Thursday, March 10, 2016

Being "White" in Nairobi

This past Sunday, I was walking through Uhuru park with two Kenyan friends when one of the many child beggars came up to me with a cup in hand. Except this time, the 11-12 year old wasn’t begging from me; he was demanding. “Hey mzungu (swahili word for white or foreigner). Feed me!” He shook his cup fiercely at me. “Feed me mzungu!” I ignored him out of habit and kept walking with my friends, but I couldn’t help quickly glancing over to see what the boy would do- he was so unusually rude. I found him staring at my ass, and when he realized that I wasn’t going to give him anything, he smirked “I like your swagger.” In that moment, a huge part of me debated turning around, striding to the boy and slapping him. “Did your mother teach you to say that?” I wanted to ask him. “Where is your sense of dignity?” But I let it go and kept walking.

In the following days, I mentally replayed the encounter many times. The scenario with the little boy bothered me for a number of reasons. The way he shouted “mzungu” to me highlighted myself as the outside “white” person, and he as the local Kenyan who reminded me of my foreign status. According to him, I can never truly fit in because I am “white.” By demanding that I “feed him,” my skin color not only alienated me, but also turned me into a symbol of money; and thus I was obligated to give him money, food, and be content with having to pay higher prices for my race. And finally, when I showed no signs of acknowledging him, he tried to reduce my worth to my “swagger,” a.k.a. ass. He was implying that because I, a mzungu woman, didn’t comply to his initial demands, he now has the right to objectify my body and humiliate my sex.
I, a mzungu woman.
A “white” woman.

View of Nairobi from the KICC building
I have really come to love my life here in Nairobi: I love my job, I have great apartment-mates, I can get around easily with public transportation, I am part of a great church community, and I surrounded by amazing Kenyan friends. For the most part, I have found Kenya to be a beautiful country, filled with amazingly hospitable people, incredible landscapes and wildlife, and a rich culture to be proud of. I’m not looking forward to leaving my life here behind. However, I never expected to wrestle over a strange new set of racial dynamics. The chessboard of race, it seemed, had flipped and completely rearranged upon my arrival from Los Angeles to Nairobi. In the United States, I am confident standing in solidarity with my black and latino community and familiar with the racial issues-I know the values I stand for and why I choose to fight for them. I understand the privilege that being Asian-American brings, but I also know that I am part of the “model minority,” until I’m not (see Peter Liang.) Nevertheless, we tend to be silent in the racial discussions- so if I really wanted to, my asian heritage allows me to stay out of the civil rights spotlight. But in Nairobi, some (not all) Kenyans have roped me into the same category as white people- there is little distinction between me- an asian mzungu, and a blonde-haired, blue-eyed mzungu. (To be fair, even with my olive complexion, whenever I take pictures with my Kenyan friends, I still look pretty pale compared to their darker skin tones.) All of a sudden, I can no longer hide behind my asian ethnicity as an excuse to avoid racial conflict. People are just as likely to charge me higher prices as the white man standing in line behind me. Street children are just as likely to harass me for money as they would another American tourist.

pale me
David Anderson, a lecturer in African Studies at Oxford, writes "Whatever his background, every white man who disembarked from the boat at Mombasa became an instant aristocrat." Whereas in Los Angeles I was the struggling post-graduate, I can easily afford a cleaning lady here in Nairobi. These new racial dynamics in East Africa are confusing to me, because even though I was offended by remarks such as that little boy’s, he is right in assuming that I am more wealthy. Unlike racism in the states, I am treated differently not because my race is oppressed, but because my “white” race was the oppressor. A brief digging into Britain's colonization of Kenya (unsurprisingly) unearths mountains of atrocities- from banishing ethnic tribes to reserves too small to sustain them, to torture and humiliation of rebel suspects, to carrying out a campaign that slaughtered members of the Kikuyu tribe by the thousands. After over a century of European colonization by the Portuguese, then the British, it may be that my being “white” sometimes taps into decades of hurt and injustice. Again, it is the story of the rich minority oppressing the poor majority. Although Kenya has now been an independent country for over 50 years, mzungus still take up a good percentage of Kenya’s elite and wealthy.

This is not to say that the little boy was in the right or that I should be guilted into giving him money, because "whiteness" and privilege are not sins. However, I have to acknowledge that that generally, white ex-patriots do have more wealth; and if I want to live like Jesus, I need to discern how to bless my Kenyan community with the blessings I have been given. I am reminded of this income gap every time I pay for rent, splurge on a $4 drink or $20 meal, and come home to greet my apartment’s security guard knowing that he makes less than $200 a month. At the end of the day, I am the one going home to my gated apartment complex-with unlimited internet, hot showers, huge bed, and refrigerator stocked with my favorite foods. I may experience prejudice, but unlike African Americans and Latinos back at home, it is because I am easily part of the 1% here. It’s a twisted and sobering identity to grapple with: while I try to extend grace to the few Kenyans who see my skin color as profit opportunity, I am also trying to figure out what it looks like to use my privilege for good- and be smart about it.

A friend's neighborhood in Kibera, one of the slums in Kenya
This is an open-ended, disorganized post because I have no answers; and of course there are still so many things that I don’t understand. Two months in Nairobi is barely enough time for me to gather my thoughts together about a whole new racial system- where suddenly black is the majority; and it seems that “white” and “asian” practically mean the same thing. Racial issues are tough enough to tackle in one’s home country, and it is a completely different monster when you are an ex-patriot. It sucks to know I may be treated differently because of my race, or that people sometimes address me only by my skin color, or that people slap stereotypes on me before they get to know me (I've had people ask if I knew that Africa was a continent- not country, if I support Trump, if I do karate, or if I eat dogs.) If nothing else, my shallow experience here with prejudice has given me a better understanding of the injustice many of my black and latino friends encounter on a daily basis. Nairobi has given me the opportunity to learn what it is like to be stereotyped by my race, and also challenged me to think more deeply about the privilege my "whiteness" brings. If God used Moses' privilege as the prince of Egypt to lead the Israelites out of slavery, I am sure God can also use my privilege to bless my community around me, too.

Thankful for my Kenyan friends <3

Con tanto amore,

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