The banana is the fourth most financially valuable food product in the world.This is not surprising. Bananas are nutritious and delicious; they come in their own carrying case, and can be made into magnificent works of art. I am generalizing to some extent, but as a whole, people all over the world love bananas.
French babies love bananas.
Asian game show contestants love bananas.
Black people love bananas.
I personally love bananas. I put them on my cereal, I eat bananas with peanut butter and I love bananas with vanilla yogurt. So, it may surprise you to learn that I do not love when people throw bananas at my head. I know this from experience; an experience that I had in 2006. Because throwing bananas at POC’s (persons of color) is still a thing that happens. Because people are idiots.
Don’t believe me?
- In 2011, during a National Hockey League game in Ontario, Canada, fans of the home team threw bananas at black Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds.
- In July 2013, some idiots threw bananas at Cecile Kyenge, the first African Italian cabinet minister.
- Earlier this month, Baltimore Orioles’ player Adam Jones tweeted that a fan threw a banana at him while he was playing centerfield during a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants.
Only in Ukraine are bananas a symbol of hatred.
My own “banana” experience happened while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine. I was walking alone down a stretch of back road in a part of the country I’d never visited before. A friend and fellow Peace Corps volunteer had organized a two week summer camp for his students and I was going to be a counselor. I’d traveled across alot of Ukraine via bus or train, so I felt fairly confident about finding my way to my friend’s site by myself. However, after getting off the bus, and following the bus driver’s piss poor directions (to be fair, my Russian was only ok at that point and my Ukrainian was nonexistent, so the driver’s directions could have been GPS level excellent and I would not have understood) I quickly became lost. Even though it was the middle of the day, I started to get scared. I’d learned fairly quickly that being black in Ukraine was just dumb. Just a really dumb idea. So, when I saw a car speeding toward me and a pale white arm shoot out of it, my first thought was hand on the Bible, “God, please don’t let me die in Ukraine, not Ukraine.” But instead of throwing out the Molotov cocktail my paranoid imagination had conjured up, the arm threw a banana. This guy must have had excellent aim because that banana connected with my head pretty hard. The Ukrainian attached to said arm also yelled what I am sure was an ethnic slur, along the lines of “you are a monkey” or “black dog” or “INSERT not particularly clever racist slur about black people here.” Since he threw a banana, I am guessing it was monkey related.
I am not Martin Luther King.
Obviously, I will never forget having a banana thrown at my head. But when I think of the banana, I don’t really think about how humiliated or frustrated I felt, I mostly remember the banana incident as the first time in my life, I ever truly felt defeated. I joined the Peace Corps in 2005, filled with starry-eyed optimism. I was initially sent to the country of Uzbekistan, which was rough in all the ways you would expect, but worth it, because culturally the people were open and welcoming. But then the Uzbek Peace Corps program got shut down (looong story) and Peace Corps offered us the choice of continuing our volunteer service in another country. I decided to continue my service in the Ukraine…I don’t know why…maybe because I wanted to keep the whole countries that start with a “U” thing going.
Off I went to the Ukraine, with visions of changing lives dancing in my head. Fast forward a year. I was deeply unhappy. Brutally unhappy. I’d been stationed in the port city of Alushta, a beautiful tourist town right on the coast of the Black Sea. Surrounded by vineyards and mountains, Alushta is one of the most beautiful places in Ukraine. It was only later that I realized I was probably stationed in Alushta as a preemptive “we are sorry people are going to make you feel like crap alot of the time” gift from Peace Corps administration. And you know what? I deserved Alushta as my site. Not because I dealt with the occasional bouts of parasites that made my stomach jump up and down like Miley Cyrus at a twerk contest. Not because I dealt with the general apathy of a post soviet country embroiled in rebuilding itself. Not because I dealt with having to fight my school to do anything that deviated from the norm. Not because I dealt with the time I planned a Halloween party for two months, including teaching my students lessons about the holiday, weeks of my host mom and I making decorations and two sleepless nights coming home from school and baking treats, only to arrive at school on the appointed day to find that all of my Halloween party signs had been ripped down and that the principal randomly decided that there wasn’t going to be a Halloween party. I dealt with all of that. Many Peace Corp volunteers dealt with these issues. Suck it up and try and make a difference or go home.
What I couldn’t deal with was the racism. The constant, seriously constant, grabbing of my hair, the brushing of my skin, or groping of my butt. Being afraid to walk places by myself. Not just because I was a woman, but because I was a black woman. Being called a “black dog” or a “monkey” and of course “nigger” (which Peace Corps did not tell me prior to arriving in Ukraine is the proper and correct word for a black person over there…thanks Peace Corps!!). The fear that I was going to be a target of some group of young skinheads because I was black. I tried to ignore the racism as much as I could. I would tell myself, “well most of these people have never seen a black person, so think of this as your chance to teach them, don’t react in a negative manner and encourage stereotypes.” The problem with that standpoint is that it came at the expense of my happiness. Try two years of dealing with this behavior. See how supportive and encouraging you are. Like I said, I deserved Alushta. I am not Ghandi, I am not Martin Luther King and after the banana incident, I lost my ability to turn the other cheek. To be clear, I didn’t mind when my students asked me if I was friends with Beyonce or assumed I knew how to rap. They were kids. I didn’t know anything when I was a kid, someone had to teach me too. But the way many Ukrainian adults treated me was cruel. Not ignorant, but cruel.
After the banana incident, I withdrew emotionally and mentally. I went from this
Racism made me read Ayn Rand.
I stopped trying to assimilate into the culture. I stopped caring about a lot of the thing that had pulled me toward joining the Peace Corps. I would come home, after a day of trying to make learning the English language interesting to my students and being condescended to or ignored by most of the Ukrainian teachers or being told by some Ukrainian woman that I should give her my bus seat because dogs can’t sit on the bus (this happened) and I would trudge up the stairs to my host family’s apartment, eat whatever meal my host mom prepared for me, put on Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” and drift off into a combination of depression and sleep. I probably listened to that cd a 100 times. I think that was the first time in my life, I didn’t bounce back with the natural buoyancy that has been a part of my personality. I read Ayn Rand (God forgive me), I had an existential crisis. I was depressed. Always a big boned girl, I began to eat even more.
and while I didn’t become an alcoholic, vodka and I became friends.
I lived for the summer camps, where I would be surrounded by other volunteers and Ukrainians who actually wanted to interact with Americans and were thus less likely to be assholes. I started to escape my site to the capital city more. Don’t get me wrong, Ukrainians in Kiev could be racist too. But there was a veneer of cosmopolitan glamour to the city, which meant I didn’t get bananas thrown at my head and I usually got into swanky clubs for free because I added an “urban” vibe, i.e. I was the only black person in there.
I was a bitter, bitter Betty.
And then I left. I went to law school, eventually, I lost the weight. But I held on the anger; the anger at being locked out of the culture, of not making a difference. I would say dumb stuff about the intelligence of Ukrainians. I would openly question how anyone would ever think it was a good idea to give that country nuclear power. In short, I said racist things that generalized an entire country. I was still hurt. Once, when in the midst of discussing my time in Ukraine to a group of friends, I started to cry. I cried so hard, snot came out of my nose. No lie. Clearly, I still held onto some residual anger about my experience. A lot of my self image was tied to my view of myself as an altruistic, giving person who acted as a force of positive change in the world. What I saw myself doing in Peace Corps and what I actually ended up contributing, at the time, seemed so far apart that it made me question my whole experience.
It was love, ya’ll!
It took me almost four years to finally realize that I was being very narrow minded about my time in Ukraine. Last year, I told my mom the “banana” incident story. After telling her, I started thinking my Peace Corps experience as a whole. And it slowly dawned on me; I said I’d never connected with people but the reason I’d survived Ukraine was because of the kindness and thoughtfulness of people! In fact, it was the only reason. There were the American volunteers of course, like Mona, who survived “kill” camp with me and let me cry on her shoulder…alot or Jessica, who introduced herself to me by showing me the whiskey flask her parents had given her, which forever won my heart. And I could talk about the way some of these people carried me when I couldn’t carry myself (no seriously, Mary Duong has literally carried me). But my bitterness stemmed from my perceived inability to connect with locals. No, I didn’t get the wholesale acceptance I wanted. And yes, I faced some racist ish. But I realize now that I did make real connections with locals! I didn’t see it at first because it didn’t fit the image of what I thought would happen in Ukraine. But my host family was amazing. Galaya and Andrei, my host parents opened their home to me in a way that went over and beyond what they were required to do. My host mom made me breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday. She put up with my halting attempts at Russian and pretended like she understood me when we talked. I realize now that I am lucky to have had Galaya in my life. It was the same with my host dad. He argued with me about politics and tried to comfort me with an awkward pat on the head the day I came home from school sobbing about the Halloween party that wasn’t. My student Nikita was a treasure too. I never taught English at his school but he sought me out when he heard that there was a Peace Corps volunteer in Alushta and would always come to my poorly attended English language groups. When I worked at a summer camp near my city, I took Nikita with me (something I probably would not have been allowed to do in America) and he thrived! This July, Nikita graduated from a master’s program and from his Facebook page (yes, I stalk, it makes me feel good!) he has traveled all over the world.
Then there was Regina, who opened her home and her family to me. Regina was not Ukrainian. She was Crimean Tartar, a Turkic ethnic group native to the Crimean area of Ukraine. Regina looks Ukrainian but as a Muslim and an “other” I think she identified with me. Regardless of why, Regina was amazing. Her entire family was so supportive. I spent hours at their apartment and even though their were times when I am sure she wanted me to go the hell home, she always made me feel like I was welcome. Also her English was impeccable.
So long and thanks for all the bananas.
I am crying as I write this because writing this reminds me of how profoundly blessed I was to have had these people in my life. I am not a Peace Corp failure! I am glad that some idiot threw a banana at my head. Yes, it triggered my first bout of depression. But the incident ultimately forced me to think about my time in the Peace Corps again. I realize I was pretty damned lucky. I traveled the world (part of it), I speak Russian (sort of), I made some real connections, not a lot, no, but a few substantive connections that enriched my life and hopefully enriched their lives. I think now, that might have been the whole point of my Peace Corps experience. And I am happy I had the chance to experience it. So thanks, you banana throwing racist idiot, wherever you are.