Sure As You’re Born (White)

Enter Paul Griffiths.  Paul has had a rough patch.   He left his home and country over three months ago for a four day freelance job, and hasn’t been able to return since.  There may not be flights back for at least another six months. 

A meeting had been set up for an interview between us with the help of his sister, who lives a few train stops from Amsterdam where Paul has taken over a nephew’s bedroom.  The backdrop of our meeting is the global pandemic of Covid-19, the murder of George Floyd which has sparked Black Lives Matter protests in the US and around the world, and the chaos which the accessory-after-the-fact Republican Senate and American President have plunged the world into.  All of these phenomenon are linked and overlap one another, and the center of this Venn diagram is very ugly indeed.

Paul and I meet in a bar near Amsterdam Centraal and drink refreshing La Chouffes until the early evening.  This is our privilege on full display, whether we recognise it or not.  Far from here our respective home countries are burning.

Earlier that day I watched CNN from the comfort of my living room as mass graves are dug and filled in New York City using construction vehicles.  Dead bodies rot in ice-filled rental trucks in Brooklyn as the morgues and funeral homes spill over beyond capacity.  Dignity was amongst the first casualties as the city I worked in for twenty years is now immersed in crisis, violence, lies and chaos.

Paul left his home in Kyalami, South Africa on 12 March.  It’s a rental home as he had been recently divorced.  He has no children, and due to his constant travelling, no pets.  His grandfather moved from the UK to South Africa after WWII “to get some sun.”  Paul’s mother followed with Paul when he was seven years old.

The first Europeans to colonise South Africa were the Dutch in 1652 with the Dutch East India Company’s claiming of the Cape of Good Hope from the indigenous Khoikhoi.  Many British settled in South Africa starting in the early 1800’s.  In the later part of the twentieth century, Europeans flooded into South Africa from Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Greece and Portugal.

The timing couldn’t be worse to seek empathy for a white man displaced from his home in South Africa when much of that country is asking, “What the fuck are you doing here anyway?”

By Credit only as “Cruikshank, presumably George Cruikshank (1792–1878). – Suid-Afrikaanse Geskiedenis in Beeld (1989) by Anthony Preston. Bion Books: Printed in South Africa., Public Domain,

Paul’s story forces us to ask deep and very serious questions about how we collectively define “home,” “property,” and even our own cultural identities.  It also raises the issue of how much of an invisible safety net some of us have underneath us when we are in the face of a crisis, and to recognise how others have no net at all.

Like me, Paul travels with two passports at all times, his from South Africa and the UK, mine from Germany and the US.  There is currently a stronger than usual backlash against the presence of white South African people, and work is harder to find.  There is also increased crime and violence against the population, which is causing a number of white people to flee back to the countries which their ancestors emigrated from, most notably the Netherlands and the UK. 

Earlier in his career Paul worked as a helicopter pilot, but for the past year was employed as a freelance helipad inspector.  He would travel the African continent from helipad to helipad granting CAP 437 certifications when all safety measures had been satisfied.  Proper landing pad lighting, size, grip efficiency standards and more than a hundred other criteria all had to be met to obtain this certification.  One of Paul’s employers was a company which subcontracted his services to numerous oil companies.  This brought him to many oil rigs, often a hundred miles out into the world’s oceans. 

His current four day job was to certify a helipad about a hundred and thirty miles off the coast of Gabon on an oil rig in the South Atlantic Ocean.  When he arrived, Gabon was extremely hot and humid, as is the norm.  Malaria was a concern.  Paul knew that he would be either in his hotel, in a helicopter or on the rig for the majority of his time in Gabon, and assumed the risks.

On 16 March while on the rig and with his day’s work complete Paul settled in to dinner and saw on the television that the world was going into lockdown due to the global Corona virus outbreak.  A heightened ambivalence washed over him as he was isolated in the middle of the ocean surrounded by only dozen workers yet felt the need to rush back into civilisation which was locking down due to a quickly spreading deadly virus.  It became imperative that he not only get off of the rig, but return home to South Africa as quickly as possible before all international flights were suspended.

The next morning he departed the rig and made it back to his hotel only to discover that not only were there no more flights out of the country, but that the hotel was now empty of guests.  There was a skeletal staff present, and they were trying to close the hotel. 

Paul contracted his employer who basically told him that he was on his own.  He would only be paid for the four days of work, as initially agreed to, and there was nothing else they could or would do for him.  They did not have insurance that would protect or provide for him in this scenario.

With little recourse left, Paul appealed to the client for whom he indirectly was working for.  The conversation did not start well.  “We’re not paying you three thousand dollars a day until you get home,” they told him.  This was out of context and unduly confrontational, he thought.  What he came to understand through that brief conversation was that his employer was billing out his time to the client at $3,000 per day,  but was paying Paul only $500.  This had been going on for a year.  In the end, the oil company agreed to essentially keep him alive by making arrangements for the hotel to continue to accommodate and feed him, but nothing more. 

Other oil companies in Gabon had contractors from South Africa working for them as well.  A WhatsApp group was quickly formed and there was discussion of getting some of them onto a cargo boat which was headed for South Africa.  It would be a fourteen day journey, with arrangements made by one of the other oil companies.  There was limited space, and in the end there was not enough room to accommodate Paul.

The pandemic has clearly exposed the tremendous inequities in societies around the world that disproportionately favours white people.  This is especially true in the US, where people of color have been hit disproportionally hard.  When you understand the sustained limited access to healthcare, the types of jobs available for minorities where missing work means that you don’t get paid, and the lack of any social net through state and federal government programs it is hard to think that this isn’t by design.

It has been open season on people of color for as long as I can remember.  They’ve been hunted like dogs and murdered with impunity in the streets for years. Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes before he was strangled in broad daylight by police who brought him down to the ground in a chokehold the inevitably killed him.  Seventeen year old Trayvon Martin was guilty of wearing a hoodie in a white neighborhood before being slain by a malignant turd playing cop on “neighborhood watch” with credentials equivalent to a plastic badge dug out of the bottom of a cereal box.  Breonna Taylor was in bed while being shot eight times by police using a no-knock warrant.  The list goes on and on.

It is worth looking at how and why the police force as a concept was originally conceived and what their mission was.  Here’s a hint: The system is not broken. It has in fact been surprisingly effective at doing what it was tasked to do. The mistake was in thinking that the public had a stomach for seeing their work in broad daylight.  Only a group so drunk on their history of lawlessness and inhuman criminality could be so brazen to think that they could escape all accountability while murdering a compliant man while knowingly being recorded on numerous video devices.

I relate to Paul’s adventures for a few reasons.  Objectively speaking, we wouldn’t be considered racist in our actions or our beliefs.  We do contribute, as most of the white populations of first world countries do, to unwittingly upholding a racist infrastructure which has been in plain sight for our entire lives. 

“Samoset comes ‘boldly’ into Plymouth settlement.” Woodcut designed by A.R. Waud and engraved by J.P. Davis (1876).  No restrictions,

Paul and I are both descendants of white Europeans who infiltrated foreign lands and terrorized the indigenous people while labelling their victims as savages.  My mother was a descendant of William Brewster, who came to the US on the Mayflower after living in Leiden in the Netherlands.  My father arrived in the States from Germany after the war.  Paul and I have both returned to our ancestral homelands of western Europe and are both expats currently living in the Netherlands.  Our European passports allow us to live and work in any EU country, and travel freely. 

Back at his hotel alone, Paul learned that his credit card was not accepted anywhere in Gabon.  He had a €50 per diem in cash, and made arrangements for another €100 to be wired to him from a friend in the UK.  The staff in the hotel were all Chinese and spoke no English, so communication was difficult.  They offered him a menu which he had to use Google translate on his phone to decipher.  Soon, more and more items were crossed off of the menu as food began to run out.  Paul then began to hoard his food, stockpiling anything which might keep him alive another day. 

During his second week in isolation in the empty hotel, Paul developed an ear infection, which became painful overnight.  This forced him to venture out into the shuttered city in search of antibiotics during the pandemic with the added disadvantages of not having much money, or knowing the local language.  With no choice but perseverance, he eventually discovered a chemist, and again using Google translate was able to gesture and mime enough to secure some antibiotics which eased the pain and slowly cleared up the infection.

His next move was to appeal to the UK embassy in order to get to a first world country, even if this meant taking him off the continent and travelling 3,500 miles in the opposite direction from his home in South Africa.

The embassy told him of a repatriation flight that would go through France and onward to the UK.  They couldn’t promise him a seat, but told him that he should just arrive at the airport before the flight, and that it shouldn’t be a problem.  Paul arrived at the airport only to discover that his name was never forwarded by the embassy, so he wasn’t on the list.  He went back to the hotel dejected.

Days passed before Paul learned of another flight arranged by an agreement between the French and UK governments.  Apparently there were enough people to justify a flight which would go through Paris then on to the UK.  He would not be permitted to stay in Paris, but would be mandated to travel through to the UK.  His goal was to get to Amsterdam, where his sister lived and could take him in.

After twenty nine days in Gabon, Paul sat in an airplane on the tarmac at the airport waiting for takeoff.  He was determined not to believe he was actually leaving until the plane was airborne and the Fasten Seat Belts signs were turned off. 

Seven hours later he landed in Paris around 1:00 in the morning. He had already purchased a ticket from Paris to Amsterdam, which would leave early the following morning.  He also booked the cheapest hotel he could find online as his credit card was now recognised in France. He only needed to stay for a few hours to get some sleep, and the name fit the bill: the Comfort Hotel.

Using his cell phone to plot his course, and trying to save what little money he had Paul navigated the Paris Metro in the early hours of the morning to reach his hotel.  In the underground Metro he now found himself alone on the train platform, only to be surrounded by a circle of five men within a blink of an eye. No words were spoken as the circle closed around him.  Paul had been in similar situations before in South Africa, and was always armed with a pistol.  He flashed on the thought that he was now unarmed as a noise from a nearby stairway momentarily distracted the circle of men closing in upon him.  A tipsy and boisterous young couple came noisily down the Metro stairs providing the half second of cover that Paul needed to run out of the circle and up an adjacent stairway leading to the street.  The men were only seconds behind Paul as he jumped into a cab which fortune had waiting just steps away from the Metro exit.  “Drive!” Paul insisted firmly, fully aware of the cliche, yet succinct and effective this night.  The cab sped off as Paul looked over his shoulder out the back windshield to see the five men slow their pursuit in defeat.  He paid for the cab using his €50 per diem, given to him at the beginning of his job a month ago.

His arrival at the Comfort Hotel was hard fought and won, yet the spoils of his victorious arrival to a first world country and accommodations was decidedly less celebrated than he had hoped.  As he entered his room he quickly understood that his adventures were not over as it was truly the most disgusting room he had ever stayed in.  Mold was rampant throughout and had overtaken the walls, carpeting and floor.  The smell of it was evident before he even opened the door to his room.  The carpet, badly torn, was literally wet from an unknown source.  It was now after 2:00 am and he needed to depart the hotel at 5:00 am for his flight to Amsterdam.  Unable to fight or flee any further, he collapsed on the bed and slept for three hours.

I moved my family to the Netherlands by choice, while Paul’s entrance was under duress as he was out of options and was running out of places he could safely lay his head.  We also both work as freelancers and travel from location to location with our technical expertise opening doors and opportunities along the way.

What privileges we have are granted to us, in part, by the countries in which our descendants were born, how little melanin is in our cells, and the opportunities this status bestowed upon us along the way. As climate change accelerates and the world’s wealth continues to funnel ever upwards to the Super Rich, these stories will continue to occur and likely become commonplace. As is already the norm today, the less fortunate will be wiped out and disappear. What will be shocking to us is the rate of acceleration of these events which will grow exponentially in the foreseeable future, until that acceleration becomes the “new normal.” Few will heed the pleas for simple human empathy and compassion. Witness the desensitisation to the trauma and lawlessness of the American administration that sees this long game for what it is: Brazen survival for their kind at all costs.

Paul Griffiths is now entertaining job offers here in the Netherlands.  He’s obtained his residency card by virtue of his EU passport, same as me.  He will survive, rebuild and even thrive again thanks to all of his experience and education and technical ability.  The same cannot be said for thousands around the world displaced and without a net.

The perfect storm of American’s long-standing and brutal institutional violence against its Black and Brown population was brought to a head by the global pandemic and a political administration which was not only inept but sociopathically cruel.  My home country locks young brown children in cages where some of them are raped, they have heightened exposure to Covid-19, and many will never see their parents again. It is a national disgrace and an inhuman disregard for innocent human lives.  If this doesn’t move you, let this be a milestone in your own descension.  The coming displacement due to a climate change and political violence is about to be everyone’s problem, and many governmental institutions throughout the world have no better idea of how to cope with it than you or I.

If you’re white and living in a first world country, you may not feel like you are explicitly a racist, but consider checking yourself and asking yourself some hard questions.  Are you blindly contributing to a racist infrastructure while failing to recognise it for what it is?  Are you unwittingly complicit by “unknowingly” perpetuating a racist agenda of exclusion, demoralisation, poverty and death upon people who have historically remained largely non-violent and proud?  Are your consumer dollars going to the benefit of notoriously and egregiously racist companies owned by the Koch brothers and the like?  Do you financially support brands that advertise on Fox? 

Go on to YouTube and watch Kimberly Jones talk about burning down her neighbourhood.  Let her words and emotion sink in.  Pay special attention to the last thing she says: She’s tired of watching her brothers and sisters murdered in the streets with impunity.   The BLM movement is insisting upon fair and equitable treatment, and we’re all lucky that our historically disenfranchised brothers and sisters aren’t seeking revenge.

Find yourself saying these words out loud, words our current administration cannot bring itself to feel or say, “Black Lives Matter.”  Repeat them often because it is unthinkable not to.  The fact that this even needs to be said is soul crushing, but this is how low we’ve sunk.  Just to matter is only the first step toward equality, there are more, but this is where we have to start.  It’s time to listen and time to be counted.

Amsterdam DAM- "So long as there is systemic racism, someone will stand here."