I lived in Copenhagen from the age of 13 until the age of 18. During the first 2 years, I made my way through a Danish Catholic school where I received decent grades, but still had a language barrier to overcome. So upon entering high school (known as Gymnasium), I decided that I would attend an international school where everything would be taught in an English IB programme.
Seeing as how all of the nearly 30 students were from different places around the world, it was custom that the new class would always take a trip out to the Danish countryside where we could have a chance to learn more about each other, while still doing our daily lessons. At night, we took a walk for a math exercise in the forest where we were broken up into groups.
I don’t entirely remember the exercise we were doing. But I remember suggesting an answer, to which one of my group members who was from Russia reacted, “That can’t be right. What are you, stupid?” And while this wasn’t the nicest thing to say, neither he nor I was prepared for my reaction.
I lost it.
I ran up to him, got close, and began screaming at the top of my lungs how I was not stupid. That if he should never call me stupid ever again, or that I would kill him. Shocked, he quickly apologized and then wandered away. He tried a few times to justify using the word stupid, but I countered with the same anger and vitriol. There was no doubt that he could tell how ready I was to escalate his words into a physical altercation. And I was in a place, where I was no longer regarding his well-being as something of value.
This wasn’t the first outburst I had had similar to this one, and it wouldn’t be the last. Even though I had left the country, the fight had not vanished that I thought was mine to take up against any slight, perceived or no. And I didn’t realize the effect this was having on how I was perceived and how I would navigate into the world until a friend, who I still know, told me one time during a lunch break:
“Maris, everyone really likes you. We just wish you would calm down.”
It was with those sentences that I realized that a new work had to begin.
The Hidden Anger
The word stupid had been a sore spot for me since I was a small child. At age 5 in kindergarten, my first teacher would make me sit on the floor until all the other children were dismissed with no explanation. She would then try to convince me she had never made me do such a thing, and also tried to convince my mother that I had difficulties learning.
So my mother taught me about racism and how many people who were white might think I was stupid simply because of my skin color, and that I had to be prepared to show them that I wasn’t. I could not let anyone get away with treating me as lesser, which made me confused and angry. Especially seeing as how my father was white and one of the kindest men in the world.
And while this education did prepare me to recognize when racism or prejudice was being thrown my way. It was an introduction of a trauma that I would carry with me across years and continents. Each interaction I had with a white person outside of my family, I subconsciously was judging their words or actions were a slight. And if they were, how I would respond. I got into a lot of fights as a kid, almost one or two every year. Which always surprised my teachers who for the most part knew me as quiet and thoughtful.
And with the divorce of my parents, I carried the same repressed rage to Denmark where on occasion it would boil over. And in the case above, threats of violence were directed at another teenager who had also moved from a foreign country and simply uttered the wrong phrase. I had used one word, to project all of my own internal feelings of self doubt and anger. And I’m fortunate that nothing worse was done.
The Place of Trauma
I recently had the pleasure to speak with champion Paralympian and Sociologist Dartanyon Crockett, who impressed upon me how in so many communities of color (especially black ones) we are not given the space to heal. We’re treated as lesser human beings, which would drive anyone to anger and perhaps insanity. But when we react to the way we’re treated, we’re labeled as being that way intrinsically.
And so we lash out against anything that might take us back to that place of helpesness.
We have triggers that take us back to that emotional place where the trauma first occurred. In my case, being called stupid took me back to being the confused child being commanded to sit on the floor and feel ostracized. And where I couldn’t fight then, I could fight now.
The healing and the work that needed to take place, was to realize that I didn’t have to fight anymore. Not every slight needed to be corrected. Not every challenge needed to be answered. And this didn’t mean I was weak or docile. Simply that I could judge my response on what was necessary in the moment. Not defending myself in the past.
My mother’s own trauma had intertwined with my own. She had spent so long trying to defend me from the threats I faced, that sometime she saw invisible ones. Before I decided to attend the international school, she and I had a meeting with the school counselor (and also my French teacher). We went into the meeting convinced that she didn’t like us because we were brown because of her demeanor. And when she suggested that I attend an international school, my mother was taken back to the time of when I was 5.
Here was another teacher trying to keep her son from reaching his potential. Trying to make sure that his opportunities were less than all the other “normal” children. I initially sided with my mother, and we both fought against the notion. It didn’t help that the counselor’s English wasn’t the best. But when she explained that she believed that I was indeed capable of succeeding in a Danish school, but I could do so much better in an English school without all of the extra work – I understood.
I told my mother to calm down. This wasn’t the same fight and perhaps, we should consider the counselor’s advice. Which, for the record, might be the first time I heard of a school counselor actually helping a student.
The Space to Heal
Every one of us have traumas that we need to heal. Self work that we need to begin.
Not only did I have to come to terms with the trauma of being treated as black, but also not fitting in because I am proudly mixed. I had to leave behind all of the categories society ascribed to me, and begin to ask myself the question, “Who am I?”
It is a never ending work. One that I have found avenues of martial arts, filmmaking, meditation and writing to allow me to explore that space. There are many more that I will add along the way. But at this point in life, I have found the strength to know that the perceptions of others can have no influence on my own holistic perception of myself.
With both a pandemic and mass protests against injustice raging, we are now in a moment where we truly need to find the space to heal. To find the tools that allow us to examine who we are and come to terms with the traumas that threatened our peace of mind.
And as much as I hope this website can be a form of therapy for some. It is in a way a great form of therapy for me.