maandag, juni 15, 2020

Broken glass

Photo by ᴘᴀᴜʟ ᴋᴀᴘɪꜱᴄʜᴋᴀ on UnsplashThere is a wonderful episode in one of my favorite tv-series ‘How I met your Mother’ in which a close knit group of friends experience the phenomenon of ‘broken glass’. This is a phenomenon I experienced in recent weeks, not within my group of friends, but through the Black Lives Matters movement. Clearly this needs some explaining.

In the episode I refer to all friends are slightly irritated and a discussion starts between two friends, Ted and Robin. During the exchange in the kitchen one of the friends remarks to Robin that Ted is constantly correcting everybody and everything. After that remark the whole group comes into focus and it remains quiet for a moment, while everybody is thoughtfully studying the ceiling. Then it happens: above everybody’s head you hear the sound of breaking glass. ‘That is so true! How come I never noticed before! Why do you keep doing that?’, everybody remarks at the same time.  During the rest of the scene everybody’s turn comes. One has a disgusting habit of eating, another uses a stop word constantly, a girl friend comes home with irritating dates, etc. After each discovery you hear the sound of breaking glass above the heads of the friends.

It is as if the glass breaking above the heads of the friends became the symbol for the picture they had of each other. As soon as it was made clear that this picture did not fit, it shattered.

As the days continue, long after the discussions had finished, it becomes clear that these habits of each individual are unbearable because they are now being noticed! The glass was broken. And broken glass could not be mended, however much they wanted that the safe glass had never been touched.


From 2009-2014 (age 9 -14) I lived in Kenya with my family as my parents had been sent by ‘Kerk in Actie’ (Church in Action). During this time I went to a Rosslyn Academy, an American International Evangelical Christian high school. This school in Nairobi, Kenya, housed students from 46 countries. About 40% of the students was white and 60% had another skin color, whereas the school was mainly led by white Americans. I had a fantastic time at Rosslyn Academy. I was blessed with a close-knit group of friends from all over the world. I could try out any sport or instrument and I went on impressive school outings. I am tremendously grateful to have attended this school and have good memories of fellow students and teachers.

I have been back in The Netherlands for five years now, but I am still part of a Facebook group where former teachers and students can exchange ideas and information. As the school was truly American you will not be surprised that at this point in time many stories are exchanged relating to racism and white privilege. Day after day I now see stories being placed by former black students who want to share their unpleasant experiences and even trauma’s caused by racism at Rosslyn Academy. It even goes so far that teachers I was a fan of, are named in stories where they treated students with dishonesty and racism. These former black students thus appear not to have such positive memories at all of the school and teachers I so much treasured.

Through the years I had built a safe and nice picture in my mind of the teachers and the school. With increasing astonishment and even anger I read the stories these past days which shattered this picture. In me a dilemma is raging. On the one hand I find it difficult to believe that these teachers said these bizarre things and used such racist expressions. They do not fit the image of these people I treasured so much. On the other hand, now the glass has been broken, I can see that some of my memories are not as rosy as I thought. The school board was indeed dominated by white men while black people could not rise above being assistant gymnastic teacher. In some lessons I attended indeed things were said that proved discriminatory and condescending to black people. Five year since returning from Kenya I can see through the shattered picture of Rosslyn and acknowledge that the discrimination as described in the absurd stories might well have happened on my Rosslyn Academy.

How could it be that I as a young little white fellow only felt supported and loved in that school in Kenya, while children with another skin color now come with stories full of pain caused by racism and discrimination? Perhaps that is the ‘white privilege’ I now constantly hear about. Of course one can be skeptical and puncture the many, difficult to prove, stories of these people, if your heart allows you to. However, the fact that my loving memories (and those of several white friends from Rosslyn) are without exception diametrically opposed to the traumatic memories of my fellow black students, indicate to my mind a terrible problem in that system.

And even so it nags me that years after the fact the teachers who shaped me are accused by name of racism by students they taught. Is this the way to deal with systematic racism? What is my role in this system? If remaining silent is being seen as complicity, what should I do or not do to change that system? What is honest and wise to do in this incredibly complex set of problems spanning centuries? These are questions I have no answer to yet, but with which I struggle. In any case I hope that this struggling, thinking and discussing is already a step in the right direction.

In the episode of ‘How I met your Mother; the protective glass of naivety about each other’s disturbing habits was broken. It could not be mended anymore, and that hurt. But as the story continued the friends realized that the friendship they shared overshadowed by far the silly habits. They could tolerate each other’s madness and even appreciate it, and they loved each other in a purer way.

However strange this parallel may sound, I feel the pain and discomfort of the broken glass. It is unpleasant to see a new shadow side of memories which made me what I am now. But now that the glass has been broken I will do my utmost to understand the truth, to give it a place and to act upon it. I hope that people can come closer together again after the pain of exploding shards, in a better world, where my wonderful school can be wonderful for everybody.

Floris Joziasse

Link to the fragment of How I met your Mother: