Looking back on that rather tumultuous time, what I remember the most is not the classes, but the lessons taught to me outside of the classroom. Never found on any syllabus, never discussed in polite company, but a very real conflict raging all around me.
As a young freshman, barely a week past my eighteenth birthday, I was so excited to start classes at the large university nestled firmly in the “Bible belt” of the United States. I was still a bit jet-lagged after my long flight; still more than a little intimidated by this new country to which I have journeyed, but eager and excited nonetheless.
Attempting to find my way to registration, required to complete something referenced only by the generic moniker of “paperwork”, I find myself totally unprepared for the shear size and immensity of the campus. Entire towns back home could fit into a single building here. I am quite relieved to find my heavily accented English does not seem to be much of a barrier; most of those I encounter are more than willing to make a little extra effort to understand me. In fact, more than one rather comely young woman appears rather infatuated with the idea of my foreign heritage.
After what seemed like hours, and in reality it was hours, I completed my registration and went to the final window to complete one last form and get my student identification, the symbol of my status here in this city of education.
I completed the short form quickly, and as I checked over my work, I noticed one section left incomplete. To this day, I do not understand the real reasons for the question, but I checked the box marked “African-American”, as my race without any further fanfare and left the building ready to face my classes the next day.
A couple of weeks later, I received the single most influential phone call of my life. A warm voice on the other end asked if I was indeed African-American and if I knew that I was eligible for financial aid based on just that one little box I had checked a few weeks back. I, of course, did not know these things, but replied in the affirmative, that I was indeed African-American, and I would be happy to receive any financial assistance possible, regardless of reason. After a short chuckle, the warm voice informed me of the location of an office on campus where I could fill out yet more forms, and receive at least some financial assistance.
I had to wait for a lull in classes, but when I had a few hours open, not knowing the amount of the seemingly endless forms that may await, I almost ran over to the office. Elated to have help paying for school, I couldn’t wait to find out how much aid I could receive, especially since I could not work my student visa did not permit it.
Sitting down at one of the desks, I started working on the forms one of the people behind the counter gave me. This time, I understood the importance of the race section and very deliberately marked “African-American”, and waited for my name to be called to discuss my options.
I did not have to wait long before my name was called, and after sitting down, the warm and friendly woman behind the desk asked a few polite questions before getting down to the business of entering my information into the computer. She asked to see my student identification and passport. After a few minutes more she informed me she would return in just a moment.
After a few minutes, she did return, but in the company of a man and two campus security guards. The man spoke very slowly, as if just because I had a foreign passport I didn’t understand English, and informed me they do not take kindly to these types of hoaxes and that it is a crime to falsify these kinds of forms.
I explained I did not understand, but he insisted I had falsified the forms. When I finally asked to be shown exactly what was wrong, he pointed to the race box, and asked why I had lied about my race. Very confused at this point, I did not understand what made these people think I was a liar. I told him that I was African-American, born in East London, South Africa, and I didn’t understand that question. He informed me there was nothing he could do for me apropos financial aid, and suggested I leave without further incident.
Perhaps I should have just left, but I couldn’t. I demanded to know why a couple of days ago I was eligible for help with the costs of going to school and why now I was not. He said that I was not African-American, and therefore was not eligible for aid. I disputed with him, pointing out the fact my green colored passport was indeed issued in South Africa, and thus, I was not incorrect in my answer to the race section.
Looking back, my short few weeks in the United States before being deported was not so bad. I learned a few things, but not in the classroom. I learned that African-American is a term in the States that applies only to Natives, and will never apply to me, a decendent of Dutch immigrants over a century ago. Despite the indisputable fact of my African birthright, passport and all, those people, those colored Natives in that office and in the courtroom during my deportation hearing, could never look past my white skin, blonde hair, or blue eyes.