very reasons.

Born into Racism

Immigrants of color in western countries experience their large share of racism and xenophobia. This was my parent’s case, and in time, my case. I remember a story my mother told me of when I was born. It is a deeply connecting story between her and I, a situation I have shared in some of my talks on Racism.

She told me that when I was born, literally, the moment I was born, she was experiencing racism. She was at a Lisbon hospital where the care was anything but careful. The nurses asked to aid her did nothing but look down at her. They ignored her when she asked for help, or minimized her concerns. Her moans and signals of discomfort went unattended. She could hear them making discriminative and bigoted remarks, only pausing to make sure their sentiments were felt by their exaggerated exhales.

My mother became so frustrated that she decided she would give birth to me by herself. She was wheeled into a room and asked to wait there, told that if she felt any discomforts of pains to call out. She had decided that she wasn't going to do that.

I was born a few moments later. Alone, and as quiet as a room could be. She pushed and pulled, using her hands and her anger to bring me into to this world. A rebellion, today she speaks of that moment proudly, a moment she stood in dignity while pitying their amazement at what she had been able to do without a sound. Clearly they had never explored true conviction and anger.


This was the mid-seventies, yet women of color in western countries still have a high risk of pregnancy complications, more than their white counterparts. So much so that in the United States many have started to procure their own methods of delivery and birthing experiences.

During that time Africans upon Africans made their way to Europe. Many to work as housemaids, construction workers, cleaners, washers, etc. A pattern we can see repeated with the types of jobs Central and South American immigrants occupy today. Such low-wage paying jobs sustained the large immigrant populations of that time, all the while assisting the West’s modernization. These are trends that still continue today.

Racism is Elaborate

Racism follows the attitudes and actions of a community. Racism is not born from isolation. It is a series of patterns that influence thought and produce action. It is a set of ideologies that need perpetuation; like plants, it doesn’t grow without certain needs. In Portugal one of the political propaganda machine’s most repeated indictments was how foolish Africans were for not understanding and accepting how much better off they were as part of Portugal. The Africans had chosen this idea of freedom and yet were running to the colonizing land for 'work and a better life'. It wasn’t uncommon to hear brashly white voices asking publicly, why did they want their independence and now run here? The Portuguese middle class ate such political rhetoric, and when given the chance they communicated such inanities to the Africans they saw.

The Anxiety that Lived Within

As a youngster I was one of two black students in my elementary classes, both of us from Cape Verdean parentage. During that time it wasn’t unusual for corporal punishment to be used in the classroom. Even at that elementary age I knew that I was selected more than most for such ‘disciplinary care’; a type of chastisement that was accompanied by disappointing and bitter looks from my teacher.

At such moments I felt she was letting out more than just frustration with my 'lack of understanding', more so an irritation and perplexity, an internal bewilderment she could not control. My color, and that of my compatriot’s, was a difficulty she fought with daily, a preponderance of emotions I am sure she struggled with. I say this because in some perverted way, I did feel she cared.

Racial phycologists and intellectuals of colonization, individuals like Franz Fanon (left) and Eduard Said, have spoken of this complex feeling that accompanies most white racists, a type of racial anxiety and unsettlement with the racial information you are told to perpetuate and that of your personal values and inner most emotional campuses. But of course, there are many levels of racists, from macro aggressors to extremists. As for my teacher, she might have been hoping that with each slap my blackness would dissipate, making me whiter and whiter. But my color remained as a constant aide-mémoire of the integration the country was in, something no one could regress from.

And then there were the comments made by other kids, by adults, by authority figures, caregivers, public servants, shop owners, and others. This as my family, friends, kins of color, moved through the busy city centers, alleys, and shops, procuring the daily needs. At time gripped by racial epithets which manifested a muteness that perverted one’s sense of self and dignity. Much of it shared between us in conversation and silent looks. Like a poison this disease of racism spread in our immigrant communities, creating consequences like mental illnesses. From depression to schizophrenia, it wasn't uncommon to hear members of our communities speak of such mental weights. In the cases of schizophrenia, many accounting for at least one of the voices in their heads occupying the voice of the white racist.

Onto Antiracism and our Next Journey

I have not spoken here of my years in the Unites States and the racism experienced there, a more sinister type of racism that is structural and imbedded in the fabric of its everyday national identity. This, for now, will have to be for another occasion. But what I do want to leave you with is something my mother would often tell me. She'd say that purposeful ignorance is a complicit act. When we ignore another’s suffering, while knowing our involvement can have an impact, such inactions can and should be judged. My mother is an intelligent African woman, and this is an ethos I believe in deeply. I now phrase like this: What is in my mind to understand and think of, is in my mind to act and create change with.

The next blog post will be the last continuation of this series. I will speak there of Antiracism and how such practices, in my experiences, have shifted attitudes and created spaces. These are spaces for dialogue and for entry into the sensitivities and complexities of racist behaviors and outcomes. I will get back to a more consultancy blog format of bullet points and takeaways, hopefully, providing you more tangible and actionable steps to explore and be empowered by.

Thank you so much for reading this post. It’s been a personal one, and often an emotional one. I do hope it has served my initial purpose, which is to inform and motivate the changes on Diversity and Equity we seek to see in our communities. Until next time.


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