The other day, while waiting at the doctor’s reception, I witnessed a dialogue between a black man and a white woman that left me thoughtful and gloomy.
* * *
On this day there is a long queue, unusual for this place, and the German woman behind the reception desk is not in a friendly mood. She is a young woman, wearing a white shirt over white pants, her blond hair pulled back in a short pony-tail. She is efficient in the way Germans usually are: doing the job with precision and speed, assuming a polite but firm manner. But she also seems disturbed, not at ease: she moves her hands rapidly, avoiding eye-contact with the patient in front, which lends her a distracted, impatient air. She deals with a couple of patients in this manner, and then it is the turn of the black man two places ahead of me.
From behind, and from the occasional glimpses of his profile, he resembles the actor Morgan Freeman: an elderly man, tall and heavy-set, curly greying hair, a pockmarked face with deep lines on his forehead. I imagine him speak in a clear, intense voice, but what comes out is hushed and hesitant: German is foreign to him, and he is struggling.
“Ihre Telefonnummer, bitte?” the woman asks, looking into her computer screen.
He gives her the number, uttering the German digits slowly, as if extracting each from a faraway place. As he nears the end he falters; the left hand reaches for his jeans pocket, pulls out a mobile phone — but he does not look it up.
“Wer ist der Hauptversicherte?” she asks, still looking at the screen. Who is the main insured in the family?
The man does not reply. She repeats the question, slowly, and asks if that is his wife.
“Ja,” he says. Yes.
By now a hushed silence has descended on the room, as though the dozen or so people were all absorbed in this conversation.
She asks him his wife’s date of birth. He dithers for a moment, and that moment cripples him: conscious of being overheard, perhaps intimidated by the lady’s impatience, he goes numb. Then, after what seems like an unbearably long pause, he mumbles a date that ends with 1949.
The woman repeats the date, and ends it with a question mark: 1949?
Yes, I think so, he says; his voice says he isn’t sure. She types something into the computer and asks him to wait until ten-thirty; you can take a walk outside if you wish, she adds.
He stands still, looking at her. Then: Sorry?
The woman repeats her statement, and instead of looking at him she shuffles some files around.
But I called yesterday and was asked to come at eight-thirty, he says. His tone underscores his puzzlement; he isn’t frustrated, only bewildered at the prospect of waiting for two hours. But this two-hour business is common at this doctor’s place; it has happened to me before, and to some Germans too.
The woman is trying hard to conceal her impatience. Still without looking up, she says: One needs to be registered to confirm an appointment!
And then, facing a wall of silence: I can’t do anything else!
Her voice is no louder than usual, no louder than it has been this morning, and yet what she has just said sounds like a dismissal. The conversation can go on no more.
When he turns around I see the man’s face. The likeness to Morgan Freeman dissolves, and I am faced with a look of weariness, of resignation. There is no anger: only pain, and helplessness, in the way he moves himself forward, shoulders drooping and head bent, as if carrying all that bulk were an enormous burden.
* * *
There are different ways to view this episode. You could take a straightforward view, one that fits well into the dominant narrative: white-locals (the insiders) mistreating dark-skinned immigrants (the outsiders). Or you could take into account the woman’s mood, the long queue facing her, her surly behaviour towards people — whites, mostly — before and after this black man, and conclude that the black man faced nothing unusual.
But think again about that second interpretation. What strikes you?
First, this interpretation is unlikely to be accepted by a dark-skinned onlooker because it does not make a good story: it robs the victim of his pathos, and lets the perpetrator off too easily. So the outsider goes away carrying with him the juicy episode of “white-local ill-treating black immigrant,” a post-modern version of the-colonial-and-the-colonized relationship.
Second, the interpretation is unfair to the man, as it does not consider the history of hostility and violence suffered by blacks. The black man cannot ignore this history — of his people, and his own experiences — which suggests that he cannot interpret the woman’s behaviour as an innocent outburst. For him it is about his race, about his skin colour, and he feels offended and hurt. With every such encounter he becomes more sensitive, more resentful.
Third, the interpretation, because it cannot be accepted, reveals the tragic nature of the episode. Despite the absence of ill intentions, the white-local’s behaviour is doomed to be misinterpreted by outsiders. What can be more depressing?
Fourth, if accepted by the black man this interpretation is easiest to deal with on a personal level. If the woman treated him as she treated the others, he has less reason to feel offended. Easy, once accepted; but impossible to accept.
Can we ever break out of this cycle? Can we ever erase the line between the outsider and the insider?
(To be continued)