The Color of Grief is the Color of My Child

**This guest post comes to us courtesy of Sylvia Cabus. Sylvia Cabus is a Filipina-American who joined the Church at the age of 27, currently teaches RS with a subversive feminist bent, and lives in Washington DC with a patient husband and a son who celebrates both Ramadan and Pioneer Day. She has lived and worked in Africa for 20+ years and has a strong testimony that “Hilarity Never Faileth.”**

The heartbreaking photo of the Syrian toddler lost to the sea is one of the searing images that have entered into the same gallery as the young girl burned by napalm and the hooded figure of Abu Ghraib. It is an image that, for the moment, has galvanized and shocked ordinary citizens into action.

When I look at the photo, my gut wrenches. I have a little boy the same age, who wears the same kind of outfit, whose wonder and energy delight me at every turn, as I’m sure the Syrian boy did for his parents. My little boy even looks Mediterrean, thanks to his Moroccan father.


The similarity to one’s own children is a common sentiment; the director of emergencies for Human Rights Watch wrote, “Staring at the image, I couldn’t help imagine that it was one of my own sons lying there drowned on the beach.” David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, and the former British foreign minister, pointed out an important difference: “He looks like your child and mine, but he’s not. He’s a Muslim child,” Miliband said. “It puts distance between your world and mine and that crisis. This boy, you can’t tell he’s Muslim in the photograph. I wonder how much that affected how people reacted in Europe and the U.S.”

You can’t tell he’s Muslim – but you can tell he’s not black. I have not seen, in the mainstream press or the twitterverse or the blogosphere, a simple observation: the bodies of African children have washed up on shore as well, but without the same wave of outrage. Numerically speaking, there are probably more African children (and adults) who have died making the crossing than from other continents. And we are just discussing the Mediterrenean; let’s not forget the other great expanse that migrants must cross, the Sahara, whose death toll we will never know.

So why is that? Is it because, for most non-Africans in the rich world, Africa is a collection of persistent stereotypes as detailed in the famous essay, “How to Write About Africa?” Is it because the natural human instinct is to draw closer to familiarity and not difference?

Is it because, for North Americans and Europeans, Syrians look relatable in a way that other migrants do not?


Is it because the Syrian conflict is more appalling in its sophistication – and more strategically important – than the violence in DR Congo? Central African Republic? Sudan? Is it because black bodies are perceived as disposable and interchangeable?

I don’t know. What I do know is that Black and Yellow and Brown Lives Matter, regardless of where they are or where they came from.

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