I’ve heard several people say that it is a good idea to intentionally put yourself into positions where you are the minority race or ethnicity or religion from time to time. As a member of the majority race in the U.S., it is easy to slip into the mindset that all people are just like me because I can choose to go places where literally everyone looks just like me. Obviously there are layers to diversity that go beyond just racial diversity; religion, economic status, and ethnic heritage all are factors that make a person the majority or the minority at different points. But I tend to feel like in an environment where you don’t know anybody else, race is the most obvious indicator of minority status. I’ve been the minority in some situations in my life, but with the exception of last summer and this summer, I’m normally the majority race wherever I go. And last summer, though I was certainly the minority in my neighborhood in Philly, I didn’t have to go very far to be the majority. I could just take a bus a few neighborhoods over and I’d certainly be with many other white folk (which has as much to do with economics as race-the two issues are certainly tied).
But this summer was the most extreme in terms of immersion into a culture where I was the minority in race, ethnicity, and wealth. I was still in the majority religion, but since 80% of Kenya professes to be Christian, I don’t think that element was too much a factor in the way I was regarded most of the time. In the U.S., minorities are rarely favored. Our very government operates by majority rule, of course giving respect to minority opinions. Sadly, such an approach to government (which really isn’t bad in itself) is how our society works when it comes to race. Whites are favored and minorities are given respect (supposedly), but since they’re minorities, their voices are rarely listened to and rarely given the dignity they deserve.
But in Kenya, something was different. The word for white person in Swahili is “mzungu” which means literally “ghost.” It was the name that people used for the colonizers when they first came to Kenya and evolved to be the common word for an English person. I had expected to receive some suspicion and mistrust on the part of the Kenyans because of my heritage, but the fact is that white people in Kenya are the distinguished and revered minority. “Mzungu” isn’t derogatory, like the American word for black people that was commonly used for so long. In fact, wherever we went in Kenya, little children would shout “mzungu!” with awe and regard. We were raised up to near-god status because people associate white person with money and power and influence. I wanted “mzungu” to be a term of hate more than a term of awe. That would be more understandable and justifiable, even if it would still be really sad.
And so, really for the first time in my life, I was treated differently because of my skin color. People assumed we (on the trip) had lots of money, so we always were charged 2 or 3 times as much for things. Luckily, you can barter everywhere for things in Kenya, but there was something discomforting about being charged more just because of my skin color. But again, the disturbing thing is that it wasn’t out of a (voiced) dislike or distrust of white people, but a belief that white people have lots of money and are better off in the world (which is true, much of the time.).
The saddest thing about race in Kenya is not even about being regarded as a special and favored minority. The saddest thing is that some Kenyans have come to believe that white people are just inherently better, smarter, and richer than black people. One of our teams told a story about how some children in their school were asking questions about Americans and were convinced that American children were born with more intelligence and capability than African children.
There is so much more I could say about being the minority this summer. It was so much different than I expected, and made me really wrestle with my own racial identity and the history of my race and culture. I do highly recommend being in positions where you are the minority. But it is so easy in a place like Kenya to buy into the lie that whites are better, or more special. That was a temptation I had not expected to face this summer.