Racism ingrained in culture
February 24, 2021
So I grew up, you know, I was born and grew up speaking French, which is the language we'll speak, and English and Creole. And, so I, that's helped with the research because I can do research in different languages. And I kind of can see those different sides. But also, I mean, it's a tropical paradise, but it was a slave island. And I grew up very, I suppose, very privileged, very charmed, I think it was a very charmed life. But always aware, always aware of tensions under the surface. And really, and of course as I got older, I could see those more and more, sometimes not under the surface, sometimes really, right there in your face. So I think that's certainly informed how I — oh — the questions I have about the world in the past. And then with my last book on slave testimony, I went from working just on Louisiana, and I wanted to work on Mauritius as well. So I started doing archival research in Mauritius in the archives. And, you know, what can I say?
There's a lot of horror in those archives. Because they didn't think there was anything wrong with slavery or how they treated Black bodies and how they policed them, and the abuse and the violence, but when you see it on your own island, you know, it's my beautiful island of Mauritius and to see how, a couple of 100 years ago, people were treated, and to see the legacies of that was really shook me. I knew it would be there but to see it is still quite hard. And so then the next stages I'd have some friends in Mauritius say 'No, it wasn't that bad, was it?' And I would start quoting to them; 'well, this is what I just found in the archive last week.' And they'd be, you know, look shocked, because there's still too little known about those, that side of this gorgeous tropical island.
So in my little island of Mauritius, when I was nine, this new girl came to school. And she was from Mali, in West Africa. And I don't remember this very much, but I think we hit it off. I mean, she was just funny and smart. And she was the best, best mathematician I'd ever met. Like, clearly, I just remember her being brilliant at mathematics. And one day, and what I remember is one day, my white friends coming to me and saying: you can't. If you play with her, we're not going to play with you. And I think that's probably my earliest memory of, my earliest, like, conscious memory. You know, it's all there. It's all there. But my conscious one, and of course, I, you know, I, I'm gonna say a stereotype. I'm a redhead. I'm hot tempered. Especially when I was young, like, and I just remember blowing up at those girls. I was like you go away. And so Mariam and I, we, you know, we were buddies and she went away for years and came back, we're still buddies. And we reconnected, she reached out, we totally lost touch with each other. And she reached out about two years ago, sent me an email, she found me. And so we, you know, one day I hope to see her again, but I, but that was my probably first sort of formative experience. And they didn't have to say it, that's what's interesting, right? They didn't have to say you need to stop being friends with Mariam, because she's Black or African or whatever. They didn't have to say that. I don't remember their saying that. But I knew that's what they meant.
Sophie White is a professor of American Studies and concurrent professor in the Departments of Africana Studies, History, and Gender Studies at Notre Dame.