Gather round, children, as I tell you a story about my introduction to Washington D.C., American racism and American "exceptionalism". The year is 2005, I'm a journalist from South Asia, visiting the United States on an invitation from the State Dept with about a dozen others.
We arrive in Washington D.C. at the height of the "Cherry Blossom Festival". Our tour guide is this really tall, extremely pretty, highly educated blonde that works with the company that the State Dept has hired to show us around Washington D.C. to introduce us to America.
We're on this air conditioned bus, complete with uniformed driver, who is from what I gather is from Egypt, who remains silent, listening to the commands given by our tour guide. She expertly parades us around from one monument to the other while spitting out factoids.
Shit like: "This is the Washington Monument. No building is allowed to be taller than it... Oh and that's the Jefferson Memorial, do you know who he was? Wrote our Declaration of Independence... And that over there is the Lincoln Memorial. Freed the slaves he did!"
Bear in mind, we are all from SAARC nations. That means India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan and the Maldives. Poor countries. Bad infrastructure. And for most: few dazzling marble monuments in our capital cities to wow visitors.
Being the honest Joe that I am, time and again, I would opine about how clean everything is. Or how beautiful the structures are. My other colleagues, too, would describe their fascination with the order in the capital and the remarkable craftsmanship of the statues...
But after about three hours of seeing marble statues, I was bored. I mean, look: humans perfected marble statue making about 2,500 years ago. So seeing that was crafted in the 1900s is really not that big of a deal. There's a thousand of them in the basemen of any Greek museum.
So I asked our lovely guide, "Hey, you know, this is great. We are thoroughly impressed. But as journalists, we want to see everything."
She goes: "What do you mean everything?"
I say: "Well, clearly this city is inhabited by people, yes?"
"Where are they?"
My other colleagues also jump in. "Yeah, where do the people live," one said. Another quipped, "Clearly no inside the Washington Monument stacked on top of each other."
The guide's jumbled response was, "Well, most people live around the capital since it's expensive here."
But we weren't having it.
I said: "Look, everywhere we go, it says we are in the Northwest section of the capital. If there's a Northwest, there's clearly gotta be a Northeast and a Southeast and a Southwest. Can you take us there?"
She was a bit speechless.
And then someone said, "Is it because it's not as pretty there? Do you only want to show us the pretty parts of your capital? Because that's not fair. We need a balanced view of America. We're not tourists. We're journalists."
She looked at the driver. He knew what was up.
So he looked at us and said: "Well, we don't usually take people to other parts of the city - especially where most people live because no one wants to go there... and because..." he paused. Then she said: "We are not allowed to go there."
It stunned us all.
"Why not? We demand to see the capital and all of the capital!"
The driver and guide looked at each other... Then the driver said: "What do you want to see?"
I was a lot younger back then and a lot bolder (and perhaps stupider). I said: "Take us to a poor part of the city."
The driver looked at our tour guide. She nodded. Sat on her seat and said: "He'll drive us through it. But I don't really know what to tell you since I've not really taken people there before."
We accepted that. "Sure. We just want to see what's out there. How Americans live."
The bus swerves around, and starts heading east of the marble statues and grandiose monuments. The first thing we noticed as we went farther and farther from Northwest was that there were Black people here. And I mean, there were Black people. Not just one or two. A lot!
Up to that point, we'd just seen White, mostly young, well-dressed people, frolicking around the streets, and older, middle-aged White people with fanny packs taking pictures in front of Lincoln and Jefferson's statues. Now, we were seeing different kinds of people in Washington.
They were kids in with school bags. Men carrying groceries. Sitting on the porches. They were wearing normal every day clothes. Not suits. Not shorts. Just normal clothes you wear when you're chilling near you home. The biggest difference was that most were Black.
But then something else happened. We started to notice the environment in which these people were living. The farther we went from the monuments, the poorer shape the buildings were in. I mean, some places were poorer than others, but this looked like another country entirely.
I remember the bus going through a large avenue. I don't remember the name. Perhaps it was Alabama Ave?. And we could just see rows upon rows of homes that were dilapidated. They looked like homes we'd left in our third world countries. Roofs caving. Walls falling. Doors rotting.
"We are still in Washington D.C., right," someone asked. We really didn't want to ask questions. Or should I say, couldn't ask questions. We'd spent the entire morning walking around what we thought was the capital of the most powerful nation in the world! IN HISTORY even.
And here we were in neighborhoods where poverty looked endemic. Where the government didn't seem to bother to peek. And which were visibly populated by a historically oppressed minority. No one knew what to say. We expected it to not be made of marble. But this was absurd!
Three days ago, I was living and reporting from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. And may I remind you, 2005 was just four years removed from Taliban. The city still bore scars of war. And security was really bad. But I could still walk for miles after midnight in peace.
And you can say the same about the capitals of every country South Asia. In fact, in the capital of most impoverished countries. Law and order is bad... but you can walk around places fine. Which is what journalists do: we walk around, talk to people and learn facts.
But after about 30 minutes of driving around, the bus driver just kept going. Unlike frequent stops to check out the monuments and brag about the Cherry Blossom Festival in the Northwest, the guide just sat there. Doing nothing. Did I mention there were no cherry blossom trees?
I felt bad. Almost nauseated. The lie were had been told was exposed and were all feeling kinda angry about it. How can you be the richest most powerful country in the world and let your people live like this!? And in your fucking capital? Just a few miles off your monuments?!
Then the driver said: "Do you guys want to see more? Most of it is kinda like this if you know what I mean."
Someone said: "You mean just poor?"
So I had to do what every good journalist does. I had to talk to these people. Ask them questions about the city!
I said: "Could you stop the bus at some point? Preferably near a market or a gathering spot for people? I think we'd like to go out and maybe talk people. It would be good to know what they think of the USA and their living situation here in the capital. That's our job."
The driver looked shocked. She looked at the guide who looked even more shocked. She composed herself and asked me: "You mean you want to get off the bus here?"
I said: "Yeah... that's what we do. We talk to people."
She said, "Oh no no. You can't get off the bus here."
"Why not," I said.
"We got off the bus in the Northwest. So this isn't a "Don't get off the bus" tour. Clearly we're allowed to check the place out. Why can't we do it here?"
She thought for a second and said something like: "It's not safe for you to be walking around here.
You shoulda seen our faces. At most it's 2 pm. It's April. The sun is shining high up in the air. We are literally in the capital of the most powerful nation in the world. A nation that goes around telling everyone else what to do, how to live and how to be safe. Here we were.
Let me repeat that. We were not allowed to get off the bus and walk around a large part of Washington D.C. in the year of Our Lord 2006. (sorry, typo'ed earlier and said 2005).
"You must be joking, right?" I said.
"No. I'm serious. You can't get off here. And we can't stop."
I looked the guide dead in the eyes and said: "You know, we can walk around any part of Kabul - yeah, that's Afghanistan - after midnight. And you're telling me Washington D.C. isn't safe?"
"I mean this part isn't safe..."
"Why isn't this part safe? What's wrong with it?"
She had no answer. She turned to the driver and told him to take us back to our starting point. We all just looked at each other. The Indian, Pakistani and Afghan journalists with me all spoke Urdu/Hindi, the language of Bollywood. One of them said: "I know why it's like this."
And frankly at that point, even before he said: "Because they don't care about Black people." we knew it was like that because they didn't care about Black people. The tour guide never made eye contact with us again... And that's when I learned how racist America is.