I was 13 when the earthquake struck. We were hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre, but I could still feel the swing of the ground beneath me and this strange feeling that the world was no longer steady. I remember sitting in my room upstairs as my parents watched it all unfold, like an obsession, for the days and weeks that followed. First they found out how many died, then they found out who lived and died, and then they figured out why. My parents knew it long before the journalists did.
“These drones are racist.” Dad said on the evening of the first day. He called everything racist. It was almost a catch phrase. I’d heard him utter that word between laughter with friends and in solemn whispers in the car when no one was around. I thought I had heard it in every tone imaginable, but that day was a new one. When the earthquake struck and the rescue drones were deployed to sift through the rubble to find and save any human beings they could, Dad was in disbelief.
“It’s not possible,” Mum responded, slowly, “that there are so few coloured people in Karlin today.” Her voice was shaky, but certain. It made Dad’s words more tangible, more real, but they wouldn’t have come out if he didn’t break the ice first.
I was old enough to know she was right. Mum grew up in Karlin and we’d been there many times to visit. It sat just downstream of a shipping port along a narrow river, and when Mum was a kid that working class culture flowed downstream into town. She said it was tough, not without its struggles with crime, but none of that could ever detract from the beauty of the people that lived there. That’s what I remembered of it, festivals filled with people adorned in long, flowing colours as bright as the food they served from street stalls that you could smell from far away. Even then, Mum would say it wasn’t the same.
“Everything here is twice the price it used to be!” She called down to me from a cloud of barbecued meat and brewing stews. “Karlin is home to us, but it is fashionable now, and we have to be careful we don’t lose it.”
Now the smoke was different, more dust than anything else. Everything I remembered was gone after the quake, and the only people I saw being saved were not the people I remembered. Those images on TV, and then my parents’ words, made me realise the colour of my skin and my hair and the shape of my face more than powerfully I ever had before. It was the first time I saw colour. The only people being saved were white.
On the third day, my parents’ speculation found company. They spent hours on the phone, talking together and separately to different people and pacing around the house, their shadows stretching and shrinking and stretching again against the walls. Their friends all noticed the same thing. They were calling hotlines for newspapers and websites explaining what was happening and asking why, but only a handful were interested and none of them had any answers.
“The drones are racist” became a chorus that echoed around the house, the accidental anthem of my adolescence. Even writing the words now, I see my unlit bedroom and the mirror I moved to face me as I sat on my bed. Amidst the hysteria, it was almost lost on me, on us, that I’d lost my grandparents.
A week after the earthquake the rest of the world realised what happened. As always, we figured it out first but couldn’t prove it until someone else told us what we already knew.
The man behind the company that designed the drones was on TV. He had a baby’s face on a man’s body and his eyes were opened wide. He was at a loss to explain why his drones saved only one ‘person of colour’ for every eleven ‘Anglo-European’ despite the latter being a demographic minority in Karlin. He said the drones were programmed to recognise human beings based on tens of thousands of facial samples with the best and latest methods, and that they were reviewing the process as quickly as possible. He offered condolences and prayers, and said he could not offer any further explanation at this time.
“Maybe all of your facial samples were white.” Dad said in response. And then, “that’s why your drones are racist.”
At school I was taught that centuries ago, people like me weren’t seen as people. We were seen as anything from evil, to deviants, to machines. But I was also taught that these ideas were left in the past, that everybody now is equal, and that humanity has learned from its mistakes. As I grew up, this was always assured to me. I heard it from friends, interpreted it from books and TV, and always assumed it was true, or at the very least, that they weren’t intentional lies. I still don’t think they are, but I also don’t think those ideas are completely lost to the past, because now we’ve made real machines, and those machines have embodied that past.
I sometimes imagine the drones digging through my grandparents’ house, sifting through the rubble and uncovering their faces, and then digging out the entire bed on which they slept. I envision my grandparents being unearthed from that grave; each piece of wreckage moved aside until their final scene was perfectly laid out. I often consider the possibility that my grandparents were still alive when the drones dug them out. Maybe, by the speed of the drones or their resilience or some kind of miracle, they survived. Maybe in their final moments they saw the rescue drones that came for them. Maybe their eyes glowed with hope and gratitude for their saviours. When that thought crosses my mind, I pray that they were already dead, because that would mean that when the drones scanned my grandparents’ dying, desperate faces, they failed to differentiate them from the rubble. Instead they surveyed, calculated, thought, and concluded that there were no human beings in the vicinity, and then they flew away.