You step onto the bland rough-concrete art exhibition ground. You are powered by the thought that you will soon be standing among kindred spirits, where mundane things like shoes or clothes will, to your great pleasure, not matter. It isn’t the fact that people are huddled together in familiar groups after making a show of looking at the paintings, talking about everything apart from the paintings, that annoys you.
It is the fact that everyone’s feet are spick-and-span, covered in shoes shined to the death as if they all brought an extra pair and changed right at the gate of the art exhibition. Your flat sneakers made of once-black cloth, have thinned away at the top so much that you can count your toes from just looking. You hope that no one will notice. But these are Nigerians. When they say hello, they look at you from head to toe.
You go through the paintings quickly, looking and feeling like the guy waiting to clean up after everyone. The only feeling remotely resembling what makes you now grind your teeth, regretting the deliberate decision to look like a vagrant, is how you feel when after speaking passionately or even aggressively in disagreement with someone, you suddenly see clear evidence that you are totally wrong.
The last time this happened a friend of yours had subtly implied that you are obsessed with writing about issues of race ‘as if nothing else happens in the city.’ You had been discussing race and the opinion of another friend who said that racism is racism whether the discrimination is good or bad.
You argued loudly and aggressively, feigning irritation at the suggestion that what happened to you in Austria when a white man left the elevator because you came in, could somehow be talked about in the same breath as what happens to your friend when she is often reminded that she is white. For you, Austrians were racist, Nigerians were curious.
Until that day at the Galleria, when as you passed through the metal detector after your white friend, the guards smiled at you and one said ‘Oga you get eye o. You sabi select something’. For a second, you could feel the bile rise and reach your throat, and considered making a scene, or reporting the guard to his superiors upstairs.
She didn’t hear them and you didn’t want her to hear how they likened her to a nice phone or bag that you were holding. But as you sat to watch a movie you wanted to hold her hand and apologize for every time you had implied in an argument that white people had no right to compare how they are treated here with how you get treated in Europe; you had no right to declare that open racism was more hurtful than objectification.
You felt stupid and angry. Angry that in choosing to protect her from those words, you also didn’t let that guard know what you really felt about his inane comment. Stupid that in making an argument you considered logical, you didn’t think at all about what it felt like being on the other side.
On the art exhibition grounds you are getting more and more uncomfortable. You check out the last painting and head for the gate, trying not to look down and draw attention to your comparatively terrible shoes. The goal now is clear: get your self-esteem back. And you know just how. Go to a place where people wear shoes worse than yours: a cheap beer garden where you will find young underpaid lawyers and journalists discussing Nigeria’s woes or football in loud tri-syllabic words. You will feel at home there.