Never before have I been called racist. But at 5 a.m. on Sunday morning, I was told that I was “the most racist white person” the speaker had ever met. I’ll explain the context of the statement in a bit, but regardless of how irrelevant the comment actually was, it hurt like a knife between my ribs. I spent much of the thirteen hour bus trip that followed questioning myself and whether it was possible that I was actually racist.
I left my house on foot at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, walking to the corner to get a boda boda to take me to the Ubungo Bus Terminal. As I passed one of the local bars, I noticed that a group of guys were engaged in conversation around a bajaji. One of them made some comment about the “mzungu” (me), and then proceeded to leave the conversation and follow me at a distance. Eventually, he realized that I was aware of his presence, and came closer, but remained about a meter’s distance from me as he began attempting to make conversation. “Hi beautiful.” “How are you?” “Are you going to climb a mountain?” “My name is James.” “Are you fine?” And on and on. He spoke a mixture of Swahili and surprisingly good English, but didn’t seem to get the hint from my silence and occasional one-word answers (in Swahili) that I wasn’t interested in engaging him in conversation (and, really, at 5 a.m., who is?). At one point he even said, “I hope you don’t know karate,” to which my mental response was, “No, but I do take MMA and if you get much closer and don’t shut up, I’m going to punch your face” (so maybe I was a bit annoyed by this point). Finally, we split ways, as I headed towards the boda boda stand and he went towards the bus stop. But as he did so, once we were a good distance apart, he stopped and turned towards me, and yelled, “You are the most racist white person I have ever met!” Um, ok.
I really don’t think that my words or actions in the situation were at all related to race. It doesn’t matter what race some one is (especially if they are male), if they are following me in the dark and making odd statements, I am going to tell them I don’t want to talk and to leave me alone. Oh, and by the way, that’s creepy. For someone to assume by those requests, said in however irritated a manner, that I am racist, seems a bit harsh. But, like I said, however irrelevant the statement, it still bothered me enough that I thought about it for the entire thirteen-hour bus journey to Singida.
I suppose that I do tend to believe that people fall into certain categories, some of which may be partially based on race, or at least nationality. For example, Canadians are generally less publicly annoying than Americans. Finns can typically drink voluminous amounts of alcohol. Americans tend to be entitled and believe that the rest of the world should concede to their demands, language, and culture. Most Tanzanians hate (are terrified of) dogs. But these are ridiculously wide brush strokes with which to paint the world, and even as I write them, I am mentally listing off the exceptions. And never ever would I base an individual relationship with a person with any of these categorizations–though I might bring them up in an multi-cultural conversation as a point of humor, because making fun of each other and our countries is a part of life in a mixed-culture environment like Dar.
And perhaps I am a bit wary (and weary) of Tanzanian men cat-calling me and following me and trying to get my attention. But it has nothing to do with them being Tanzanian (or black) that I am bothered by it–it is the actions themselves that irritate me. I have scores of Tanzanian guy friends who I respect very highly–and who don’t treat women as objects. I also know European and North American males who I’ve gotten snappy with because of their actions towards me as a female. Maybe its more about gender harassment than it is about race. Or even his ignorance of social norms. But not race.
In fact, several days later, I had a related conversation with an African American friend regarding interracial relationships, constructive dialoguing about race, and lasting perceptions about colonialism and slavery. Much of our conversation centered around his experience of conflict between Africans and African Americans in U.S. university settings, specifically his statement that, “They feel like [African Americans] complain too much about racism, and being poor, etc.” My response, admittedly, comes from living here in Tanzania and working at an international school, but not from personal experience as either an African or an African American (obviously): “Well, I can’t say that I disagree entirely. Especially considering that poverty [in Africa] tends to be so much more drastic than poverty in the U.S., and I also question sometimes whether Kendrick Lamar has a point when he says that people have to act how they want to be perceived…and that African Americans in general don’t do a great job of that…. I think that grace needs to be given both ways. Culturally, the differences are huge. Where [Africans] are coming from is entirely unlike anything [African Americans] have experienced. The life of an African American is entirely outside the [African] realm of experience. Yet both groups claim ‘African’ as a part of their identity (and rightly so, I think), so it makes sense that disagreements and misunderstandings would arise from that.” We moved on to discuss colonialism, slavery, and the history of the white oppression of blacks, something that I readily condemn as horrific and terrible and wrong, but what I found most valuable about the conversation was the fact that we were even having it–to be able to openly discuss race and racism with someone from a different race is in itself a denial of racism, because in essence, by having the conversation, both parties had to say, “I see you as an individual, and as human. While we may be different in race/culture/socioeconomic class/etc., that doesn’t change the fact that we are both people with equal worth before God.” Its not a denial of race (or that racism exists, for that matter), or of our differences, but an acknowledgement that our race does not define us.
*Note: I realize that this post is a bit scatterbrained, and doesn’t even come to a cohesive conclusion. Please give grace–it is merely a compilation of my thoughts over the past few days as I’ve pondered the statement made by “James” on Sunday morning.
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